Interested in releasing baby turtles in Cancun? It's such a magical and educational experience! Many local hotels in Cancun have partnered with conservationists to create a highly informative sea turtle rescue program. Resort guests gather nightly to assist in releasing baby sea turtles into the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. I had no idea this program existed and was pleasantly surprised to discover it during a recent trip to Cancun.
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Releasing Baby Sea Turtles in Cancun
Imagine my delight as I was dining at a beachside restaurant and glanced up from the table to see a giant sea turtle digging a nest on the beach less than 100 feet from where I was sitting! At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me and that I was looking at a child digging in the sand (it was dark, after all). I quickly realized it was a real live “tortuga”.
I got so excited that I leapt up from the table, muttered something about my bucket list to my best friend, Christopher, and then darted off to take pictures. 🙂 Thank goodness he knows me well enough to know I do things like that fairly often!
[Photo source] Sea turtles are amongst the most peaceful and beautiful creatures I've ever seen.
I quickly learned that viewing a sea turtle as she nests is one of those times in life where you have to be fully present in the moment. There's no need for a cell phone or a camera; simply enjoy taking it all in.
If a turtle becomes frightened during the nesting process, she will turn around, abandon her efforts, and head back to sea without laying her eggs. The sea turtle numbers are in steep decline, so abandonment is the last thing anyone wants!
Guidelines for Watching the Nesting Process:
It's very important to follow certain rules if you're fortunate enough to see a turtle nesting.
1. Don't get too close to the turtle. (Stay at least 20 feet away.)
2. Don't point a flashlight towards her.
3. DO NOT use flash photography. This is so important, yet I saw so many people getting too close and then making it worse by taking photos with a flash.
4. Keep your voice down, as noise is also distracting to them.
5. Help keep their nesting environment clean by using biodegradable sunscreen when utilizing the sandy beach areas during the day. Always avoid littering (just a good practice in general).
A sea turtle is least likely to abandon her nesting efforts once she has already dug a hole and is in the process of laying her eggs. However, it can still happen! More often than not the nesting efforts are abandoned prior to the laying stage, because a turtle will become startled by tourists getting too close as she attempts to reach the perfect nesting ground.
How Conservationists Help:
Once a turtle has nested — a process that takes approximately 2 hours — she then heads back out to sea. Specially appointed “turtle guardians” from the conservation program arrive on the beach very early each morning to locate the nests, dig up the eggs, and then relocate them to a fenced area near each participating hotel.
The fenced areas each contain numerous nests, along with markers noting the dates the eggs were laid and their anticipated hatch date. The eggs go through a 50-60 day incubation period prior to hatching.
Sea turtles lay approximately 100 – 200 eggs each, depending on the species.
The turtle guardians are very friendly! Their main goal is to educate guests about turtle conservation efforts, so they're happy to answer tourist's questions.
My Personal Hatchling Release Story
I awoke early the following morning to catch a sunrise and made my way down to the fenced area. I was delighted to see a newly hatched batch of turtles! (They typically hatch overnight.) Their guardian was already there, counting each turtle and making notations.
He placed them in a small crate, which he then handed to me for viewing. I was allowed to hold one and even snapped a quick selfie with it! The proper way to hold a turtle is by placing one finger and thumb on each side of its shell, like this:
My selfie with one of the adorable hatchlings. (Only handle a sea turtle to transport it to safety.)
The fenced in area where the eggs can incubate safely. If you look closely, you'll see tiny turtle tracks everywhere!
The babies are so cute when they first emerge from their nest! [ photo source]
The sunrise in Cancun was beautiful!
The turtle guardian explained to me that they collect the turtles hatched during the night, as well as any hatched during the daylight hours, and store them safely in a shaded area until nighttime. The bright sunlight, unbearably hot sand, and numerous tourists exploring the beach during the daylight hours are detrimental to the hatchling's safe journey to the sea. Their chance of survival increases when released at night, because there is less chance of them being spotted by predators.
Click above to see my quick cell phone video of the hatchlings born during the night.
The chatty turtle guardian informed onlookers that interested hotel guests should gather in an area on the beach between 2 yellow flags at 8 p.m. to release the hatchlings. Um, yes, please! Sign me up!! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. My enthusiasm must have been contagious because Christopher quickly agreed to join me.
Upon gathering in the evening, the turtle guardians began passing out baby turtles. Each person standing between the yellow flags received one to release. I'd estimate there were approximately 100 people in our group. Our guardian explained that when there aren't enough turtles to go around, children are given the highest priority.
Fortunately, our guardian had more than 100 turtles in need of release! She informed us that we'd count to 3 and release all hatchlings at at the same time. (Turtles have an increased chance of survival when released in groups.) They also do better when released during a full moon, which we happened to have that evening.
Seamore's excited to swim for the first time!
Christopher named his turtle “Seamore” (seen in the video above). I named mine “Daisy II” after my daughter, who also has “release baby turtles into the sea” on her bucket list. Like mother, like daughter. 🙂
Our guardian instructed us to count backwards from 3, then we released the hatchlings and cheered them on as they flipped and flopped out to sea. It was so cute to watch them! I was so busy enjoying the moment that I didn't attempt capturing their release on video in the dark. However, I highly suggest searching “baby turtle release” on YouTube if you ever need a reason to smile.
Our turtle guardian explained that only 1-2% of hatchlings survive to adulthood and are able to mate to carry on the species. That's why turtle conservation efforts are so important! We spotted birds diving in the dark in an attempt to capture our little tortugas. We crossed our fingers and prayed that Seamore and Daisy II wouldn't become a late night seagull snack.
Our guide noted that if you happen to spot a baby turtle washed ashore on the beach in the early morning hours, it's perfectly acceptable to place them back in the water. (Be sure to use the preferred holding method pictured a few photos up.)
I suggest inquiring with your hotel when making reservations to see if it's one of the participating resorts. Even if your hotel isn't participating, you can see turtles nesting all along the beach in the evening. They begin around 9:30 p.m. and next throughout the night. The turtles nest during the summer months and the hatchlings journey out to sea through late October. There is no charge to do any of the above activities!
Update: Where to Stay & How You Can Help
If you'd like to help the sea turtles, consider staying in a hotel that supports turtle conservation efforts. Here's a current list of participating hotels:
To learn more about sea turtle conservation, visit the Sea Turtles Conservancy website.
If you have any questions about releasing baby turtles in Cancun, please let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. I highly recommend this activity for children, the young-at-heart, and anyone interested in ecotourism!
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Cover image credit sources: Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash | OXLAEY via Flickr CC