Credit: Meera Subramanian

An Amazing 200 Million Year-Old Race

Witnessing the dangerous, crucial volunteer work of protecting and releasing baby olive ridley sea turtles

S. AND I SIT ON A LOG on a San Pancho beach of western Mexico’s Nayarit coast, watching. Soon, we’ve been told, there will be a release of sea turtles, but we don’t know quite where, so we observe the movement of humans on the beach—couples in beach chairs; groups of young, tattooed surfers smoking cigarettes and weed; a woman reading a book. An older man races by in a dune buggy with a woman beside him, and then returns a moment later without her, rousing a trio of short-legged mutts to chase after him, barking and chomping at the tires. Where he has left the woman, a coalescing is under way, and we move toward it.

There we find Odette Brunel, a Mexican ecologist with long brown hair and reading glasses looped around her neck, holding a tan plastic bin. A hundred tiny turtles writhe within. They’re only a few inches long, dark flippers and dark shells barely containing an eager energy. Nearby, an eleven-year-old named Ananda holds another bin with more. A growing crowd crane their necks to look in. Children gather. Parents gather. Cell phone cameras, including mine, are at the ready.

Odette goes hoarse explaining anything she can to anyone who will listen, in English and Spanish. Her soft voice stretches over the sound of island music blaring from a nearby hotel that reaches its square body onto the sand of the beach.

“We call this tortuga golfina. It’s the smallest of the sea turtles that come here.”



Credit: Meera Subramanian

THESE ARE OLIVE RIDLEYS (Lepidochelys olivacea). Populations of them exist around the circumference of Earth, with individuals traveling great spans between feeding areas and breeding beaches, and everywhere, they face threats. Thousands of olive ridleys used to come here, sometimes hundreds in a single night. By the late 1980s, only a couple hundred came the entire season. In 1990, the Mexican government banned trapping and trade of sea turtles, but egg collecting remained rampant. The following year, a man named Frank Smith—a retired U.S. Forest Service worker and, it turns out, the man who’d been driving the dune buggy—came to San Pancho (the nickname of what is officially San Francisco) and began attempting to protect turtles. Poachers raided most every nest a hundred-pound mother olive ridley turtle could create; dogs got the rest. Frank’s efforts grew over the years, involving locals and schoolchildren along with volunteers from around the world. Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde’s Project Tortuga emerged.


“THEY ARE VERY IMPORTANT for the ecological equilibrium,” says Odette. “They are a keystone species. They eat everything. And are eaten by everyone. . . .”

After nearly thirty years of protecting the nests here, the number of olive ridleys has risen. This year, the nighttime patrols identified thirteen hundred nests as the end of the nesting season approaches. Volunteers patrol the beaches and dig up most of the eggs from each nest to bring them to a climate-controlled nursery in town. There, they eliminate the chances that dogs, fly larvae, or humans will destroy the eggs, raising success rates from as low as 40 percent on the beach to 90 percent in the nursery.

“Only one in a hundred will survive the year,” Odette is saying. Only one in a thousand will survive to twenty-five years old. They are threatened by humans, dogs, birds. . . .”

Maybe I miss the rest of the list: Fishing gear. Oil spills. Plastic bags that look like jellyfish—a favorite food—animated into elegance by ocean currents. Beaches burning with artificial lights, which dissuade mother turtles from nesting multiple times a year (a laborious act of coming ashore, digging a hole, and laying a hundred eggs, which they repeat from the age of fifteen until they reach old age, maybe a half century later). The light disorients the nestlings once they emerge from their eggs, digging their way up through sand and then seeking out the glow of moonlight on the surf.

They are a keystone species. They eat everything. And are eaten by everyone. . . .

WHILE ODETTE AND ANANDA educate the crowd, a man named Ulises Ledesma quietly prepares the ground. He’s found a stick to smooth the sandy surface that slopes toward the waves, then claps damp sand between his palms to form a wall five inches tall around it. And there it is: a galley, a runway, twenty feet across and fifty feet long, Odette and Ananda at the top with their bins of baby turtles, Ulises at the bottom, waves lapping his ankles. As the sun sets, Odette and Ananda share glances and a thumbs-up with Ulises, then gently tilt the bins on the uphill end of the run, humans lining the sand walls on each side. Most of the turtles launch forward, their tiny flippers digging in with determination. Some flip upside down as they fall out, and then right themselves. A few sit, unmoving. But most are on the move.


“THEY HAVE TO WALK ON the sand, imprint the chemical makeup of this beach,” Odette says. “They will recognize the mountains, the sand, and come back here to nest.”

Philopatry—this beach is their beach. Sand and water temperatures might urge them to head north, as with many other creatures, but this is their place. Nowhere else.

However, turtles are a species whose sex is determined by temperature. Change the temperature of the sand where mothers lay their eggs in a hole as deep as a human arm, change the sex of the young. Young green sea turtles on the Great Barrier Reef are almost all female, a recent study showed. Another modeled that warming temperatures would skew the ratio, now evenly male-female, up to 93 percent female by 2100 in West Africa. Researchers in Florida found only females in the nests they sampled during a hot, dry season.


THE TURTLE CORRIDOR is surrounded by humans, all eyes on the creatures. No one notices the rear flank. Within two minutes of what feels like a slow and shambling race, two dogs slip through human legs and stomp through the spread of turtles. The crowd gasps. Ulises prods them out with his stick, and they scatter in circles, confused (Isn’t this where the fun is?). Each footprint leaves a magnificent crater that the tiny turtles fall into and struggle to get out of on the dwindling reserves they have since emerging from their eggs last night. Volunteers tiptoe between the babies, smooth the divots as best they can. A young child crosses over the tiny sand wall that separates crowd from turtle, and a hand reaches down, grabs the back of the romper, and lifts the child back into the human fold.

Credit: Meera Subramanian

IT’S CRUCIAL WORK, preserving what’s left. And dangerous. I remember when my friend and fellow journalist Matthew Power returned from reporting on the murder of a turtle advocate in Costa Rica for Outside magazine, he told me, “It was the scariest situation I’ve ever been in.” (And Matt had reported from medi-vac helicopters in Afghanistan.) According to Global Witness, nearly two thousand environmental defenders have been killed in the past decade. But for the past thirty years, Grupo Ecológico has continued its work, educating local kids who send tendrils into the rest of the community. There are still poachers (“Eating eggs is a tradition,” one volunteer told me), but nothing like it used to be.

Within ten minutes, the first turtles meet the reach of waves, like a reunion embrace. Two girls beside me squeal with delight. I’m too old to squeal it seems, but I feel something hard inside of me crack open. Waves sweep and tumble the nestlings, leaving them stranded on a spot of sand twenty feet away as the wave retreats without them. So close. But they keep moving toward the surf again until their flippers take a watery hold, and they swim for their lives, toward food, toward the open ocean, toward their other true place of belonging.

Uphill, a dozen turtles tarry a few inches from the bin. The volunteers will collect the still ones and let them gather their energy before releasing them again later tonight, along with a half dozen other nestling groups that have hatched at the nursery in the last day. They’ll take them down the beach, far from humans and cheering and music and light.

But most baby turtles are working their way down, knowing exactly what needs to happen. In an hour, maybe more, it is over. I lose track of time. What is time, really, when witnessing such wonders that have happened for 200 million years? The fuchsia sky has singed itself to black, and Odette lures the last few stragglers with the red beam of a flashlight, lest they be distracted by the town lights behind them. When the last one goes, Ulises says, “La úlitma,” turning away with a smile.


AFTER THE CROWD disperses, the Project Tortuga volunteers turn their backs to the sea and return to town. S. and I, too, where a cervecería (brewery) lures us with a siren’s song. As a musician plays, we sit at a wooden bar and order drinks from a young man named after an Egyptian town. A single curl drops over his forehead, and small sparkling jewelry adorns his nose, his ears, as though he’d been dusted with powdered sugar. In his grandmother’s time, Cairo tells us, San Pancho was a small fishing village. In his father’s time, too. And even when he was a boy (and he can’t be thirty yet).

But the surf is good, so people came with their bare feet and boards, and then more came. Now there are more foreigners than locals. It’s good, he tells us, but things have changed. We see the boutiques that have popped up and the big beachside box hotel. Cairo draws the building on a napkin to show us. How it sticks out beyond the few palapas, changing not just the feel of the beach, but how the water moves upon it. He tells us how stormwaters inundated its ground floor, smiling a bit. And then he takes his pen to the growing map on the napkin, showing us the rocky prominences that separate beach from beach—turtle territory. Shows us where the president bought land, then sold it to gringos, who sold it to Marriott, he says, who plan to build as soon as they can figure out how to get access through the fishing village.

Estos son nuestras luchas,” he says. “These are our fights.”

Philopatry. Preserve what’s left.

You can make a tax-deductible contribution through a U.S. charity that supports Grupo Ecológico here. Volunteers are welcome and needed.

Meera Subramanian is an award-winning independent journalist and author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, and a contributing editor of Orion magazine. Based on a glacial moraine on the edge of the Atlantic, she’s a perpetual wanderer who can’t stop planting perennials and looking for critters. You can find her at