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Entranced by Sea Turtles

A conservation camp in Mexico gave new meaning to the word “vacation.”

By Scott Boruff

The thunderstorm building off the deserted beach on the Mexican Gulf Coast was beautiful to watch: A magenta and purple sunset was emblazoned with billowy white clouds, their underbellies black with rain. At midnight the howling winds of a tropical storm blew rain through the screens. I was grateful for the cooling moisture, but in the morning there was mud everywhere. All four wheels of my truck just slowly spun in it. How long, I asked my host, would I be stuck here? “Una semana,” was the answer. A week. Nature had decided that I, my wife and my two college-age children would get to know more about one of the world’s finest conservation efforts.

The Sea Turtle Camp at Rancho Nuevo is a collaborative project that for the last 24 years has been the epicenter of an international attempt to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction. The camp, a simple cinderblock affair without electricity, sits just behind the dunes, on the edge of two worlds, a few palm trees confirming that it is in the tropics. Sand and ocean are to the east. Rolling grasslands, rivers and forest spill down from the low mountains to the west. This is a place where earth meets ocean, with only a broad strip of beach to keep the peace.

Between April and August each year, the Kemp’s ridley turtles come to this beach to nest. Female turtles swim in from the Gulf and dig a nest on the beach in which they lay clutches of 100 leathery eggs the size of ping-pong balls.

In the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of female Kemp’s ridley turtles came ashore in this area to lay their clutches. Sometimes they arrived in large arribadas of up to a thousand at a time. But local people took the eggs for sale; they were reputed to be an aphrodisiac. By 1985, fewer than 800 nests were recorded. After 20 years of conservation practice in which the eggs are protected from predators, human and otherwise, this year more than 7,500 nests have been saved along the beaches of central Mexico. A modern record for Texas beaches has been set with the discovery of 41 nests.

These numbers are a tribute to the mostly “20-something“ young people who work at places like Rancho Nuevo in primitive conditions for six months at a time. It’s amazing how quickly people of different cultures and languages can come to know one another when the conveniences of the modern world don’t clutter the experience. At night, when the day’s work had drawn to a close, we gathered in a small room and, by candlelight, shared our views of the world and our circumstances with broken vocabularies and emphatic hand gestures. For four days, we ate simple meals, did not take a hot shower and immersed ourselves in turtles.

We watched two tiny turtles — each the size of a nickel — emerge from the same egg. In another hatching clutch, an albino turtle drew the admiration of even the most seasoned veterans of the camp.

We came to appreciate the incredible spirit of the turtle team. They were friendly, practical, dependable and self-sufficient. We didn’t really want to leave. Our new friends asked us to stay. But on the fourth day, a large tractor managed to slither its way into the camp, hook us up and tow us to the road. We had to get home. Obligations loomed. As we headed north, covered in mud but oblivious to it, my two children, not much younger than the young people we had worked with, chatted quietly in the back seat. My daughter Lindsay declared it the best trip ever. My son Jeffrey said he was hoping we could stay longer. “How long?” I asked. The answer came back in Spanish, of course: “Una semana.”

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