The Guardian of the Turtles of Isla Mujeres

By: Elizabeth Henry, BTW Social Media Coordinator

At 1:00 am in the morning I found myself walking a half mile alone towards a large sea wall on the empty streets of Isla Mujeres, a small Mexican island in the Caribbean Sea, 13 kilometers off the coast from Cancún. At the wall I was greeted by three locals who volunteer for the island government, patrolling the beaches each summer night waiting for sea turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. Nesting season on the island runs from May to August. One of the locals is an older man named Antonio, who speaks Mayan and Spanish and has been volunteering his time to this task for 30 years. He greets me in Spanish and with my fair grasp of the language from living in Arizona I gathered that a turtle was finishing up the nesting process nearby. He took me to her and let me pet her while she rested. It was exhilarating. 

Shortly thereafter, another female had came up on the beach. I had to wait until she had made her nest and was ready to lay her eggs before the turtle shaman took me to where she was. Navigating the sand with a walking stick, he carefully pointed out the rocks so I wouldn’t trip. You could tell he was weathered and tough from the many nights spent patrolling the beaches to save these endangered creatures. 

As the turtle finished up her nest, Antonio began smoothing the sand around the nest cavity into the shape of a funnel and created a reservoir on one side for the eggs. He gestured to me to lay down at what seemed like a 45-degree angle in the sand with one hand on her shell as if for encouragement and support. Then Antonio gestured for me to put my hand in the hole underneath the turtle, where one by one I began collecting the eggs. They were semisoft and warm to the touch, each one teeming with life. With tears running down my cheeks, I pulled the eggs out of the nest, wishing each one success on their journey out to sea. Afterwards, Antonio writes the number ‘104’ in the sand with his finger to indicate how many eggs were laid.

Unbeknownst to the mother, she began to throw sand back over the empty nest cavity, stopping intermittently to rest from her labor. I gave Antonio a hug and he asked me to come back tomorrow. Yes, I assured him. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. He then offered me a ride back to the hotel on his moped. By the time I get back to the hotel, it is 4 in the morning and I sit on the rooftop in the cool night breeze. Alone with my thoughts, I was humbled and grateful for this guardian of the turtles.

The following night I returned at midnight to find a turtle had just come ashore. Once again, Antonio graciously leads me and a colleague onto the beach to show us her tracks. Off in the distance you can hear her flippers on the sand as she works to build her nest. Once she appears to finish digging, Antonio brings us to her. One by one, I begin the same ritual of carefully collecting the warm soft-shelled eggs and wishing them all good luck on their journey.

Thank you Antonio for your team’s tireless efforts to help safeguard our sea turtles. This experience has touched me deeply and I am grateful. 

Tortugranja (turtle farm) is a government-sponsored endangered sea turtle hatchery on the island of Isla Mujeres. For the last 20 years they have been protecting these species from fisherman who would poach eggs and capture exhausted females returning to the ocean after nesting. The eggs are incubated for approximately 60 days before they hatch and are released in October by the local schoolchildren.

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