Each summer, in an amazing and mysterious ritual, thousands of female sea turtles (some endangered) grace the shores of Banderas Bay and surrounding areas to lay their eggs. Many of these turtles build their nests on the sand right in front of the luxury resorts in Punta Mita. For that reason, the tourist industry has partnered with local biologists and restoration groups to protect these baby turtles as they make the long and treacherous trek from their comfy nests to the ocean.
Although sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, the females must lay their eggs on land so they can hatch. In a fascinating annual ritual, thousands of female turtles of varying species migrate hundreds-even thousands-of miles to Punta Mita and neighboring shores to lay their eggs. What makes this ritual so mystifying is that a female turtle will return to the exact geographic spot that she herself hatched some 20 to 50 years earlier! Not even wildlife biologists fully understand the “magic” that enables turtles to find this exact spot, but research does show that it has something to do with turtles’ having an internal compass that senses the Earth’s magnetic fields. The Punta Mita coastline, like all coastlines, has its own magnetic “signature,” so to speak. As babies, female sea turtles log this “signature” into their internal compasses to use when it’s time for them to lay their own eggs.
Female turtles usually use the cloak of night as a protection when they build their nests. Like humans, sea turtle females will feel the onset of contractions and know it’s time to build a nest. Once they find the exact site of their birth, they lumber up on the shore and find an appropriate place to hide their future offspring. In a long and tedious process, using her flippers, the female digs a deep nest and eventually deposits as many as 120 eggs, the size and shape of ping pong balls. She then goes through the process of camouflaging her nest to protect it from local predators. She uses her back flippers to scoop and throw dry sand on the nest, making it look like just another patch of sand. Exhausted, she heads back to sea, never to return to see the fruit of her labor. But her job is not necessarily done: during a nesting season, a female may dig up to 8 nests.
Dangerous Trek to the Sea
Between 45 and 70 days later, the eggs will begin to hatch. Instinctively, baby turtles usually hatch at night, as it provides a cover of safety from predators. Because their nests are so deep, baby sea turtles usually emerge in groups. They need to crawl over each other and on top of the broken shell remains in order to propel themselves to the top of the hole their mother so carefully dug. Furthermore, emerging in a group is safer; it provides a possible deterrent to a would-be predator. On average, it takes these little ocean-bound warriors 3-7 days to dig out and make their way toward the sea. In another seemingly mysterious instinctual process, the babies who emerge from their nest seem to know the direction to travel in order to find the sea. It’s actually not as mysterious as it may seem. Sea turtles are “phototactic,” or attracted to light. Since they tend to hatch at night, they usually move toward the light of the moon, avoiding shadows from vegetation. Unfortunately, regardless of these natural protective measures, most of these tenacious creatures do not make it to the ocean. They are prey to many animals, including crabs, snakes, birds, and even human poachers.
The Olive Ridley
Of the seven species of sea turtles, the Olive Ridley, named for the greenish color of it’s shell, is the most common in the region. It is small enough at birth to fit in the palm of a hand, yet grows to be between 80 and 110 pounds. It takes between eight and 12 years for a turtle to mature enough to reproduce. Being typically solitary creatures, these females regroup only annually for the arribada, or gathering together in large numbers on the shore of their birth to lay their own eggs.
The Endangered Leatherback
Growing as large as seven feet long, Leatherback turtles, also seen in Banderas Bay, are the largest turtles on Earth. These ancient creatures can actually trace back their evolutionary roots more than 100 million years! Leatherback females make the longest migration of any sea turtles, back to their own birthing spot, sometimes as far as 3,500 miles. Once the most widely distributed species of sea turtle, the population is declining rapidly in many areas of the world. Unfortunately, due to human poaching of eggs, used as aphrodisiacs, and adults getting caught in fishing nets, Leatherbacks are currently designated as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Once in a Lifetime Experience in Punta Mita
Appreciating that only about one in a 1,000 baby turtles survives to adulthood in the wild, the Banderas Bay Turtle Protection Program was created to help ensure the turtles’ survival. During the late fall months, Punta Mita owners and resort guests have the opportunity to help in the release of the newest hatchlings on a regular basis. Under the moonlight, you can be part of this amazing annual ritual, cheering on these tiny creatures as they awkwardly make their way to the ocean! Want more local information on how you can be part of a sea turtle release? Contact our informed staff at Punta Mita Vacation Rentals, who can set you and your family up for the vacation of a lifetime!