Oasis in a Sea of Humanity: Wildlife of the Yucatan Peninsula

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

The Caribbean was calm as our boatload of snorkelers headed northwest from the Yucatan Peninsula on a bright summer day. A group of dolphins known locally as the “Rude Boys” made a brief appearance. To our left, the only view on the horizon was Isla Contoy, protected as a bird sanctuary.

After an hour or so, a small city seemed to appear on the horizon. As we approached, the city morphed into a group of boats collected together in a seemingly random spot. Once we got close, we saw the large dorsal fins that attract thousands of people to jump into these deep waters.

Our boat came to a stop on the edge of a swirling mass of giant sharks. My wife and daughter pulled on their snorkeling gear as I readied the camera. As they slipped into the water, an enormous creature slid by the boat. One thought ran through my head: Am I crazy to bring my family thousands of miles to come face to face with the largest shark in the world?“

I knew these animals were big. I’ve seen lots of photos, read many stories, and heard first-hand accounts of their gigantism. However, none of that prepared me for the actual sight of a whale shark. From the boat, their length is astonishing. But once you are in the water, you realize that the overhead view of these sharks is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 

After donning my own snorkeling gear and getting my first underwater view, I quickly lifted my head, needing a second to comprehend what my eyes had just seen. The whale sharks’ easy grace in the water belies the fact that these animals can be up to 40 feet long and weigh up to 20 tons.

To maintain such a large size, they spend nearly all of their time feeding, moving along the surface with their gaping mouths collecting plankton and fish eggs. This area is one of a few different places around the world where whale sharks gather in large groups. Our group of 10 people rotated in and out of the boat with our two guides every few minutes, giving everyone several chances to see the sharks from the water.

The next night, my family visited X’cacel beach, one of Mexico’s most important nesting beaches for green turtles, located in a national park near Playa del Carmen. "We may have to walk a bit to see a turtle,” I told my daughter Karina as a huge supermoon rose over the Caribbean. 

As it turned out, we only had to walk about 20 feet before a dark round shape appeared in the surf. The turtle emerged right in front the research station run by local organization Flora, Fauna y Cultura de Mexico. To give the green turtle space to find a good spot to lay its eggs, we retreated back up the walkway, only to have the turtle follow us up the path. It eventually changed its mind, however, and made its way back to the water.

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

It wasn’t long before several other turtles came up on the beach. We waited until the closest turtle was laying its eggs before approaching to avoid disturbing it at a sensitive point in the process. This was also a green turtle, a female weighing probably over 200 pounds. Its multicolored shell appeared faintly white in the moonlight. Karina was entranced by the spectacle of the ancient ritual.

X’cacel is located on a nondescript road; no signs promote this incredible place, which in tourist-friendly Mexico may be a good thing. Turtles nest all along the stretch of beach from Cancun to Tulum known as the Riviera Maya, but this is one of the only spots where the beach is free of large resorts and hotels. Lights, beach furniture, and crowds all reduce the number of turtles that come up to nest, so undeveloped stretches like this are critical to keeping these ancient reptiles around.

Flora, Fauna y Cultura has spent the past 30 years protecting three turtle species that nest on more than 10 beaches in the region. These turtles face an array of threats including human consumption of their eggs and meat, and here – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – coastal tourism development. Despite being a national park, known as Santuario de la Tortuga Marina Xcacel-Xcacelito, Xcacel still faces a threat of having its natural coastal area developed into big resorts.

The next morning, we headed over to Akumal (Mayan for “Place of the Turtles”), which has a bay well known for the green turtles who feed on the seagrass. We got there early to beat the crowds and put on our snorkels and headed out in search of the ancient reptiles. Before long, my wife found a turtle calmly grazing on the grass and we quietly watched it at a distance. Its beautifully patterned orange, brown, and gold shell was much more clear than the one we’d seen the night before on the beach.

We had the young green turtle to ourselves for about 15 minutes before other snorkelers moved in. The reptile moved slowly along the seagrass, occasionally rising gently to the surface to fill its lungs before sinking back to the bottom. Most of the observers gave the turtle enough space, though one overzealous snorkeler eventually drove the turtle away by getting too close and trying to follow it with a video camera. Exhilarated by the experience, my daughter said later that watching that turtle go about its business gave her hope for the future of this species.

Green turtle in Akumal

Green turtle in Akumal

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

That evening, we headed south to Tulum. Everything slowed down as we turned off the main highway and drove our rental car over the frequent speed bumps along the road towards Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. At Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro, a great local hotel that works to minimize its ecological footprint while creating an inviting setting, most of the grounds are planted with native trees.  The small resort hosts rangers from Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a hatchery to protect the eggs laid by turtles that come up this stretch of beach.

That evening, the rangers knocked on our door to let us know that a turtle was nesting right in front of the hotel, one of the few to turn off its lights that face the water during nesting season and remove furniture from the beach at night. This turtle, also a green, headed towards the resort’s hatchery but changed its mind and returned to the water without nesting. Fortunately another green turtle emerged just a short walk down the beach, so we were able to see the whole nesting process, from digging the nest and laying the eggs to camouflaging the nest to hide it from predators. 

Our tour of the area’s turtle beaches finished up with a meeting with our friends at Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a group of Mayan youth who patrol a beach in nearby Tulum National Park, near the town’s famous ruins. This beach, with its location near the town, is a hotspot for egg poaching. Our Billion Baby Turtles program and our friends at Lush Cosmetics are helping to fund this program, which provides employment for these young men while helping to protect an important nesting beach for green turtles and hawksbills.

During our visit, we walked with the turtle protectors over to the beach. While my daughter buried her feet in the water, the young mean told us about their hard work. Each night, they spend the entire night on the beach, walking up and down the sand in search of emerging turtles. At dawn, they are picked up and return home to rest and recover. It’s this kind of dedication that is needed to keep the turtle returning to these beaches year after year.