Sea Turtles for NEON: Part #1 The Protectors

    Leatherback turtles are one of the most endangered species on earth, due mostly to human activity. Over development of nesting grounds, pollution of the oceans, fishing nets are just a few of the indirect way mankind has affected their populations. The most direct though is the illegal collecting of their eggs for food. In Mexico it is ancient lore that because the turtles mate for up to 18 hours, eating their eggs will produce enhanced stamina for men. The irony here is that the mating ritual including courtship takes up to 18 hours, mating itself takes only a few seconds.

    Two-day-old baby leatherback sea turtles swim in a salt water pool at Campamento Tortuguera.

    Last month, writer Jakob Schrenk and I spent several days just outside Acapulco for NEON Magazine looking at the interaction of these turtles and their human counterparts. There are those trying to save the turtles, such as organizations like Campamento Tortuguero just south of Acapulco, and those that are still collecting and selling the eggs for food even though it is illegal. There are also the economic conditions that make both possible. The divide between the very rich and the very poor is great in most of Mexico.

    A fisherman displays his catch at the Marina on Bahia de Acapulco near the old town part of the city. The Marina is home to hundreds of local fishermen as well as sailboats moored in the gentle waters and the famous Yacht Club.

    We visited Campamento Tortuguero and spent time learning about their operations. It is a small organization (equivalent to a nonprofit in the US) to save the turtles. Surviving mostly on donations, the organization works with volunteers, student work programs and a skeleton staff to preserve the eggs from exploitation. Every night throughout the year, a small team combs the beach for mother turtles laying eggs or tracks of where they did so. The team digs up the eggs and transports them back to their camp where they are reburied in a protective area guarded by fences. The baby turtles hatch about 45-60 days later. They are placed in a small pool for 1-2 days to build their strength before the team releases them into the ocean. Campamento Tortuguero also provides educational services by opening its doors to the community, inviting visitors to come by for tours, slide shows or just to have lunch and talk about why protecting these turtles is important.

    Campamento Tortuguera volunteer Chango León uses branches to cover coconuts from the hot sun.

    The leatherback is an international traveler. They can be found in the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Mothers will nest from British Columbia to Australia, the British Isles to Argentina. Weighing as much as a ton and with lengths up to 8 feet, they are the largest turtles on Earth. Leatherbacks are one of the oldest living species – over a hundred million years ago – dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. However their numbers have been cut by more than half in the last 30 years, even more in Mexico. The leatherback nesting population of Mexico – once the largest in the world making up 2/3 of their worldwide population – is now less than one percent.

    A mother leatherback heads back into the ocean after just giving birth.

    Campamento Tortuguera Camp Director Victor Jesus Verdejo Ramirez (2nd from right) and camp volunteers enjoy a lunch together after releasing around 45 Leatherback sea turtles that morning.

    Baby leatherback turtles having just hatched a few minutes before climb out of their nest in the sand. 

    Plastic is a major problem for sea turtles in the oceans. Floating plastic can look just like jellyfish, the turtles’ favorite food. 

    The layout in NEON. A special thanks to Kristin and Jakob for all the fun. 

    Stay tuned for Part#2: The Thieves…


    To view the full edit of this shoot, visit the LUCEO Image Archive: Sea Turtles for NEON