David Whitley escapes to an island sanctuary off the coast of ’s mass tourism capital.
It’s something of a miracle that more cartoons haven’t adopted baby turtles as their central characters. They are so adorably cute that even the most avowed animal hater couldn’t help but go gooey at the knees.
Put hundreds of them together and hearts start melting like ice creams on hot days. They all seem to swim up and ask if they can come out to play.
Chances are that they will be able to. The one and two day old bubs at the Tortugranja on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, are the lucky ones.
Ordinarily, a newborn turtle’s life isn’t a particularly happy one. Mummy turtle will lay between 100 and 160 eggs, then cover them up in the sand. Due to a combination of predators – largely birds swooping down from the sky as the infant stumbles towards the sea – weather conditions and pure weakness, only one or two of those will make it.
The other problem in Central America is poachers. People will steal the eggs and turtles for food, or use the shells for decorations and jewellery. And this is what the Tortugranja is trying to put a stop to.
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The small turtle farm is mainly Government-funded, and its mission is to boost turtle numbers, partly through educating visitors and partly by giving the little sweeties the best possible chance of survival.
I’m taken round by Roberto, who works there in the staff uniform of t-shirts, shorts and thongs. He’s a man possessed with a permanent smile and a clear love of his charges. His descriptions of what happens are often interspersed with grabbing a turtle from its pool and making it pose for photos.
He explains that the eggs are laid on the beaches on the other side of the island. When the mother has gone back into the sea, the workers make a mockery of her attempts to bury them by digging them straight up and taking them to the farm.
There each egg is buried separately and put into a meshed cage. All have a sign next to them saying which beach they were found on, how many eggs the mother laid and what date they were picked up on.
From then on, it’s case of waiting 60 days for them to hatch. When they do, they are given two or three days in the protected environment of the Tortugranja, then released back into the sea from the beach they were originally buried on.
It’s an incredible success story – Roberto makes a conservative estimate that 80% of the turtles born at the farm survive. Compared to just one percent under normal circumstances, that’s something of an achievement.
The farm also has a few adult turtles – generally ones that have been injured by commercial fishing nets, plastic bags and poachers. There are also some that just decided that they preferred the home comforts, and returned of their own free will after being nursed back to health and released.
Most popular of all are the two albinos, although quite how they feel about being lumped into an aquarium underneath a TV screen blaring out Latino pop songs is another matter.
The Tortuganja is a small beacon of goodness off the sin-packed Cancun coastline. Let’s face it, this is not an area of the world notorious for its eco-credentials. The giant Mexican resort city didn’t exist in the 1960s. Now it is astonishing collection of cruise-ship scale hotels, wild nightclubs and formerly wild habitats that have been sacrificed to the ancient Mayan god of tourism development.
Isla Mujeres – a 25 minute ferry ride away – hasn’t quite gone the same way yet. It’s hardly a rural idyll, but it still retains a distinctly Mexican character rather than being Las Vegas on sea. Nothing’s as in-your-face, and there are street food stalls and fish cafes rather than enormous meat barns aimed squarely at obese Americans. It’s also noticeable that people get around on bicycles and mopeds rather than in obnoxiously huge 4WDs.
It offers a glimpse of how beautiful the area once was – and still is, despite the concerted attempts to turn it into one enormous air-conditioned mall. As the island narrows into a spit, the views down the cliffs, over the pure white beaches and across the multi-colouredSea are awesome. The silica sand, the reefs and the sunshine conspire to produces, blues, turquoises, greens and deep navies. Just a shame about the odd behemoth hotel on the horizon, really.
There’s also the odd hint of. It’s not just the turtles that are thriving – the lizards are having a ball too. Stroll along, and something will often scurry into the bushes. At other times, the immense iguanas are a bit braver, sitting with head held high and disdain for anything going on around them.
This is especially the case at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres’ moody tip. The iguanas sit and amble along the cliff tops, as the sea brutalises the rocks below them. Right at the end are the ruins of the Mayan statues that gave Isla Mujeres (literally Island of Women) its name. They’ve been joined by some overwhelmingly awful sculptures that would have been best off back in Cancun’s Hotel Zone. They’re a sad sign that Isla Mujeres may go the way of its mainland neighbour before long.
But until then, it’s a welcome, highly endearing sanctuary. And not just for the baby turtles.