Natural Perspectives: A day for turtle liberation

Vic and I went to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico with our son Scott and his family over the Labor Day weekend. Our three granddaughters and baby Mike constitute an active brood, and Scott and Nicole needed our help baby-wrangling.

We stayed at the Hilton Los Cabos, which is actually in the town of San Jose del Cabo, a few miles east of Cabo San Lucas.

We spent most of our time in the hotel's beautiful pool. At only four feet deep, it was ideal for the little girls to practice swimming. Adults congregated at the pool edge overlooking the ocean below. Sipping cocktails by the pool seemed to be de rigueur. I had no problem with that. Watermelon mojitos were my favorites.

Vic noted a fenced enclosure on the beach below the pool and went down to investigate. He discovered that it was a sea turtle nesting enclosure, with nests marked off every couple of feet. Based on the symmetrical pattern, it looked as though the eggs had been moved there. And as I discovered, that is exactly what had taken place.

Vic had to leave a couple of days before the rest of us, so he missed what was for me the most exciting part of the trip. Nicole noted someone working in the turtle enclosure. We went down there and found a biologist taking turtles out of their sand nests. He told us that they were olive ridley sea turtles.

The eggs had been laid elsewhere along the coast of Los Cabos. They are dug up and reburied about a foot down in guarded, fenced enclosures at various locations to protect the eggs and little turtles. After about two months, the baby turtles hatch out. They remain underground until they are ready to dash for the sea.

Normally, the babies make that run at night. But a few clutches emerge in the daytime only to find Magnificent Frigatebirds waiting for them. The birds pick off many of the turtles from the sand before they can make it to the ocean. But even in the water, the babies aren't totally safe. Birds will pluck them from the sea as they come up for air. I noted three frigatebirds circling overhead, watching the biologist work, probably hoping for a snack of baby sea turtles.

As late as 1950, an estimated 10 million olive ridleys nested in Mexico alone. Now the worldwide population is 800,000 nesting females. Olive ridley sea turtles have declined precipitously but are still the most numerous of the sea turtle species. They feed along the California coast and north to Oregon. The Baja population of olive ridley sea turtles is an endangered population, while other populations are threatened.

The biologist who was tending the turtles was actually an employee of the Hilton Los Cabos. He dug up the nests that were near hatching and examined the baby turtles that had already hatched. He put the turtles that were ready for release into a holding container and reburied those that needed another day or two underground.

The turtles are removed from their nests at about the time that they would dig their way up out of the sand on their own, and held until nighttime. The predatory frigatebirds don't hunt at night, and the turtles have a better chance at survival then.

Some of the baby turtles had hatched but had not yet resorbed their yolk sacs. The biologist put those back into the sand nest. He removed those eggs that were not developing, because a spoiled egg can infect those turtles that have hatched. This kind of management should increase the survival of baby sea turtles.

Our grandgirls strained at the fence, trying to see the little turtles on the other side. I asked if we could hold one. Much to my surprise, the biologist handed me one. The little guy had amazingly strong flippers. It was trying like the dickens to get away and head for the ocean.

The turtles were to be released later that night at a neighboring beach where there were fewer fish that would prey upon them. Scott and family decided to head down to the beach to watch the release. It was a long walk, too long for these old knees of mine, so I gave Nicole my camera so she could get some photos of the release. As it turned out, they got to actively participate along with a couple of other families.

Each of our granddaughters was allowed to pick up one little turtle after another and set it on the sand. The little things bolted for the surf lickety-split, just as they are genetically programmed to do. Scott and the girls remained at the top of the relatively steep sand berm, but Nicole and a couple of other people followed the turtles down to the surfline.

A big storm had moved through earlier in the day, and the surf was raging with six- to 10-foot waves. A big one rolled in and instantly submerged Nicole up to her waist. Frighteningly, it washed a little girl off of her feet. Swept her away. Nicole was closest to the girl and grabbed the desperately screaming child. The biologist went in after the girl too, and between the two of them, they got her safely back onto dry sand. Disaster averted.

We brought back so many fabulous memories from this trip. Sharing Mexico with our granddaughters. Speaking Spanish. Teaching our grandgirls some Spanish. Seeing the girls swim with a dolphin at Cabo Dolphins. Great experiences. I loved the people that we met and found them very friendly and helpful. I would definitely go back to the Hilton Los Cabos. You can see more photos on my blog at

But for me, holding that strong little sea turtle as it struggled to get away and begin its life adventure was the highlight of my trip. Well, that and those wonderful watermelon mojitos.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World