Baja’s Black Turtles Offer Hope

“What region of the earth is not full of our calamities?”

Those words were written by a poet. A Roman poet. More than two thousands years ago. His name was Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC).

There are certainly days when I feel the way he felt when he penned that phrase. Indeed, it can sometimes seem as if our planet is one big calamity-fest.

Then there are days like this one. We were camped on the edge of a field of sand dunes on a barrier island in Baja California Sur, Mexico. My campmates included my daughter Julia, some new friends, some old friends, members of RED Sustainable Travel, and a pair of fishermen who were studying sea turtles as part of an ongoing in-water monitoring project of Grupo Tortuguero. But it isn’t just fine human company that makes a day good.

Over the course of the previous 24 hours we’d held six black sea turtles in our arms. Each was caught, measured, tagged and released. Each turtle represented a small part of a recovering population that once bounced along the brink of extinction. Three of the turtles were of reproductive size, meaning they’ve made the thousand mile trip from Baja south to their nesting beaches in Michoacan.

Thirty years ago this turtle species was hunted and butchered for its meat (in Baja) or hotly pursued for its eggs (in Michoacan). These days both turtles and eggs are carefully handled by marine biologists and citizen scientists like those who make up the ranks of dozens of community-based projects along the animal’s entire range.

Community members along with tourists releasing a black sea turtle
Releasing a black sea turtle (Photo by Neil Osborne)

As a result black sea turtle is decidedly making a comeback. A combination of world class research, strong and diverse relationships, and smart, open communication has helped build a robust sea turtle protection movement in Pacific Mexico.

But here’s the twist. Those responsible for leading the effort are the men and women who once harvested sea turtles for their eggs and meat–joined by their children, and in some cases their grandchildren.

So-called “enemies of nature” are now Mexico’s eco-heroes. Thirty years ago one would have wisely bet against such a proposition.

This year, from the beaches of Michoacan to the lagoons of the Baja California Peninsula, we celebrated the nascent rise of the black turtle. This conservation success story is being celebrated this month with a photo essay in Orion Magazine by our close friend, conservation photographer Neil Osborne.

Back in our camp on Isla Magdalena we released our last black turtle into the bay and it quickly swam off into the deep channel. A grey whale mother-calf pair spouted just off shore. A pack of healthy coyotes scrambled over the dune. Pelicans flew low over the red mangroves. A dozen men, women, and children felt intimately responsible for a special moment.

This article was originally written by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols for SEEtheWILD’s WildBlog