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Preserving Sea Turtles
La Sirena Gordita

Eileen and a volunteer digging out a nest of eggs. The light is provided by Eileen's jeep.

Dec. 4, 2022

by Joseph Sorrentino, photos and text

Eileen and Jedd Hoeter built their turtle sanctuary soon after opening Villa Star of the Sea, their resort in Playa Coco, Jalisco. "We'd walk on the beach and we'd see baby turtles or females laying eggs," Eileen told me. "Then Ecco-Bana, an animal rescue organization in Barra Navidad, asked us to build a turtle sanctuary."

Eileen showing Coco an egg from the nest.

Coco digging out a nest.

A sanctuary was needed because all three species of turtles that lay eggs on that beach are at risk. Olive Ridley turtles and Green turtles are listed as vulnerable while Leatherback turtles are critically endangered. Although turtle eggs are buried at least two feet down, dogs can find and eat them. Poachers raid the nests and sell eggs for a few pesos. "People think they're an aphrodisiac," said Eileen. "The poachers aren't dangerous. They're justtrying to make some money."

Eileen removing eggs and sand from a nest. The sand contains the mother’s secretions and will be placed in the hole Eileen digs in the sanctuary.

When the babies hatch, they have to make their way from the nest, to the water's edge, which can be 50 yards away or more. As they cross the beach, they're prey for eagles, terns and even crabs. Once they reach the water, they're eaten by a variety of sea life. It's estimated that one in a thousand will survive.

A baby Olive Ridley turtle.

The Hoeters used to find and dig up turtle eggs and babies on their own, but one day, their dog Coco spontaneously started digging. "She can smell the eggs and turtles," said Eileen.

You have to get up early if you want to hunt for turtle eggs and babies.

Elsie Elford, a volunteer, releasing baby Olive Ridley turtles. The babies must be released on the sand because they pick up something in it that will guide females to the same beach to lay their eggs.

Female Olive Ridley covering a newly-laid nest.

In the pre-dawn darkness, Eileen scans the beach for tracks made by female turtles, which look a lot like tire tracks. When she spies a track, she follows it to the end where a female stopped and dug a nest. As we approached a possible nest, Coco could barely contain her excitement as Eileen led her out of the jeep. When Coco finds a nest, she begins digging furiously, stopping to sniff the sand. As soon as she spots babies or when she sees white, indicating that she's found the eggs, Eileen takes over. She gently lifts the eggs out and will rebury them in the sanctuary, where they'll hatch 55 days later. If Coco has found babies, they're placed in a small tub and released later.

On her way to the ocean.

Babies aren't placed directly in the ocean. "They pick up something from the sand," Eileen explained. "Sand here is different from sand in all other places. After three years, the females who were babies come back here as adults to lay their own eggs. Males never come back. No one knows what they do or where they go."

About to enter the water.

One morning, we came across a female that was burying her eggs, which was surprising because it was light; turtles usually lay eggs at night, when it's safer. We watched for over an hour as she laboriously covered the eggs with sand. She looked exhausted. When she was done, she climbed out of the hole and made her way to the ocean. She paused at the water's edge, waiting for the wave that would take her out to sea.

Coco getting a well-deserved hug at the end of a successful hunt.

Most of the money for maintaining the sanctuary is given by the Hoeters, although they do have fundraisers and accept donations. For more information or to donate:

La Sirena Gordita, Turtle Preserve


Joseph Sorrentino is a photographer, journalist and playwright. His photographs and articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines in the US and Mexico, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mexico News Daily, In These Times, Commonweal Magazine, and La Jornada del Campo. His plays have been produced in theaters across the US and in several European countries. He currently lives in Chipilo in the State of Puebla, Mexico.

Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories From An Italian-American Childhood is a collection of four stories in English and Spanish with 26 drawings. It's available on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle version.

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