Guatemalan Sea Turtles

This far eastern stretch of Guatemala's Pacific coast is home to three species of marine turtle: the green, the leatherback, and, most prominently, the olive ridley turtle. For thousands of years, all three have engaged in an elaborate nesting ritual here, usually July to January, with peak nesting season taking place in August and September.

Every two to four years, female turtles come ashore, nesting 2 to 5 times in a 12-day period. Each turtle digs a pit with her flippers and scoops out a chamber for depositing about 100 eggs. She fills and conceals the chamber before heading back out to sea. After a 60-day incubation period, the hatchlings emerge. In the ultimate team effort, they scurry up the sides of the chamber, kicking sand down to the bottom, and gradually raising the level of the base of the pit, from which they escape and make a mad dash to the sea. Biologists believe that the nesting site's sand leaves an imprint on the hatchlings—though it's not known exactly how—that draws the females back as adults to the same stretch of beach to continue the millennia-old ritual.

Unfortunately, turtle eggs are prized by poachers. (Walk into a bar and you'll probably see them on the appetizer menu. Local lore holds they are aphrodisiacs.) Guatemalan authorities have struck a pragmatic bargain: egg harvesting can continue, as long as the harvesters donate 20% of their eggs to local hatcheries. Two organizations based here lead those conservation efforts, incubating donated eggs and, when the hatchlings emerge, returning them to the sea. Even with such conservation efforts, many of the hatchlings will not make it to adulthood. Many fall victim to sharks, boat rudders, and fishing nets. The fact that the turtle population survives at all is a remarkable feat of nature.

CECON. CECON, based at Guatemala City's Universidad de San Carlos, operates the Biotopo Monterrico and an interesting in-town visitor center that documents the life cycle of the turtles, as well as iguanas and caimans. It also manages Monterrico's most popular event, and one of Guatemala's most fun: the weekly turtle release during the July to January nesting season. Each Saturday at 5:30 pm the week's hatchlings return to the sea in a well-attended event. For a Q10 ticket you can sponsor a turtle, and release it at the starting line, and watch it scurry across the sand and make it to the finish line. The tide is the goal, of course—whoever said turtles are slow never witnessed this race. Win or lose, your Q10 goes to a good cause. 2 blocks east of Calle Principal, Monterrico, Monterrico, Santa Rosa, 06024. 5847–7777; 2331–0914; www.usac.edu.gt/cecon.php. Q8. Daily 7–5.

ARCAS. The Petén-based ARCAS, whose name is the Spanish acronym for "Association for Rescue and Conservation of Wildlife," maintains an operation in Hawaii National Park, east of Monterrico near the Salvadoran border. ARCAS is always looking for volunteers, both experts and lay people, with a passion for conservation. Parque Nacional Hawaii, 8 km 5 mi east of Monterrico, Monterrico, Santa Rosa, 06024. 5849–8988; 2478–4096; www.arcasguatemala.com.

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