During our second visit to El Salvador, we enjoyed what ended up being one of the most amazing experiences in all our travels. What made this event so special was how unique it was from other wonderful things we’re so fortunate to be able to do. This wasn’t trying a crazy new food, traversing a new landscape or marvelling at foreign architecture. Instead, we had the incredible opportunity to help release baby sea turtles into the wild!
Finding Out about the Sea Turtle Release
While spending a few days relaxing in the quiet surf town of El Zonte, our days were filled with very little. We worked, swam, worked a little more, ate some delicious seafood, and swung lazily in hammocks. It was perfect, and exactly the pace we needed to prepare for the hectic few weeks just ahead of us.
We were spoiling ourselves a little, staying at a nice hotel with air conditioning and a pool, but this is also the reason the whole experience happened. I was sitting poolside, editing photos, doing my best “digital nomad” impression. One of the women from reception walked over to inform me, in Spanish, that she, along with several other people staying at the hotel, would soon be heading up the beach for a turtle release.
Now, considering how much time I’ve spent in Latin America, my Spanish is abysmal. Yet I’m able to pull enough words together to guess what she said. That said, what I hear sounds too good to be true.
I squinted to hear better (as if somehow vision was the reason I’m so awful at Spanish). “Que?” I ask, thinking I heard her correctly, but assuming I was mistaken from disbelief.
She speaks again, this time in near-perfect English, confirming what I had heard.
‘Are you kidding me?’ I think to myself I thought this sort of thing only happens on the Discovery Channel, or maybe at some fancy animal sanctuary in Costa Rica. “Yes,” I say, much louder than I meant “of course we’ll come!”
Mision Turtle El Zonte
Around eight of us are soon walking along El Zonte’s western beach; the dark, silky wet sand squishing between our toes. Soon, we’re standing with a group of several others – locals and foreigners alike. On the other side of the beach, opposite the water’s edge, is Mision Turtle El Zonte.
It’s not a turtle sanctuary in the typical sense, this is more of a hatchery. When a turtle nest is found in the wild, eggs are brought here to special sandboxes, where they are protected from birds, lizards and other predators by an enclosure.
During hatching season, typically between September and November, when the eggs begin to hatch, the baby turtles are gathered in a large tub and brought to the edge of the surf as the tide goes out. They mustn’t be released directly into the water, as the experience should be as natural as possible.
Releasing the Baby Sea Turtles
Now, not only are we here to watch the turtles being released, much as I had expected (and would have been perfectly amazed at already). No, we’re invited to pick up a turtle and set it free in the sand! Again, I’m completely stunned now. 20 minutes ago I was working (poolside, beer in hand, mind you – but working nonetheless), and now I’m picking up a freshly hatched sea turtle!
In my hand, egg-goo still dangling from its body, its strength is shocking. It’s flipper-legs push against my palm as I lower it into the sand. Once down, it stops. Nothing. A few seconds ago this little leathery nugget was fighting with more power than I imagined possible for its size, and now nothing.
Soon, one arm moves; then another, and another. A few seconds later, the tiny sea turtle is flapping its floppy arms as it drags itself through the wet sand. Kylee sets her’s (that she named ‘Popeye‘ due to its strong arms) down with a similar reaction. Eventually, a soft, rolling wave reaches the first few turtles and, while only a few inches high at its crest, sends the hatchlings tumbling. The turtles press on.
After a couple of waves, some are tumbled back to where they started and have to try again. This is just part of the strengthening process. As much as you want to help them, they are doing exactly what they are meant to do. Get beaten by the waves, until they are strong enough to swim away on their own.
Eventually, they reach the water’s edge as a wave retreats. Instinctively, the turtles kick and flap their arms and begin to swim, almost gracefully, out to sea. A few of the roughly two-dozen turtles need a little more encouragement and are carried closer to the water. Soon, the whole lot are gone.
And while they may have survived the first round of their treacherous early years, their battle is only beginning, their ultimate fate unknown. Most of these hatchlings – those who survive at least – likely won’t be seen again for up to three years.
It’s always a tricky issue when humans involve themselves in the natural cycle of another species. Then again, our entire modern existence is affecting everything daily, whether or not it’s intentional. Though with sea turtle numbers diminishing, it’s hard to imagine just standing by.
Though only twenty minutes long, this was one of the most fascinating things we’ve ever experienced. Watching these tiny creatures, so strong yet so helpless fight their way to freedom is incomparable to anything I can think of. No matter how many times the waves flipped them around, facing the wrong way, they always knew, somehow, which way to go.
Who knows, maybe someday, two or three decades from now, I’ll be scuba diving somewhere in the South Pacific, and a curious sea turtle will swim by and give me a nod.
I can dream.