This is not the deserted beach where Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins meet up at the conclusion of The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 movie that put Zihuatanejo on the pop-culture map as a symbol of freedom and carefree living. In the real world, more than 100 people come on any given day to Playa la Ropa, the stretch of immaculate beach where the Tides resides, to swim, sip margaritas, nibble ceviche, go parasailing and otherwise enjoy a world-class tropical beach.
But no one is allowed inside a 4,300-square-foot pen maintained by Gonzalez and his staff. Turtle eggs laid at night elsewhere on the beach are gathered in the morning, before crowds arrive, and reburied in this hatchery, where they are safe from dogs and other predators who think nothing of digging a couple of feet into the sand for an easy meal. In 45 days, give or take, the eggs — roughly the size of ping-pong balls — will hatch. Cool sand temperatures tend to produce predominately males; warmer sand temperatures produce mainly females. The Tides allows guests to briefly hold the tiny turtles and set them on the sand for their initial scamper to the sea. Gonzalez calls it “the liberation,” and it generally takes place after dark, when most potential predators are gone.
Children connect especially well with the baby turtles, Gonzalez says, noting that they examine them as closely and lovingly as a jeweler might consider a precious stone. But adults are not immune to the charms of these magnificent creatures either.
“This lady comes every year, and every year [she] cries,” Gonzalez says. “It’s special. The turtle is like a human being.”
Last year, Gonzalez and his staff buried 19,485 eggs in the hotel hatchery and counted 16,283 babies, with each nest averaging around 100 eggs. Once they reach the size of dinner plates, sea turtles have few natural predators, but most hatchlings don’t survive to that point; estimates vary, but experts believe that roughly one in 1,000 eggs turns into a sexually mature turtle. They are most vulnerable in their first hours of life, when fish, birds and almost anything else with an appetite can snatch them up.
“They’re bite-size for everything else in the ocean when they’ve [first] been born,” says Scott Eckert, director of science for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, an association of biologists, educators and community leaders from more than 40 Caribbean countries that is dedicated to the preservation of turtles.
When turtles nest alone, as they do at the Tides, the percentage of eggs that hatch is relatively high — but so, too, is the percentage of hatchlings eaten by predators. Approximately once a year, however, a phenomenon known as an arribada (Spanish for “arrival”) occurs, in which thousands of turtles come ashore simultaneously to nest. During an arribada, the turtles dig up existing nests to create even more nests. Though thousands of eggs are destroyed in the process — resulting in the beach turning as hard as concrete from so many broken shells — hundreds of thousands of hatchlings still survive, with predators seemingly overwhelmed by the sheer number of the animals.
And though arribadas used to be considered a prime opportunity for hunting mature turtles (Mexico was once known as a leading exporter of sea turtle leather), the practice of harvesting turtles and eggs was banned in 1990, when declining populations prompted concerns that a species dating to the dinosaurs would disappear forever. Today, saving turtles is serious business, both for the Tides and for the Mexican government, and with good results: While olive ridleys are still considered threatened, they are no longer at the brink.
Says Bryan Wallace, a marine biologist and turtle expert with Conservation International based in Washington, D.C., “It’s really a success story.”