Twenty-five miles south of Zihuatanejo — and a world away from the Tides and its five-star luxury — sits Playa Viva, an eco-resort with breathtaking expanses of unspoiled beach but no air conditioning. Compared to Playa la Ropa’s upscale hotels, accommodations here are primitive, with guests advised to bring insect repellent. A flashlight is a must when darkness falls, because lights are few. That’s by design, both to conserve resources and to encourage turtles to come ashore. And they come, all right — by the thousands, with egg counts in the six figures.
Saving turtles is a tradition here. Before the resort opened in 2009, residents of the nearby village of Juluchuca had been patrolling miles of beach and transplanting eggs to hatcheries for nearly a decade. In addition to olive ridleys, a handful of leatherback turtles nest in this area every year, and each one is precious.
“We aren’t seeing a rebound in the leatherbacks,” Wallace says. “The numbers are perilously low.”
While scientists believe that leatherbacks reach sexual maturity in around 15 years, the cycle could be longer, so it’s possible the effects of the 1990 ban on hunting and egg harvesting aren’t yet apparent. “It could be that we need to wait another five or 10 years,” Wallace says.
Playa Viva — which has its own hatchery and a vehicle for volunteers to patrol the beach in — is doing the right thing, says Wallace, who has visited the resort. “I think the model is something that many of us would like to see replicated,” he says.
Shortly before breakfast in late July, Playa Viva guests gather at the edge of the Pacific to partake in a hatchling release. Baltazar de la Cruz, a fisherman and one of a dozen volunteers with a local conservation group called La Tortuga Feliz, approaches on an ATV with a plastic bucket filled with 88 newly hatched olive ridleys. Through an interpreter, he explains that the turtles emerged an hour ago from the sand at a hatchery several hundred yards away. It’s important to get them in the water soon: Baby turtles are programmed to swim nonstop for approximately two days before stopping to feed, 20 miles from shore and away from coastal predators. Delay, experts say, could interfere with their instinct to head for the safety of the open sea.
Once placed on the sand, the three-inch-long hatchlings head directly toward the ocean. For some, it’s a straightforward 20-foot dash; for others, stop-and-go, but always in the same direction. Some reach the ebb-and-flow water just right and are swept gently to their destiny; others are blasted backward by incoming waves, but no matter — they always end up on their flippers, and they always keep going. They are magnets for hovering guests, who cannot resist picking them up for up-close inspections.
In 10 minutes, they are all in the water. And while survival won’t be easy for many, for now, they are alive — tiny dots in the water getting ever tinier.