Hey You! Stop Driving Over Turtles!

ATVs can wreak havoc on sea turtle nests and the drivers don’t even know it

Tearing around on the beach and kicking up sand on an ATV is a popular activity for Los Cabos tourists. But all the fun you’re having on your ATV tour can come at a price for the local wildlife, particularly the baby sea turtles.

A perfect example of this can be seen on Las Margaritas Beach, which is on the Pacific side of the peninsula towards Todos Santos, next to Migrino Beach. A handmade wooden fence (big sticks that have been driven into the sand) divides the beach in two. On one side of the fence, the sand is smooth and hardly disturbed. On the other side of the fence, tire tracks and ruts from ATVs cover almost the entire beach.

ecoplan.JPGMembers of local ecological group EcoPlan have made it their mission to protect the sea turtles, and educate tourists, tour providers and local residents about the importance of taking care of Cabo’s environment.

“A lot of times people, especially tourists, they don’t have any idea of what’s there under them,” says Liz Breton, a marine biologist who works for EcoPlan. “I am convinced that no one who knows the damage they cause does it deliberately.”

The ATVs are hazardous to the sea turtle nests and the baby turtles in several ways. First, the ATV tracks obliterate the tracks left from the mama sea turtle as she drags herself from the ocean to her nesting spot, which makes it nearly impossible for volunteers to find the nests so they can mark them. And if an ATV drives over a nest, they pack down the sand over the eggs, which can smash them. The compressed sand also leaves less room for air in the nest, and is harder for the baby turtles to crawl up through once they’ve hatched.

Even if ATVs have carefully driven around the nests, they still present a hazard to the baby sea turtles. The ruts left in the sand from the ATV tires can be several inches deep, which provides a big obstacle for the tiny baby turtles, which are just a couple inches long themselves, to climb over. Often, the turtles don’t climb over the ruts, but follow them and crawl parallel to the ocean rather than straight to it. If the babies do try to climb over the steep (for them) tire tracks, they can easily flip onto their backs, (turn turtle, get it?) and are left stranded there tummies up, and are even more vulnerable for the numerous predators who snack on them.

ATVs aren’t the only danger to the sea turtles, according to EcoPlan volunteer Kevin DeLange, horses can often do more damage to the nests, because the horse hoofs can actually step into the nests and destroy the eggs, but there are not as many horseback riding tours as there are ATV tours.

Fisherman who drive on the beach and over the nests are also a problem, but again, they’re not as prevalent as the ATVs (at least on Las Margaritas). A lot of them are even willing to park by the fence and then walk down to the water.

EcoPlan has been working for the last four years to protect the turtle nests and help the baby turtles get to the ocean, but they’ve hit a major roadblock that’s caused them to pause their operations for this all important nesting/hatching season. The group feels they were purposely blocked from getting the permits they need to patrol the beach, and that other ecological groups are responsible for blocking them because they want the permits for themselves, and the money they can potentially make by charging hordes of tourists to go out and help release the sea turtles.

Someone anonymously complained to Profepa, the federal agency that enforces Mexico’s environmental laws, accusing EcoPlan of being the ones who were harming the turtles. EcoPlan was forced to spend a lot of time and almost all their money going back and forth with Profepa, trying to prove their innocence, even getting letters from Semanart, Mexico’s environmental ministry, stating that their operation was legitimate, but to no avail. They weren’t able to get their permits this year and without a permit, EcoPlan volunteers can’t legally handle the turtle eggs or the baby turtles. This is why all of you big-hearted turtle huggers who went on turtle hatching tours with them last year don’t see them announcing any tours this year. All EcoPlan can do this year is mark the nests they find and monitor them to ensure that they haven’t been destroyed.

Liz says EcoPlan has talked to some of the ATV tour providers to get them to alert their clients to the turtles. The problem, she says, is that the tour guides don’t always tell tourists to avoid the nests, or even that there are nests on the beach. She thinks they either don’t care, or are afraid that telling tourists to only drive on certain parts of the beach will result in lower tips.

And, of course, the ATV companies aren’t going to just stop their tours; there’s too much money to be made there. But Liz says that completely ridding the beaches of ATVs isn’t their goal. They would be happy if the ATV groups to stick to racing up the beach along the hard sand at the water line, where the turtles can’t lay their eggs. The tracks they make there will be washed away with the next tide.

So, to be an ecologically-responsible tourist, do you have to completely avoid ATV tours? Not necessarily. If you book an ATV tour, ask the tour company or your guide what they do to avoid the turtle nests. Obviously, they’re not going to tell you if they’re stomping over them, but be suspicious if they claim there are no nests on the beach where you’ll be riding, or that it’s not a nesting beach (they’re all nesting beaches here). If they say it’s not turtle nesting season, they might be right, depending on the time of year. Nesting season for the olive ridley turtle, which is the most common in Los Cabos, is from July to September. And there’s a six-week incubation period, so that means the t`urtles hatch into November.

And if you’re riding along the beach and see clusters of sticks poking up from the sand, drive around them. You don’t want to be responsible for taking out an entire nest of baby turtles, do you? That would be really bad karma.

Kevin says that while most of the time the ATV riders have been good about avoiding the marked nests, they have seen some nests that have been driven over or clipped by the vehicles. They’ve also seen a few baby sea turtles that have been turned into beach roadkill.

Another way you can help the baby sea turtles is by donating to EcoPlan, so they’ll have the money they need to get their permits for next year and can fully resume their operations and turtle hatching tours. You can do this by visiting their website, www.ecoplanac.org, and clicking on “Donations.”