The Intelligent Sea Turtles of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

350sea-turtlesSea turtles are very intelligent creatures of nature; they continue coming to Puerto Vallarta regardless of the swine flu scare, the border town drug wars, or the global recession! They don’t visit Vallarta for its perfect climate, its eight beautiful golf courses, its world class deep sea fishing, its hundreds of fine restaurants, nightclubs and discotheques, its magnificent sunsets, or the colorful tropical flora and fauna in the surrounding Sierra Madre hillsides; they visit Vallarta strictly for its 35 miles of sandy beaches. However, the fact that they love the beaches around PV is only a small clue as to what makes the sea turtles so incredibly intelligent.

Sea turtles constitute a single radiation that was distinct from all other turtles during the Late Cretaceous Period, the “age of dinosaurs”, at least 100 million years ago. It’s hard to imagine that approximately 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous – Tertiary Extinction Event (KT Mass Extinction), the planet endured catastrophic events such as massive asteroid impacts and/or tremendous volcanic activity resulting in significant climate changes affecting all of the Earth’s plant and animal life. Sea turtles were among the few species to survive these traumatic events and related climate changes.

Today, there are only seven living species of sea turtles worldwide and members of five or six of these species manage to visit Vallarta annually. Six of the seven species have hard shells and only one has a soft shell; it’s the leatherback turtle, the largest of them all and a periodic visitor to Vallarta. The leatherbacks grow for 30 years, from hatchlings weighing about an ounce, to maturity weighing up to 1,300 pounds and measuring up to 7 feet long and 5 feet wide; they can live to be more than 80 years old.

Although sea turtles representing most of the species visit Vallarta, the majority of them are of the Olive Ridley species. They are much smaller than the leatherbacks, measuring less than 3 feet long and weighing just a little over 100 pounds with dark olive green heart shaped domed shells.

The Olive Ridley turtles hatch from their eggs weighing less than an ounce, crawl out of their buried nest clawing their way up to the surface of the sand, and then head directly to the water to begin life with approximately 100 siblings at their side. They are quite fortunate if they ever make it to the water; if certain predators (including thoughtless humans) don’t get them while they are still in the shell, many other predators such as crabs and birds are anxiously awaiting their journey across the beach to the water’s edge. Of course, as soon as these tiny delicious morsels hit the water, any fish in the area immediately welcome them as dinner! Consequently, a very small percentage of these infant sea turtles ever make it out to the open sea.

Of the few fortunate sea turtles that do survive their entrance into this cruel world, growing to maturity, which will take more than 15 years, is a formidable task. If certain fish do not get them during their first year of life, fishermen with long lines or nets are apt to accidentally catch them at any time during their maturing process, let alone at any time during their adult life. With the odds of survival stacked so heavily against the sea turtles, they are now considered to be either a threatened or an endangered species; the Olive Ridleys along the Mexican Pacific coastline are classified as an endangered species by the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Okay, now that we know a little about these prehistoric air breathing reptiles, what is it that makes them so incredibly intelligent? Well, first you have to give them credit for surviving throughout history while almost all other forms of life didn’t! Second, they were perhaps the first creatures to have global positioning systems (GPS)! Yes, 100 million years before we mere mortals invented the GPS, the sea turtles, with their high sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, always knew where they were relative to where they were born. Just imagine, these prehistoric creatures are able to swim a couple thousand miles out to sea, enjoy life floating and swimming around in the open water for up to 80 years while never losing their bearings, and still remember exactly where they were born!

Because of their incredible ability to always know their own location, upon reaching maturity at the age of 15 years or older, the females that are ready to lay their eggs always return to the sandy beach where they were born. Consequently, for about five months every year, the beaches of Puerto Vallarta are home to hundreds of female sea turtles that come ashore to nest. These are the same females that hatched on the same beautiful beaches from 15 to 50 years ago! Thus, with a lot of luck, and today with much assistance, a new generation of sea turtles begins.

In certain areas along the Pacific coastline of Mexico, the Olive Ridley sea turtles invade the shore in “arribadas” of 100 or more at a time, however in Puerto Vallarta they are generally either alone or in very small groups scattered thinly over the beach. Because of their scarcity, their homecoming to the local beaches has become a significant tourist attraction for visitors to Vallarta. More importantly, today there is a small group of volunteer conservationists, the Western Ecological Society, in Vallarta that does everything possible to protect these endangered animals. This group was first organized in 1993 and since then has done everything possible to see that the eggs and hatchlings are protected from all predators, thus giving the next generation of sea turtles a much better chance of survival. For those of you interested in knowing more about their activities, you can visit their website at http://vallartanature.org/english_index.html.

In some respects, the intelligent sea turtles of Vallarta think in a manner similar to that of the smarter tourists that visit Vallarta; once they’ve been here, they continue returning! So, if you’ve never visited this magnificent Banderas Bay region of Mexico, perhaps it’s time you consider it. Not only will you see and do everything imaginable under ideal weather conditions in a region that can only be defined as Paradise, but from June through December, you’ll also be able to observe the nesting habits of these prehistoric sea turtles with their built in GPS and long distance navigation systems.

Picture yourself sitting in one of the many beachfront restaurants sipping a margarita after watching a glorious sunset as the main attraction, the highlight of the evening, begins; a handful of huge lumbering female sea turtles literally emerge from the water and crawl up the beach in front of your eyes in search for their nesting location. Although it’s usually too dark for filming, witnessing a sea turtle invasion is a sight that you’ll surely not soon forget!

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Jim Scherrer has owned property in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for 26 years and resided there for the past eleven years. The mission of his series of 57 articles pertaining to retirement in Puerto Vallarta is to reveal the recent changes that have occurred in Vallarta while dispelling the misconceptions about living conditions in Mexico. For the full series of articles regarding travel to and retirement in Vallarta as well as pertinent Puerto Vallarta links, please visit us at http://www.PVREBA.com.

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Older comments on The Intelligent Sea Turtles of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Parag Shah
08 February 2011

Sea turtles live in the open ocean and eat tiny animals that are found in floating seaweed concentration. The tiny sea turtles are preyed by fish, sharks and birds. Thus, they are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Their disappearance has caused many widespread effects in the open ocean and coastal ecosystems.
Endangered sea turtles