North of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a different kind of vacation offers a chance to help save endangered sea turtles.

By Linda Hagen Miller
September 03, 2008
Robbie Caponetto

Dark-gray baby sea turtles not much bigger than silver dollars claw at the sides of plastic bins, scrambling over each other like a litter of hungry puppies. A few hours ago, the hatchlings cracked out of their golf ball-size eggs. Volunteers place the eager little creatures into travel tubs. Their journey to the sea has begun.

Here on Mexico's Pacific Coast, 70 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, a group of dedicated workers has gathered at Platanitos Sea Turtle Camp to experience a south-of-the-border excursion that's hardly typical. For this trip, travelers trade lounge chairs and piña coladas for roll-up-your-sleeves, down-and-dirty labor.

Work? On vacation? Believe it. The goal of this getaway is to help hundreds of tiny turtles make it safely to the ocean. It’s rewarding, and good for you in a way that a full-service spa can never be. "I saw many beautiful sunsets," says Susan Peacock of Golden, Colorado, "but the most thrilling sight was the turtles swimming out to sea in the fading light."

This evening, Hermilo Esparza, a lead technician for the camp, greets volunteers. They include half a dozen boisterous teenagers who arrive from a nearby village via pickup truck. Tonight's task: releasing the baby turtles.

The camp occupies a section of beach belonging to Playa Las Tortugas, a hybrid eco-resort and second-home development. When American developer Rob Hancock purchased a 22-acre beachside coconut plantation in 1996, sea turtle conservation was in its infancy. Rob wanted to help revive the flagging population, so he donated property for the camp and helped establish the nonprofit center. A bare-bones staff of Mexican biologists, schoolkids, and volunteers works to preserve endangered olive ridley sea turtles and a few hawksbill and leatherback turtles that also nest here.

Olive ridley turtles nest on tropical shores in eastern India, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and French Guiana, and along the Pacific from Mexico to Colombia. They have been on the endangered species list since 1978, but thanks to the efforts of the Mexican government and sanctuaries such as Playa Las Tortugas, they're on the rebound.

From late spring through fall, in a slow labor of instinct, the pregnant olive ridley returns to her birthplace. Under cover of night, she lugs herself ashore and starts digging. "The female sort of dances," Hermilo says. "She moves around a lot, makes a mess in the sand, digs a hole, and lays her eggs."

After depositing 80 to 100 eggs, she covers them with sand, then plods back to the sea. If the conservation camp didn't intervene at this point and transfer the eggs to incubators, most unborn turtles would fall prey to marauding dogs, raccoons, crabs, armadillos, and badgers. Humans are formidable enemies, as well. Turtle shells, oil, and meat have long been marketable commodities, and Mexican folklore has elevated turtle eggs to aphrodisiac status. Poachers can earn as much as $10 for a single egg.

Because sea turtles migrate for hundreds or thousands of miles and live 30 to 50 years, scientists consider them extremely valuable when researching coastal conditions and marine environments. Turtles also play a key role in ocean ecosystems, grazing on sea-grass beds to keep them healthy.

And so, on a quiet beach in Mexico, a small group of people tries to do its part. As the sun dips toward the horizon, Hermilo tells everyone to gently place the baby turtles behind the line he's drawn in the sand. Even before he shouts "Ándale!" turtles skitter toward the sea. When they reach the shallows, their little flippers spin like whirligigs, but then a wave hits their bodies and they're knocked to the side. "Oh no!" cries the crowd, in chorus. Claps and cheers erupt shortly, though: Another curl sweeps up dozens of hatchlings and ushers them into the Pacific.

Book Your Stay

Playa Las Tortugas' two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas ($230 to $375) a night) are large enough for families. Guests may gather sea turtle eggs and help release the hatchlings. (Note: Most nesting occurs from June through October, but olive ridleys can lay eggs all year long. Most eggs hatch from August to mid-December.) With no restaurants on the property, guests shop in nearby villages and do their own cooking, or arrange for a cook to prepare meals at their villa. Fly into Puerto Vallarta and rent a car for the 70-mile drive, or request a pick-up. Call 877/287-8905 or e-mail for reservations. Direct property ownership questions to Rob Hancock: 800/320-7769 or e-mail

Published October 2008