As far as bucket list items go, I'll be the first to admit that participating in a baby sea turtle release is probably more of a fringe choice than most. Still, it was something that I had always wanted to do, starting as a kid way back in the 90s, when I asked for a sea turtle adoption kit for Christmas (likely because of the stuffed animal that came with it).
Last year, I found out that there was a sea turtle rescue right in Sayulita and during high season (November-January) they release babies almost nightly. I was so shocked that I had never heard of this before... after all the research I'd done before both of my previous trips to my favorite little retreat, I couldn't believe it had never come up. I started following the group that does the releases, Campamento Tortuguero Sayulita, on Facebook and the more photos I saw of those sweet, tiny tortugas, the more I wanted to be a part of a release.
Take notes, kids: this is how you justify taking a semi-spontaneous weekend trip to Sayulita. Saving the sea turtles!
When a nest has hatched, the releases happen at sunset right on the beach. If you want to check on the likelihood that a nest will be hatching during your visit, you can message Campamento Tortuguero on Facebook and they'll usually get back to you the same day. I had checked in with them a week or two before my trip and they said that yes, the likelihood that there would be a release on one of my two dates was strong, but they were doing fewer and fewer releases as we moved further into January. In the days leading up to my trip, I couldn't help but be a little worried that I might be out of luck.
On my first full day in town, a Friday, those fears worsened after I ran into two ladies from the rescue at the Mercado. They were selling shirts, one of the ways Campamento Toruguero raises money to assist with the expenses of running the release. I asked if they were doing a release that night and one of the women shared in a hushed voice, that yes, they were, but there were only six eggs so she recommended showing up early to participate. She also couldn't be sure that another nest would hatch the following day... which was my last night.
Definitely not wanting to miss my chance, I showed up a little over an hour early, around 5pm. It's hard to describe directions to the rescue because Campamento Toruguero itself is on the beach and hardly anyone uses street names in Sayulita, but basically you cross the bridge to the other side of town, away from the Plaza. After the bridge, go left at the fork in the road. You'll walk past a baseball field and a playground with a jungle gym. Take a left onto the next street (Calle Miramar), then follow that all the way to the beach and take a right onto the sand. Once you're on the beach itself, just keep walking until you see Campamento on your right-hand side, not more than a half a mile or so down the beach.
Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small beach bar, Bar Miramar, next to the rescue. What better way to support the turtles than by downing margaritas on the beach! About 80p each, these were by far the best margaritas I had in town.
The super nice bartender, Eric, an American ex-pat, told me that the turtle release and bar was his, and that he'd been there for at least 20 years. His dog Lulu was curled up on the sand next to him and she, he explained, finds the turtle nests. Some of them anyway... the rest come into Campamento as a result of vigilant, sea turtle-loving locals.
We made small talk while I tried as many of the margaritas on the menu as possible. I told Eric that I knew they had six turtles for the night and he told me to not say that too loudly because at this point, he didn't want a crowd of people who wouldn't be able to participate. Which is why, after me, Eric told the rest of the individuals who approached the bar that there were no turtles being released that night, but to check back tomorrow.
At the bar I made small talk with a friend of Eric's who was equally nice, a local by way of Mazatlan, named David. David was friendly and genuinely cared about the turtles... it seemed like he would have liked to release them if there hadn't been enough of us waiting around already to do the same.
When the volunteer for the rescue arrived around sunset to bring out the turtles, there was an instant swarm around her. It was me and four or five couples, most of whom decided to release their turtles together. Which meant I was lucky enough to get one little guy all to myself.
The volunteer showed us how to pick them up out of the basket with our thumb and pointer finger, lightly pinching the bottom and top shell. Once I had selected mine, I carried him that way until he stopped wriggling away and then he relaxed in my palms as I cupped my hands for him.
I'm not sure what I expected after that. A ceremony, a speech? But I did expect something. Instead we just quietly walked towards the water, stopping about 50 feet away when the volunteer told us we were in a good place. Then, she told us, we could just put them down in the sand. They would do the rest. This was news to me. I had assumed we'd walk right up to the water, drop them in and watch them swim away. But according to the volunteer, we shouldn't even follow them. We were to stay back and watch, and yell at any beach goers to walk around us and the turtle's path.
For a split second, I hesitated... I had just met this tiny dude, I didn't want to say goodbye just yet. Which is stupid because what was he going to do? Play? Do tricks? I took a look around and saw that everyone had plopped their turtles into the sand. I noticed David standing back at a distance, chatting to someone on the beach and watching the babies, ready to wave away anyone who got in their way. I decided to name the turtle David, not only in honor of how clearly kind the human David was, but out of gratitude that he'd maybe given up his spot in the release for one of us.
Then it was time for him to go. So I put him down in the sand and he just... sat there. Maybe he wasn't ready to leave either?
When he didn't move for a few moments, I worried that I had hurt his flippers somehow when I was holding him. But soon enough he started waddling off towards the ocean, pausing every few seconds and redirecting his path whenever he felt the crash off a wave.
His whole journey took about 7 or 8 minutes before he disappeared into the ocean. He was the first one in the water out of the seven hatchlings, and lucky enough not to be pushed all the way back up onto shore by a wave. I took this as a sign that he was strong and hoped that meant he makes it out there in the big old ocean.
Once turtle David was gone, I went back to Bar Miramar and talked to human David. I told him I named the turtle after him and he got a bit emotional as he talked about how amazing the babies and their journey is. "Isn't it incredible," he asked, "how they just know? What to do, where to go? And the waves push them back and they just keep moving forward, their only goal is to get in that ocean."
David said goodbye and I stayed a while longer, enjoying the company of my fellow rescuers and several more bar patrons who had wandered up from the beach. I drank my margaritas and watched the sunset and all I could think was that, yeah...
It is pretty incredible.