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Freedom to the hatchlings

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The volcanic black sand beaches of Monterrico, located 116.5km away from La Antigua Guatemala, serve as a solitary nesting spot for olive ridley turtles, Lepidochelys olivacea. Known locally as “parlamas”, they crawl out of the open ocean at night to lay their eggs amid quad bikes and beach goers. Despite being the most abundant of marine turtles, their numbers have been dwindling and they are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Newborn turtles in the main hatchery of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Newborn turtles in the main hatchery of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Turtle season starts in late August and ends in December. Though Parlamas are known to come together in very large groups to nest, the ones found in Guatemala’s southern coast arrive individually. According to José Antonio López, a local turtle harvester, the highest influx of turtles happens during September and October. “We see around 30 or 40 turtles per night”, he mentions.

At night, local harvesters comb the beaches armed with flashlights and bags to find any sign that will lead them to a nest. Guatemala is one of the last bastions for the commercialization of turtle eggs, a practice that has been outlawed in most countries. The only thing that the government demands is that a portion of the eggs is donated to conservation efforts and turtle hatcheries. Once a nest has been located, the eggs are procured.  “We dig the eggs out after a turtle nests and take 20% of them to the turtle hatchery as a quota. They also buy the rest of the eggs and we make between Q.50 and Q.60 (8.00USD)”, José Antonio explains.

Newborn turtles in the main hatchery of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Newborn turtles in the main hatchery of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The hatcheries then take the eggs and wait for them to hatch. According to César Flores, a local ranger in charge of the turtle conservation program of the Center for Conservationist Studies (CECON) in Monterrico, there are roughly 26 hatcheries in the country. Flores also explained that most of the hatcheries tend to be seasonal, as parlamas lay between one and three clusters of eggs each season while other species may nest up to seven times a year. An average clutch size is over 110 eggs, which need an incubation period of about two months in order to hatch.

Once the young turtles are born, hatcheries release them back to the ocean. Conservation efforts such as the one at CECON allow tourists to participate in the event. This is part of an effort to help raise awareness and funds to buy more turtle eggs from the local harvesters. Visitors can buy a ticket to release a turtle for Q.10 (1.33USD). If no one buys a ticket, then the turtle is just released directly on the beach after they have hatched. According to César Flores, nearly 40,000 turtles are released each year by the local hatcheries.

These release events play a key part in conservation efforts, as fundraising is an absolute necessity for these organizations. As Flores points out, there are no protected beaches along the coast, so the only way to protect the turtles is to buy as many eggs as possible from the local harvesters. The ones that aren’t sold to hatcheries are immediately bought by locals who then resell them throughout the country. This is because parlama eggs are considered a delicacy in Guatemala. According to José Antonio, they are often served raw in orange juice or in a cocktail of yorkshire sauce and tomato juice because their shells are too frail to be cooked.

Newborn sea turtles before their release at a hatchery in Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Newborn sea turtles before their release at a hatchery in Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Vacationers observe turtles before their release. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Vacationers observe turtles before their release. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A group of sea turtles rush to the ocean in Monterrico, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A group of sea turtles rush to the ocean in Monterrico, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A newborn turtle races to the ocean. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A newborn turtle races to the ocean. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A newborn turtle over the black sand of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A newborn turtle over the black sand of Monterrico. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

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