Sea turtle return to Rocky Point has hopes on the rise

By Dan Sorenson

arizona daily star

An endangered sea turtle, pushing the northern boundaries of her species’ range, buried dozens of eggs on a Puerto Peñasco beach, headed back out to sea, and left wildlife authorities in Mexico with a problem.

The Olive Ridley sea turtle, a rare visitor in the north end of the Sea of Cortez, is considered endangered in Mexico and threatened in some other areas.

And a clutch of eggs deposited by another Olive Ridley on a nearby Puerto Peñasco beach last year failed to hatch, said Alejandro Castillo, a biologist at the Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceanos (the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans), better known as CEDO.

Castillo said he suspects the northern gulf’s extreme high tides — which can be well over 20 feet and push the high water mark over a mile on shallow beaches — probably caused mold growth on last year’s clutch of turtle eggs, killing them.

Turtles normally lay their eggs — sometimes more than 100 in a clutch — above the high tide line. There, he said, they incubate for 52 to 58 days before hatching with the tiny turtles scrambling to the sea.

In this year’s case, Castillo said, the manager of the beachfront Hotel Playa Bonita called CEDO the morning of Sept. 21 when residents reported seeing the sea turtle depositing eggs. Castillo arrived in time to see some of the eggs being laid, and realized they were also probably too far below the high water line to survive.

But because the Olive Ridley sea turtle is listed as endangered in Mexico, Castillo said, he could not move the eggs to higher ground. He called a federal government wildlife biologist who came up from Guadalajara to investigate.

Meanwhile, Castillo said, the residents marked the location of the buried eggs and tried to keep people out of the area.

He said the federal wildlife biologist chose to move the 70-some eggs to the Mayan Palace resort hotel, about 25 miles south of downtown Puerto Peñasco, commonly called Rocky Point, the popular Sonoran beach town about a four-hour drive southwest of Tucson. The new luxury resort has a staff biologist and a wildlife protection program for seabirds.

While an employee at the Mayan Palace said he was not able to comment on the turtle eggs’ status, CEDO’s co-director, Rick Boyer, said the appearance of the endangered species in Puerto Peñasco might be good for ecotourism.

“It’s one of those natural events that very few people have gotten to see. It’s rare, a spectacular event in and of itself, and has conservation implications,” said Boyer.

He said the appearance of Olive Ridleys laying eggs in Puerto Peñasco two years in a row suggests “conservation efforts further south are working. We don’t know whether they were here a hundred or thousand years ago. Either they are returning or expanding their nesting ground. It’s good news for turtles.”

If the turtles do become regular residents in the northern gulf, they could cause even more excitement.

Although the two most recent Olive Ridley appearances were solo visits, most egg-laying occurs in mass events when hundreds of Olive Ridleys come ashore in events known as arribadas — arrivals, said University of Arizona marine biologist Katrina Mangin.

She said the egg-laying turtles are also remarkable for returning to the same beaches where they were born, even if that means traveling hundreds or thousands of miles.

www.azstarnet.com

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