Hurricane Emily takes toll on sea turtles

More than 84,000 eggs laid by endangered green and loggerhead turtles were swept away.

When Hurricane Emily tore through the Yucutan Peninsula last weekend, it destroyed nearly all the eggs that have been laid so far this season by endangered sea turtles on the white sand beach of Xcacel.

On the Gulf Coast of Mexico about 60 miles south of Cancún, the stretch of beach near Akumal is one of the most important nesting grounds in Mexico for green and loggerhead sea turtles. Alejandro Arenas Martinez, director of the Xcacel sea turtle conservation program, estimates that more than 84,000 eggs were swept away.

"In all of the 15 years I have been working here, a hurricane has never hit so hard, so early in the season," he says. The effect of the loss of the eggs will be felt several years down the line, he explains, when this summer's generation was set to lay their own eggs. Arenas says that an average of 80 percent of the eggs, or some 67,000, would have eventually hatched.

Both turtles are listed as "endangered" - facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild - by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and National Resources, based in Switzerland.

From April to September, hundreds dark-olive green and reddish-brown loggerhead sea turtles emerge from the ocean at night to dig nests in the sand and lay an average of 120 eggs each. Mission accomplished, they slip back into the ocean and won't return until the following year when the currents that mark their migratory path bring them back to Mexico's coastline.

Park rangers in Xcacel (pronounced shkah-SEL) and volunteers monitor turtle activity along 12 beaches that stretch for 20 miles between the popular tourist destinations of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. They dig up nests that are in danger of being trampled by tourists or washed away by the rising tide. They then bring most of the eggs back to the safety of the Xcacel station to complete their 60-day incubation period.

Looking down at the lone surviving nest - of more than 700 - Arenas sighs. "These eggs were laid on July 16, one day before the hurricane hit. Except for this one nest, every egg laid after May 17 was lost. That's about 50 percent of the total number of eggs that we expect this season," he says.

The hurricane dealt a hard blow not only to the turtle population but also to the morale of those who protect them.

"I fell in love with turtles when I was 19. Protecting them gives me a great sense of satisfaction," says a sweaty Arenas. "The loss of the turtle eggs makes me sad because of all the effort and care that we put into their conservation."

Still, there were signs of the turtles' tenacity. Arenas points to tracks on the sand. "The turtles came back last night," he says. "To lay their eggs."

Danna Harman contributed to this report.

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