Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Oil and the Turtles

Letter from the Gulf

Every year, Rancho Nuevo, 900 miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, sees a spectacular phenomenon: the arribada—mass nesting—of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which has already neared extinction. This year, thousands of baby ridleys swam off toward a deadly new enemy.

WEB EXCLUSIVE September 21, 2010
Ridley-turtle hatchlings head into the Gulf in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Of all the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon blowout, no one single species is being directly affected as much as the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Only 8,000 adult females nested in 2009, and the adult males are thought to be even fewer. Those that remain have been hit hard. Most of the surviving juveniles inhabit the waters 20 to 30 miles from shore, feeding and growing in the same currents and gyres that collected the bulk of the four million barrels spewed by the now capped well. There were confirmed reports of ridleys being burned alive in the pools of corralled, concentrated oil that BP had been burning off during the spill.
Almost every gravid female ridley lays her eggs on a single beach in Tamaulipas, Mexico, coming ashore in a unique mass-nesting event known as the arribada—the arrival. Kemp’s cousins in the Pacific, the Olive ridleys, also do this, but the other five sea-turtle species (and a small percentage of ridleys) are solitary nesters and don’t always return to the same place. The arribadas happen at Rancho Nuevo—a beach 900 miles southwest from the blowout. It’s only 200 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. Not a bad drive, only I’m told it’s too dangerous because three warring factions of narcotrafficantes—the Gulf cartel, the Zetas (former hit men of the cartel), and a local mafia called La MaƱa—have been having shoot-outs along it. Instead, I fly to Tampico, the sleepy port where the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was filmed, which is 60 miles south of Rancho Nuevo. (Not that Tampico is immune to the violence; the week before I arrive, the naked bodies of five policemen were found hanging from one of its bridges, I am told by a fellow gringo who narrowly escaped being shaken down at one of the narcos’ impromptu roadblocks right in the city.) I’m met at the airport by two people from the federal agency that manages Mexico’s protected areas, and they whisk me to the nearby Hampton Inn for the night.
In the morning we are driven to the Rancho Nuevo beach reserve by its director Dr. Gloria Tavera. Its 20 miles of wild white sand are patrolled three times a day by guards on A.T.V.’s, and 20 times a day or more during nesting season. Dr. Tavera tells me that the arribadas are over, but that the white ping-pong-ball-size eggs, having incubated for 45 days, are starting to hatch.

No comments: