Meet biologist Luis Antonio Góngora Dominguez … and his work in Seybaplaya, Mexcio

“Normally it’s snakes, the most common call I get, you can imagine what it’s like, hysteria down the phone line, people screaming about the danger the family is in, when really it’s the snake that’s terrified, hiding behind the bin, pleading for the yelling to stop. 

“It all started with snakes for me. The turtles were incidental, they came much later. I was known as the snake guy way before I was known as the turtle guy. But mostly people just know me as the weirdo Heavy Metal fanatic who rescues animals.”

As he speaks, here in the springtime tropics of southern Mexico, Luis is framed over his shoulder by the traditional fishing town of Seybaplaya, where he was born. He raises his arm to wipe the sweat from his brow, and as the sleeve pulls back a flash of blue tattoo glints off his wrist. He can read my question before it’s even uttered, and responds: “An octopus; a jellyfish; of course a turtle; some fish. This arm is basically composed of marine life, if you count Poseidon as an aquatic creature.”

Seybaplaya nestles 20 miles outside the city of Campeche, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants which emerges on the first open stretches of beach after the rocky headlands just south of the regional capital. Historically, Seyba was always an artisanal fishing port, and those vestiges are not just seen and felt but also still lived, with 1 in 5 families still involved in the industry, in one way or another. The symbolism of that most traditional of endeavours can be seen everywhere, from the small boats that skim along the water at the edge of almost every possible vista, to the stands selling fresh fish, the ubiquitous drying nets, and, more subtly, the way folk look quizzically out to the ocean, always ready for a sudden weather change – because when your sons and fathers are out on the water, any change in the weather has implications; it has the possibility to really mean something. 

Luis Antonio Góngora Dominguez and nesting Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Luis Antonio Góngora Dominguez and a nesting Hawksbill Sea Turtle in Seybaplaya, Mexico.

It’s 2am on one of countless nights on the beach, walking the water’s edge, so strange because everything is basically the same as by day except so much more peaceful and empty, as though it were a distant, foreign shore. Here, fanned by a light breeze, lit by the panoply of stars, a sky-top of christmas lights, what you always always forget no matter how much you foreground the thing is the sheer scale of the sea turtle, the prehistoric size and weight of the damn thing. And how no matter the number of times you see one, when another individual emerges from the foam, dragging its dull weight out of the ocean where it feels so light and lithe, how that shore must also feel so foreign to her, the mother out to lay her eggs, because out here on the land everything is suddenly so draining and alien, so exhaustingly gravitational, and I cannot help feel that she is the closest thing I will ever see to an astronaut returning to earth.

Seyba is an easygoing town, where greetings start at a distance and continue until well after the walk-by ends, a perfectly-timed conversation which likely includes health of grandparents, recent events, predictions and obligatory musings on the soporific heat – of course the heat.

Turtle education in Seybaplaya, Mexico

Luis conducts an education session with youth in Seybaplaya, Mexico.

At this height of the year we are on the cusp of the season when the late-afternoon sky buckles under its own weight and throws everything down to earth in a sudden, violent release. The season also happens to be the time when the turtles come to shore, navigating by moon and starlight. It reminds me of the idea that so much of nature and wildlife is made up more of celestial creatures than inhabitants of the earth, and that perhaps the greatest horror we inflict on the animals we industrialise is not even in the violence of the slaughterhouse, but in the built roof over their heads. Maybe that is what domesticated really means, animals we have coerced into forgetting the stars. 

The turtles that visit the beaches around Seybaplaya are Hawksbills. It can be taken as read that whichever turtle you witness here is one of these, known as the Carey in Spanish, Eretmochelys imbricata in the given Latin. ‘Critically Endangered’, classified as, although with so many species now registered as such, the term has lost some of its impact. We’ve become inured – have extinction fatigue, these days. It’s a measure of where we happen to find ourselves, except that makes it sound like an accident, when it is anything but.

The Carey is easily identified by its curved beak with sharp cutting edge, and the serrated fringes of its shell margins. 

But what links it to all other sea turtles, perhaps more than the carapace or its tranquil nature, is that when on land, it sheds tears. 

When on land, sea turtles weep. 

Luis walks the beach with a stick. He isn’t particular – he doesn’t have a signature stick – he just picks up the first one he sees. And as he walks, he talks. Luis definitely talks. Some people tell you things, try to impress you, give you facts, but Luis just reels off stream-of-consciousness nest locations and how much he misses beer what with the pandemic-related alcohol ban and where the best prawns in Seyba can be found and how the pandemic has cancelled all metal music weekends and how unbelievably cold it was in New York that one time and how ridiculous he looks in the photographs where you can only see his eyes for all the wool – and as he tells you all this, as a brother might, you see how as he goes he is also prodding the sand, non-stop, in certain areas, not stopping, walking and prodding, as though it was some kind of tic he has, and then suddenly he stops and forgets that bar in Manhattan and says, clearly, precisely: “Here.” He gets on his knees and starts shovelling sand out from under him, and I wonder if that is how he always dug or if he learnt that from the turtles, but I don’t ask because he has stopped talking and when he stops talking it means something, and then suddenly Luis is standing in front of me holding an egg up to the light. “Look,” he says, “can you see it’s translucent? It’s a good nest. A few days – less than a week – to go. I’ll check them again tomorrow and probably move them then. Just in case.”

Luis usually moves eggs from their nest to an incubator two or three days before they hatch. It means that he can monitor the births directly at home, and where a nest breaking open would usually leave slower eggs and hatchlings vulnerable to predators, he can keep them safe and release them in waves, maximising the number that reach the water. He tends to release them in the evening, just as the sun sets, minimising visibility to predators as well as giving the turtles the best possible chance to get out beyond the lights of the town. 

“Numbers are up,” he says. “All along the coast. Who knows whether it’s an anomaly or if something significant is really happening out there. Still, up or down, it doesn’t change anything here on the beach, for us; it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the work – one turtle or two hundred – we’ll still be here – because as much as the actual work itself, what we’re doing is making a particular kind of human argument.”

Luis Antonio Góngora Dominguez is right, of course, and it’s a point that’s often forgotten in conservation, where people exclusively measure across population indices and cost-benefit analysis, largely forgetting the great, central immeasurable: that working to help things beyond ourselves, people or animals or landscape, humanises us. 

Because civilisation is not about the clean water in our pipes, or the asphalt in our roads, but about how interwoven our community must be for the common good; a common good which cannot be human-specific, but must necessarily be blind, big-picture, selfless; a societal common good driven by everything but ourselves. 

Luis Antonio Góngora Dominguez is a biologist and founder of Yuumtsil Káak Náab, who works sea turtle conservation in the beaches around Seybaplaya, which is where he lives his days when not attending metal music festivals, or visiting his tattooist to request increasingly audacious designs. 

Jon Bonfiglio covers news and environment for a variety of international news outlets and magazines, and can be regularly heard on UK station talkRadio where he serves as Latin America Correspondent. He is also the co-founder and executive director of Ninth Wave.