BlueCommunities Turtle Conservation Project Aims To Repeat Record Results

Guided by the pale moonlight peeking through the clouds above, Luis Antonio Góngora Domínguez walks his careful patrol along the Payucan beachfront in the Campeche state of southern Mexico. There is no one else in sight, but he knows he is not alone.

Plastic pollution in Seybaplaya, Mexico

Plastic waste collected in a 2020 cleanup at Puyacan beach in Seybaplaya, Mexico.

Weaving between the vast array of broken glass, plastic, and other relics from last weekend’s partygoers, he scans the water’s edge as he has done a hundred times before. For a moment, he wonders if he will have to postpone the rendezvous for another night. But as if right on cue, out of the corner of his eye, he sees what he’s been waiting for; a Hawksbill sea turtle emerging from the ocean, ready to reclaim its nesting ground for the upcoming summer season. 

Named for its distinguishable beak-like mouth, the Hawksbill is the smallest of the seven common sea turtle species. Weighing between 100-200lbs and bearing a shell up to 3ft in length, the creature inhabits various tropical and subtropical marine areas across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, due to a range of factors — namely plastic pollution, coastal development, and illegal hunting for their shells — over 80% of the Hawksbill population has been lost in the last 100 years. 


Luis Gongora counts Hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings

Biologist Luis Antonio Góngora Domínguez counts Hawksbill hatchlings.

Today, as many consumers remain apathetic to serious change, and many industries continue to abuse the environment, it is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 Hawksbills will live to adulthood. This data is undoubtedly grim. However, with an inspiring turtle conservation project in its 8th year running, Luis Antonio Góngora Domínguez — biologist and founder of local socio-environmental NGO Yuumtsil Káak Náab — is working tirelessly to make a change.

“The challenges that these turtles face are innumerable. Illegal coastal development impairs their beach access, urban lighting skews their navigation — not to mention the universal scourge of plastic pollution,” explains Góngora, shaking his head as he speaks. “In our last beach clean we collected 10 huge bags of waste over a distance of only 50 yards. One full bag every 5 yards of beach. Imagine that. It’s a crisis, that simple. We’re drowning in it.”

With issues so comprehensive, the task of conservation is a demanding one. Beyond waste management, Góngora’s organization — with support from Plastic Oceans International and Ninth Wave Mexico — monitors the turtles and nests around the clock, all part of an intense and broadly-reaching custodianship that lasts six months every year. Ask any of the volunteers involved, and they will tell you it is all worth it, for the impacts on the Hawksbill species are profound. 2020, in fact, was a record-breaking year for the initiative, with over 6,400 hatchlings making it to sea.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle preparing her nest.

“Unceasing local work is the single best path to strengthening community and achieving change,” says Salvador Ávila, Executive Director for Plastic Oceans Mexico. “The statistics prove this, and not just those related to turtle nests and hatchlings, but also in terms of the number of people getting involved — day after day. It’s beautiful, it’s uplifting, and it inspires us all to strive for more.”

Notwithstanding the amazing growth of the initiative thus far, in many ways, it is just getting started. Since adding the Campeche region to its BlueCommunities initiative, Plastic Oceans International has now added the Riviera Maya as a location, with three new partners engaged in various eco projects, including turtle conservation. These BlueCommunities partnerships will not just be about cut-and-dry conservation, but true multilateral community engagement, developing beach cleanups, hands-on workshops, and youth education programs to equip these communities with the knowledge and tools they need to enact meaningful change in a locally-led, bottom-up manner. 

This model is critical to real change. If you visit Payucan, the work you see being done is not directed by some CEO thousands of miles away; it is the product of years of genuine collaboration between like-minded community members, neighbors who have seen the impacts of pollution on local ecosystems and want to make a difference.Only with such deep-rooted, genuine connectivity do you attain change with true impact and longevity. 

“All organizations talk about single actions, how every little bit helps,” continues Ávila, “and it’s all true. However, it’s also important to note that creating a network of these people, of these organizations, helps to multiply and raise exponentially the amount of impact.”

Yuumtsil Káak Náab volunteers and staff paint a turtle mural in Payucan.

Volunteers and staff paint a turtle mural at Payucan beach in Seybaplaya.

Of course, part of the beauty of this work is that anyone can get involved — and there are movements like these all over the world. So whether you want to paint murals, clean beaches and reefs, or participate in an overnight watch shift, wherever you might be, make the connection and get involved.Because big changes are happening locally — and every organization can use another pair of hands

Meanwhile, this summer, small coastal communities across southern Mexico are pushing onward stronger than ever; the impacts of which will slowly ripple, like the splash of a mother Hawksbill returning to the Gulf after releasing her eggs into the night sand. 

Isaiah Maynard is a US-based writer who covers environmental topics for a variety of publications and is part of the Environmental Journalism team at Ninth Wave Global.