Green sea turtles love to hang out in the Riviera Maya in Mexico. And the place they call home more than anywhere else is Akumal. A small beach town situated between Tulum and Playa Del Carmen, the name Akumal comes from the Maya and means “place of turtles”. Each year hundreds of green sea turtles make Akumal their home. While an endangered species, the local community supports conservation efforts to protect the species. And there has been a steady increase in numbers in recent years. Find out 17 fun facts about our adorable green sea turtles.
No, it isn’t! The green sea turtle, name is not from the color of its skin or its shell. These are usually olive to black in color, not green. But because of the green-colored fat found beneath the turtle's shell. The fat is green in color from the seagrasses and other vegetation they eat.
The green sea turtle is the largest hard-shell turtle in the world. The largest known green turtle weighed 871 lbs, with a shell that measured more than 5 feet! Living up to 80 years old. Generally, males are larger than females and both have a heart-shaped shell. Yet, they are graceful swimmers due to their large, paddle-like, flippers that power them through the water. Males are distinguished from females by their longer tail that visibly extends past their shell. Males usually also have longer claws on their front flippers.
“Did you know that if the temperature of a green sea turtle nest is over 30 C the hatchling turtles will be females?”
Green sea turtles play a key role within the ecosystem they live in. In the seagrass beds they love, they only eat the top of the grasses. Leaving the roots intact, and allowing the plants to thrive. In the coral reefs, they occupy they have a close relationship with the reef fish. Such as with Yellow and Blue Tang fish. The fish swim alongside the green sea turtles and feed on algae, barnacles, and parasites on its shell and flippers. The turtle provides food for the fish. While the reef fish clean the turtle. Thus improving their health and reducing the amount of drag as it swims through the water.
How do green sea turtles travel hundreds of miles in the open ocean and then return home? Since green sea turtles migrate long distances, they have developed special systems to allow them to navigate. In the open ocean, they navigate using wave direction, sunlight and temperature. But, they also have an internal magnetic compass of sorts. Through magnetic crystals in their brain, they sense the intensity of the earth's magnetic field. And thus, they can make their way back to nesting and feeding grounds after many years out at sea.
Although green sea turtles spend most of their life underwater, they need to come up for air to breathe. When reaching the surface, the turtle’s lungs take an explosive exhalation. And then take a rapid inhale replacing the air in their lungs. The green turtles’ blood delivers oxygen efficiently throughout its body. Even under high pressure when diving. During routine activity, a green sea turtle can stay underwater for several minutes, before surfacing to breathe again.
A green sea turtle in Akumal Bay coming up for air
The community of Akumal is inextricably intertwined with the sea turtles. And as a result, there are many conservation efforts. CEA is a non-profit headquartered in Akumal that leads many conservation efforts in the community. Their sea turtle conservation programs include beach patrols.
Starting mid-April teams of CEA volunteers patrol the beaches from 9 pm to 5 am. They keep a close eye out for nesting turtles, and if needed, guard the female so that she is not disturbed or scared away. Then data is collected and entered into the turtle database. This keeps track of the nests, the eggs, and the results of nesting and hatching activities. Also, each nest is marked with a stake, to show the area contains a turtle nest and should not be disturbed.
During hatching season, patrols begin at sunrise. After finding a nest that has hatched, the volunteers gently clean the nest and count the eggs. Once in a while, they’ll find a hatchling that has struggled to get out and will aid it on its way.
CEA also has other conservation programs. These include coral reef monitoring, coral reef restoration, and seagrass monitoring. All of which help the endangered green sea turtle population of Akumal to recover and grow.
Reviewed by 13,000 people, Akumal Beach ranks #1 out of 725 outdoor activities in the Riviera Maya on TripAdvisor. It is one of the most famous beaches around and is essential to visit. Whilst, the double barrier coral reef and warm Caribbean ocean make it a great place for turtles, it also gives rise to an amazing collection of tropical fish and other marine life. Above all, the snorkeling is incredible and you are almost guaranteed to swim with sea turtles.
Green sea turtles have adapted to be able to withstand some heat loss. In cooler water, they direct blood away from tissue that is more tolerant of low oxygen levels. And send the blood to the heart, brain and central nervous system. Other methods they use to generate heat are floating close to the surface of the ocean to absorb the heat from the sun. Or by increasing their activity and movement generating heat from their muscles. Turtles can even hibernate for short periods.
The Mexican Government regulates activities to protect amongst others, the green sea turtles. For example, snorkeling in Akumal is restricted in many ways. Certain areas are prohibited from access. This is to ensure that the seagrasses and the coral reef grow in these areas. Also, fins are prohibited from being used while snorkeling in Akumal bay. Again to protect the coral reef. Commercial tour operators are also limited in the number of snorkeling tours they can take. As well as on which days they can operate.
"Did you know that female green sea turtles only return to mate every 2-4 years?"
The green sea turtle eggs hatch 45-60 days after being left in the nest. The hatchlings, which are only 2 inches in size, actually remain hidden in the sand for several days. It takes them a few days to make a way to the surface. Then they all emerge together at night and instinctively head for the water. This is a dangerous time as gulls and crabs like to feed on them. Juvenile green sea turtles spend 3 – 5 years in the open ocean before they settle into a shallow-water life. Due to the predatory environment that they live in only 1% of hatchling actually make it to sexual maturity (estimated to be 20 – 50 years old).
Green sea turtles are shown as endangered on the list of threatened species. The scale goes from extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near threatened, to least concern. As an endangered species, it is illegal to collect, harm, or kill turtles. Threats to our beloved green sea turtles include pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. But, the main threat is from shrimp trawlers fishing off the coast. They inadvertently capture turtles in their nets.
The local community is very committed to conservation to protect the turtle population and other marine species. Dozens of local residents volunteer to help on many projects including CEA’s turtle patrols and conservation programs.
The two main local dive centers in Akumal beach support many programs including coral reef monitoring and restoration. For the last 30 years, they have worked closely with local conservation programs providing diving equipment, boats, and personal to help conduct annual surveys and restoration of the reef.
Other local businesses such as the Akumal Beach and Wellness Resort and Lol-Ha Restaurant and Snack Bar are sponsors of the CEA’s turtle camp each year. The program
In 2019 the turtle camp program helped secure 1084 turtle nests. Lol-Ha Restaurant and Snack Bar and Hotel Akumal Caribe for example, support CEA through direct work on the Board of Directors as well as financial help with fundraisers. In addition, their outdoor common area lighting is on sensors to turn off automatically at daylight. And, they use yellow lighting on the beach side to avoid distracting the turtles during nesting season.
The coral restoration program was established in 2014 by the Hotel Akumal Caribe. Since then in conjunction with the Akumal Dive Center and CEA, over 500 corals have been transplanted onto Akumal’s reefs.
Local businesses supporting green sea turtle and habitat conservation include Lol-Ha Restaurant (above) and the Akumal Dive Center (below).
Green sea turtles start off as carnivores eating fish eggs, molluscs, jellyfish, worms and small invertebrates. Due to the low nutritional value of their diet, they grow only slowly. As a sea turtle ages, its diet changes to become a mix of small animals and plant vegetation. Until they change completely to a vegetarian-only diet, living off mainly seagrasses and algae.
While there are many pressures on green sea turtles, local turtle conservation methods in Akumal are working. In the last 5 years alone, the total number of sea turtle nests found has increased by over 60% between 2014 and 2019. The number of green sea turtle nests found in the area in 2019 was 787. At an average of 100 eggs per nest that’s 78,000 hatchling green sea turtles that were born last year on the beaches of Akumal. There’s a reason why the name Akumal means “Place of Turtles” in the Maya language!
The temperature of turtle eggs determines their sex. Warm nesting sites, above 30C favour females, while nests that are below 30C produce males! The position of the egg in the nest also determines the sex of the baby turtle. Eggs in the center are warmer than those on the outside and so those eggs tend to hatch as females.
"Did you know that green sea turtles live up to 80 years old"
If green sea turtles are underwater for several minutes before they need more oxygen, how do they sleep? While only staying underwater for a few minutes at a time when active, turtles can rest or sleep underwater for several hours at a time. During the night when sleeping, green sea turtles, wedge themselves under rocks or ledges. This is to protect them from predators. Often the green turtles return to the same location, night after night, to sleep.
Did you know that green sea turtles once co-existed with dinosaurs? Green sea turtles began to evolve in the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago. And the prehistoric turtles co-existed with dinosaurs until the dinos went extinct 65 million years ago.
Mating season in Akumal for green sea turtles is May – September. Both males and females return to the same coastal area and beach where they were born, to mate. Males return each year, while females mate only every two to four years. After mating in the water, the female moves above the beach's high tide line. There she digs a hole up to 2 feet deep, using her hind flippers, and lays the eggs. After depositing 80-200 eggs the female green turtle covers the eggs with sand and returns to the ocean. Digging the hole, laying the eggs, and covering them up takes about 90 minutes. And the female will do this 3 to 5 times in a mating season. But only every two to four years. Can’t say I blame her – seems like a lot of effort.
If you adore turtles, as we do, then Akumal is the place to go. With hundreds of green sea turtles hanging out, mating, and grazing on the seagrasses it’s the capital city for sea turtles. Hopefully, the 17 fun facts about our adorable green sea turtles have whetted your appetite to come and check them out. Responsibly of course. If you are interested in going snorkeling in Akumal you’ll want to read our Insiders Guide to Akumal Snorkeling. It’s a must-read before you go. And if you want to take a guided tour, don’t forget to claim your coupon for 10% off a snorkeling tour.
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