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Xcacel Turtle Sancutry - attack of the killer crabs

Written on: Wednesday June 17th, 2009

A journal entry from: Cycle Mexico - Panama

 June 13th - 14th

We decided that we would like to try and find the camping place that Merak from Croco-cun had mentioned, where we might see some turtles and crabs. After 20.5 km cycling we saw a sign for Xcacel, the name of the beach we were looking for. Not knowing what to expect we cycled down the sandy lane and spoke to a guard at the entrance. We asked if we could camp and he said yes, no problem. He told us however that we weren´t allowed to go to the beach after dark as that is when the turtles come ashore to nest.

Near to the beach we met some of the people who worked at the turtle sanctury - nearly all of them are volunteers and they said that we could meet up with them that night and go patrolling for turtles. Sounded great so we went to set up camp.


A short walk from the campsite was a magical spot, a small cenote (freshwater filed limestone cavity) that was beautiful for swimming. The water was cool and unbelievably clear, with lots of little fish swimming around who seemed to like to nibble our toes.


 Back at camp we began to prepare our dinner, and as the light faded we noticed a few small hermit crabs appear from the jungle. Then we noticed a few more, and some much larger ones and then 10´s and 10´s of them appeared and all seemed to be intent on joining us for dinner! We were being invaded by, what seemed like, hundreds of the crabs. Looks the name is not so well deserved. We hurridly finshed our meals in the darkness, torches flahing about to make sure none got too close to us. Crabs are cute when they come in ones and twos, but a bit more disturbing when they come in their hundreds!

 We packed up the meals and made ourselves ready to go turtle finding, when we hard a loaud scraping on the tree just next us. We got a shock, as staring us in the eyes at head height was an enourmous crab, with a giant claw. We didn´t know crabs were such good climbers and suddenly the tent didn´t look so safe!

We headed off to meet the volunteers on the beach in the hope of seeing a turtle. They lead us down the beach and explained a bit about what they were doing. They work form 9pm to about 5 am every night, patrolling the beach.They find the turtles that come to nest and record information about them such as shell size, different markings etc. and also tag the turtles to keep track of them. This helps them to get an idea of the turtle population and understand if it is rising or declining. One of beaches where the turtles nest is also used by beachgoers and so ocasionally it is neccesary to move the nests to prevent them from being damaged, or sometimes move them due to potential tidal damage. 

In the darkness ahead one of the volunteers saw a turtle track. We went to investigate and she explained that it was a track from a large green turtle. She knew this becasue the green turtles uses both flippers simultaneously to propel itself along the beach (as apose to the leatherback turtle which uses alternate flippers). The turtle had made its way all the way up to the top of the beach and was preparing its nest.

Once we knew the turtle had begun to lay its eggs we approached quietly, with lights low. In the dim light we saw a huge shadow lying in a hole in the sand. We couldn´t belive the size of the turtle! The volunteers measured the shell at 118cm long. It was a big one. The turtle didn´t seem to be bothered by our presence, apparently she goes into a sort of trance when laying the eggs.

Unfortunately the nesting spot was on the beach used by beachgoers and it was neccesary to move it. We watched as the turtle layed her eggs in the nest and one of the volunteers carefully collected them and put them in a bag to be relocated later. In total there were 125 eggs, most of the perfectly spherical, just a bit bigger than a golf ball.

Once she had laid all her eggs she breathed a heavy sigh (relief maybe?) and slowly clambered forward a couple of flipper flips. After short break she began to cover the nest in sand by spraying it backwards with her flippers. She gradually moved forwards, spraying sand (on the nest, onto us, onto everything around as well!) However it was suprisingly effective and it took about 45 minutes to totally fill in the nest. She ended up several meters away from where she started. A lot of work for an empty nest........ 

We watched her make her way back down the beach and swim away in the darkness. It was an amazing experience, and we felt very lucky to have been able  to witness it. During this time one of the team members had dug a hole in the ground for the eggs. It takes a long time to learn how to dig a nest similar to the turtles. The eggs had begun to harden and become less translucent - there is only 5 hours in which to relocate the eggs before they become damaged. We both placed the eggs from the bag into the new nest carefully, and the turtle sanctury volunteer showed how to cover it in sand so that was some air trapped in there for the baby turtles to breathe when they hatched.

It had been a great experience and we felt very happy going back to the tent, even though we were probably going to be eaten alive by the invading killer crabs. Luckily we weren´t and slept soundly as we were so tired.

 Total km = 134


From Jean on Jun 18th, 2009

I love the turtles but not keen on the crabs!