Saturday, January 25, 2014

Little Green Lies

We took Elizabeth the other evening to help usher some brand new baby sea turtles into the ocean. She's got her tutu dress on, not for the occasion but because she doesn't wear much else these days. For most people, a tutu isn't an especially good look, but it works for her.

It worked especially well with the turtles, because when you're wading in the surf and need both hands free for nudging and flipping tiny wriggling creatures, you want a skirt that doesn't drag its hem. A tutu is just the thing.

"Helping" tiny olive ridley turtles through the perilous first moments of their seaborne lives is one of a growing number of experiences now being actively marketed here and throughout the destination tropics under the rubric of "eco-tourism."

You hardly need the spin to draw a crowd for a turtle launch. The little guys are so cute, waving their flippers and crawling all over each other. They look like tiny rubber wind-up toys. Who wouldn't want to give them a hand?

We were part of a van load of a half dozen or so who showed up at the hatch site in Nuevo Vallarta and found an enthusiastic throng of a hundred or more who had bought tickets at one or another of the hotels and condos that lined the beach.

They were mere tourists. As eco-tourists we sailed past the envious multitude like Paris Hilton at the Monkey Bar and entered the nursery enclosure to receive our portion of the day's hatch first.

Several things qualified us for the preferential treatment. First, we were repeatedly assured that our guide was an actual marine biologist with field research experience.

Second, although we were dying to take our bucket of babies to the water, we were treated first to a lecture on turtle life cycle, mating and reproductive habits, and the horrifying gauntlet of existential threats they run from the moment of birth and even before. Such as loss of habitat to the likes of us.

Third, our guide gave us expert instruction on how to introduce the hatchlings to the bay, casting scornful glances at the crowd of untutored hoi polloi who by now were at the water's edge yelling boisterous encouragement to their own bunch.

They had not been carefully taught, as we had, to use three fingers -- two on top, one below -- to hold the little ones, and to avoid squeezing them too hard or stepping on any turtle that got washed back to the beach.

Fourth and foremost, we paid a lot more to be there. Our guide told us our fees would help fund turtle aid projects, net only of the cost of transporting us from town.

That of course is where the eco-rubber really hit the road, or so we hope. I know there are some opportunities to join real research teams and contribute useful unskilled labor to a beneficial project.

But around here, you can be an eco-tourist just by paying a premium price to watch whales, observe young crocodiles in the tiny estuary grudgingly left untouched by developers behind the hotel zone, take a bird walk, or even to ride a zip line through a jungle canopy.

The only other requirement is willingness to spend a few solemn moments in guided consideration of how fragile is life on the planet, and to endure a small dose of guilt over your own heedless part in making it that way.

That's enough. Everybody back in the water.

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