In the blackest hours of the night a silent intimidating figure sits on a coral outcropping at the ocean’s edge. Cloaked in a black t-shirt, and dark pants he patiently waits.
What’s his story?
Ernesto (Tiega) Gomez Tur has worked for the Turtle Farm on Isla Mujeres for the last nine years, caretaking the giant sea turtles, and their hatchlings. Turtle season coincides with the hurricane season, May to October. Ernesto is one of the turtle farm employees patrolling the eastern beaches late at night, waiting for returning female turtles to select a spot to lay their eggs. It’s a quiet, lonely job. It’s also a job that gives him a great satisfaction. His task is to retrieve the newly-laid eggs and transport them to the turtle farm to be hatched out in relative safety, away from predators: birds, dogs, and humans.
|Ernesto when he was about forty-two|
Born on Isla Mujeres sixty-something-years ago, Ernesto had six brothers and four sisters most of whom are still living. Married for fifty years to Teresa Gomez Heredia they had eight children. The surviving seven children now have twelve offspring ranging in age from twenty years to a few months old. Many of his two hundred or so family members – brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins – frequently gather to celebrate birthdays, weddings, Quinceaños, and other special events.
When Ernesto was a small child he lived in centro (downtown) when there were approximately twenty families on the island. Later when he was a young lad he remembers helping his father farm a tract of land in Las Glorias, growing vegetables and fruits without using any chemicals. He nostalgically speaks about the abundance of fish, shrimp, lobsters, and conch in those years. Fishermen were able to support their families fishing very close to home. Unfortunately with more people, came a greater demand for seafood, and more fishermen that have dramatically reduced the supply.
|Digging out more baby turtles|
A cheerful worker, Ernesto has had a number of jobs over the years including operating a small boat between one of the local hotels, and the mainland: delivering hotel guests and transporting supplies. With his strong singing voice and engaging personality the hotel guests would joke that riding with Ernesto was like being on a gondola in Venice Italy.
When I went to the turtle farm to chat with him during his afternoon break, he was busily digging up dozens of hatched turtles in preparation for releasing them. The nests have signage indicating the area on the island where the eggs were found, the date the eggs were re-buried, and species of turtle. He casually and competently dug thorough two feet of damp sand, sorting out the broken eggs, and placing the live babies in a big plastic bucket.
Taking up to sixty days to hatch out the babies’ first instinct when they reach the surface is to get into the water. They scramble over each other. They paddle their little flippers over the sand, trying to escape. But, Ernesto’s big hand carefully scoops them up, adding them to the collection of three or four thousand that will be held for a few days until the next scheduled turtle release.
|Cookie bandits, and Ernesto,on right|
When I went to chat with Ernesto, I brought a dozen large cookies with me as a thank you gift. The strange thing is – at the end of our chat Ernesto’s co-workers had guilty grins, and cookie-crumb smiles. The bag was empty by the time Ernesto thought to look for a cookie. He laughed, a big smile lighting his face, joking with his cookie-stealing friends.
He’s not such an intimidating figure after all.
Lynda and Lawrie