All eight of the world’s sea turtle species are considered endangered, thanks to a combination of antiquated fishing practices, habitat destruction — particularly of the beaches where they nest — and a taste for turtle products that has proved hard to break in many coastal communities.
Four turtle species — hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, green, and loggerhead — nest on the shores of the Yucatán Peninsula , and until relatively recently they were a common supplement to the regional diet.
Turtles make easy prey, especially females clambering on shore to lay eggs. They are killed for their meat, fat, and eggs, which are eaten or saved for medicinal purposes, as well as their shells, which are used to make amberlike jewelry, combs, and other crafts.
Various environmental protection organizations in the Yucatán have joined forces with the Mexican government to protect sea turtles and their habitat; they have developed breeding programs and maintain strict surveillance of known nesting beaches to stop poaching. It is strictly prohibited to capture and trade sea turtles or their products in Mexico.
Travelers can do their part to protect these ancient creatures by not buying products like leather, oils, or tortoiseshell products, or foods made with their eggs or meat.
On Isla Cozumel , travelers also can volunteer to help monitor sea turtle nests and to help release hatchlings into the sea. Nesting season runs from May to September, and volunteers are welcome to join biologists on nighttime walks of Cozumel’s beaches, locating and marking new nests, and even helping move vulnerable eggs to protected hatcheries.
Hatchings are released from July to November; this typically happens at sundown and involves directing turtles toward the sea (without touching them) and scaring off birds in search of an easy meal.
Dirección Municipal de Ecología y Medio Ambiente (Calle 11 at Av. 65, tel. 987/872-5795) is the governmental agency that monitors Cozumel’s sea turtles and manages volunteer opportunities. It maintains a mobile visitors center (9:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 3:30–5:30 p.m. daily May–Nov. only, free) in a small trailer, usually parked on the roadside near Playa San Martín on the eastern side of the island. Inside are a handful of aquariums, Plexiglas-enclosed nests, and more; stop by for information on upcoming beach walks and hatchling releases, or just to learn a little more about these endearing — and highly endangered — creatures.
There is no fee to look around or to volunteer, though donations are appreciated. Spanish is useful but not required.
Similar volunteer opportunities also are available in Akumal at the Centro Ecológico Akumal  (CEA, tel. 984/875-9095, www.ceakumal.org ) as well as on Isla Mujeres at Tortugranja  (Carr. Sac Bajo 5, tel. 998/888-0507).