Sea Turtle Los Cabos

Located at the very tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, the sun-drenched resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are renowned for their beautiful beaches, lively nightlife, and incredible sport fishing. However, this coastal paradise is also home to an amazing array of marine life, including one of nature's most fascinating, beloved and endangered creatures — the sea turtle.

Sea Turtle Los Cabos

For visitors to Los Cabos interested in learning more about these incredible animals and opportunities to see them in their natural habitat, this guide covers everything you need to know about the sea turtles that call this corner of Mexico home, such as:

What species of sea turtles can be found in Los Cabos?

What is the life cycle of a sea turtle?

When is sea turtle nesting and hatching season?

Why are sea turtles endangered?

Who protects sea turtles in Mexico and Los Cabos?

Where can I see sea turtles?

How can I help protect sea turtles?

 

What species of sea turtles can be found in Los Cabos?

Five of the world's seven sea turtle species can be found swimming in the warm waters of the Los Cabos region. These reptilian migrants travel thousands of miles across the oceans each year, three of these, the olive ridley, green and leatherback turtles return to Baja's shorelines to lay their eggs on the very same beaches where they were born decades earlier. The loggerhead and hawksbill frequent our waters to feed.

Green Sea Turtle in Los Cabos

Green Sea Turtle

The iconic green turtle is what most people envision when they think of a sea turtle. Named for the green hue of its body fat, not the color of its shell, this species can weigh over 300 pounds and is found all around the tip of Baja. Greens primarily eat seagrasses and seaweeds, which gives their fat its greenish color and helps maintain healthy reefs and meadows.

 

 

Loggerhead Sea Turtle in Los Cabos

Loggerhead Sea Turtle 

Easily recognizable by its enormous reddish-brown head, the loggerhead is a powerful swimmer able to migrate across entire oceans. These carnivorous hunters feed on crabs, shrimps, and other shellfish. A critically endangered species. You may run into one while snorkeling during the summer months.

 

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle in Los Cabos

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

A smaller tropical sea turtle named for its narrow, pointed beak-like mouth. Hawksbills feed primarily on sponges, keeping coral reefs healthy, which is where you are most likely to see them. Their beautifully patterned shells were once a major target of the tortoiseshell trade before protections. Now, their presence indicates a healthy reef ecosystem.

 

 

Leatherback Sea Turtle or Laud

Leatherback Sea Turtle

The leviathan of the turtle world, leatherbacks (laud in Spanish)can reach over six feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds. As the name implies, they have leathery black skin covering their large frame instead of a hard shell. One of the deepest divers, they feed almost exclusively on jellyfish in the open ocean. Occasionally, these behemoths visit Cabo's waters.

 

 

Olive Ridley or Golfina

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

The most abundant species in the region, the olive ridley, is on the smaller side, typically two feet long and 100 pounds. Named for the olive-green color of their heart-shaped carapace, these social turtles gather in huge numbers to lay eggs on beaches like those found in Cabo in incredibly synchronized nestings called "arribadas."

 

What is the life cycle of a sea turtle?

This species has been roaming the seas for 100 million years, outliving the dinosaurs by some 65 million years. Let's dive into the incredible life cycle of these captivating creatures. 

It all begins on a moonlit beach as a massive female sea turtle drags herself ashore to dig a nest in the sand and deposit her clutch of ping-pong ball-sized eggs. With her eyes leaking salty tears (a physical response to digging in the sand), she uses her rear flippers to dig a two-foot-deep egg chamber to lay her bounty of up to 200 eggs. After covering the nest with sand, her mission accomplished, she returns to the ocean, leaving the fertilized eggs incubating underground for the next two months.

 

Enter the great miracle of nature: those little white orbs begin to crack open as dozens of hatchlings use a temporary egg tooth to break free from their shells. These tenacious swimmers, each only a couple inches long, instinctively head toward the brightest horizon, which on undisturbed beaches leads them safely to the ocean. Once in the water, they enter a period called the "swimming frenzy" — staying awake and swimming continually for about 24 hours until they reach offshore currents.

This first journey is truly treacherous, as the babies face countless predators like fish, sharks, birds and crabs waiting to make a meal of them. Those that do survive enter what biologists call a "lost years" period that can last over a decade. During this time, they ride looping currents in the open ocean, taking shelter under lines of seaweed and feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, and sea grasses. Remarkably, these tiny swimmers can migrate about 20 miles in a single day by swimming constantly day and night.  Surviving this gauntlet is a monumental feat, with estimates suggesting only one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 hatchlings reach adulthood.

 

Those that do make it through this aptly named "lost years" period go through an incredible transformation. They develop the ability to actively swim against currents and find their way back to the same coastal areas where they were born. Upon nearing adulthood, around 15 to 50 years of age depending on the species, they settle into a cycle of migrating between feeding grounds and nesting grounds.  

Satellite tracking has revealed sea turtles are true globetrotters, with some species traveling over 10,000 miles between locations. Females return to their natal beaches every two to five years to continue the cycle by laying eggs of their own. One olive ridley turtle was documented swimming over 20,000 miles — the circumference of the entire planet — before nesting!

 

Turtle swimming near Los Cabos

When is sea turtle nesting and hatching season in Los Cabos?

In Los Cabos, prime sea turtle nesting season is May through typically. Playa Los Cerritos near Todos Santos, Costa Azul in San Jose, and beaches around the East Cape area are just some of the areas where turtles nest year after year. Turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests 45 to 60 days after the eggs are laid.

 A turtle can lay eggs up to four times in one season every two years.

Nesting in warmer months means their eggs receive the ideal incubation temperature needed for the gender ratio of hatchlings to balance out in the next generation. Too cool and the nests would produce mostly males. Too hot and the reverse happens. This temperature-dependent sex determination is just one reason why nesting season is so crucial to sustaining turtle populations. 

Kids watching how a turtle nests in Los Cabos

Beach visitors during nesting season must exercise caution by not driving on the beach, removing any chairs, umbrellas, or pits at night, securing trash, and turning off bright lights that could disorient nesting females or hatchlings making their way to the sea. If you come across a nesting turtle, don’t startle her, and make sure you establish a perimeter around her nest to protect it and notify authorities. If you see someone digging up a nest, ask them to identify themselves to ensure they are not poachers.

 

Turtle eggs being protected

Who protects sea turtles in Mexico and Los Cabos?

The biggest threats to sea turtles are coastal development degrading beach ecosystems, artificial lighting disorienting mother turtles and hatchlings, impacts of beachfront activities like ATV riding, and poaching of turtles and their eggs. An estimated 10% of turtle nests along Mexico’s Pacific coast are still poached each year to fuel the black market demand, despite stiff penalties.

 

On a nationwide level, the Mexican government has taken important steps to protect the sea turtle. PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente) is the government program tasked with defending Mexico's remaining sea turtle populations from an array of human-caused impacts. 

Counting sea turtles in Los Cabos

PROFEPA is overseen by SEMARNAT, the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

Researchers and biologists gather reams of field data on nesting patterns, egg relocation, and hatchling output to guide decision-making. Coastal development projects are meticulously evaluated for potential impacts on turtle habitats before getting green-lit.

Baby turtles coming out of nest in Los Cabos

One key effort receiving robust SEMARNAT funding is the national expansion of controlled hatcheries — guarded areas where tens of thousands of eggs are relocated and allowed to incubate safely before hatchlings get an escort to the ocean. At hatcheries like those operated in Los Cabos and near Todos Santos, every arrival is celebrated as reinforcement for the next generation's survival odds.

In some parts of Mexico, SEMARNAT, with assistance from the Mexican Navy, conducts clandestine beach stakeouts. PROFEPA inspectors also conduct vehicle inspections at security checkpoints across coastal highways, searching for contraband shipments of eggs, which can go for as much as $4 each on the international black market. Turtle meat was considered a delicacy and the decorative shells were also highly sought after which led to a drastic decline in the sea turtle population. Harvesting turtles and their eggs has been banned in Mexico since 1990.

Beyond shutting down the illegal wildlife trade, reducing accidental bycatch in commercial fishing operations is another crucial priority. Untold numbers of endangered sea turtles are caught annually as bycatch in Mexico's shrimping and longline fishing fleets. To mitigate the crisis, PROFEPA spearheads initiatives requiring all commercial shrimpers to use turtle excluder devices in their nets, allowing any trapped turtles to safely escape. Non-compliant boats face steep fines and gear confiscation.

Release of turtles from fishing

While regulations have improved the situation, black market fishing persists, both from smaller pirate vessels and skyrocketing demand from industrial longline fleets targeting lucrative catches like tuna and swordfish. Miles upon miles of longlines baited with thousands of hooks inevitably ensnare untold numbers of turtles and other non-targeted marine life each year. To address the crisis, PROFEPA partners with nonprofits and fishing communities on bycatch reduction initiatives like using circle hooks designed to avoid throat hooking turtles and improved monitoring aboard longline vessels.

Locally, one of the sea turtles’ greatest champions is Dr. Graciela Tiburcio Pintos who heads up the Los Cabos municipality’s turtle protection office. Originally from Veracruz, Tiburcios is a renowned biologist with deep roots in Baja California Sur, 

Graciela Tiburcio y Jose Luis Escalante

As a founding member of the Network for the Protection of Sea Turtles in Los Cabos, Tiburcio has played a vital role in promoting public awareness about the importance of preserving and protecting these marine creatures.

In her 26th year protecting sea turtles in Los Cabos, Tiburcio has shown remarkable perseverance with equally remarkable results. The sea turtle network in Los Cabos has released more than five million precious hatchlings, giving them the best chance possible to make it to adulthood and continue the survival of this adored marine species. 

 

“I am very proud of the community mainly that has taken this program as its own. Today it is a program that will survive with or without biologists, with or without authorities, because it now belongs to the community, it is already a program that the community has appropriated and is trained for it, so that makes us feel very, very proud and safe,” Tiburcio told a Mexican newspaper in 2023. 

Forming part of the local protection network are a number of groups and hundreds of volunteers. During nesting season teams of volunteers and biologists meticulously patrol the beaches at night, carefully relocating any newly laid eggs to secure hatcheries away from harms like poaching and beach erosion.

 

Once safely reburied in a hatchery corral, the nests are tended to for the roughly 50-day incubation period before tiny hatchlings begin to emerge. The most critical work begins when teams of volunteers carefully excavate each nest under supervision and document hatching success rates.

Turtle Release at Tortuga Bay

Once the tiny hatchlings are given a clean bill of health, it's graduation day - they're carefully collected into buckets and released during outgoing wave cycles. As the dawning sun crests above the horizon, scores of quarter-sized hatchlings can be seen furiously flapping their paddled fins toward the surf. For the lucky ones, it's the first of what will hopefully be a long journey to adulthood spanning multiple decades and tens of thousands of miles in the open ocean.

 

But turtle protection groups’ efforts don't stop once the babies hit the water. Teams also focus on curbing future threats by conducting educational outreach with visitors, resorts, construction crews, and local communities. Classroom programs teach children about the importance of lights-out policies, removing beach litter, especially plastic bags which turtles confuse with jellyfish, and reporting poachers. Partnerships promote sustainable development practices on coastal properties to leave adequate beach corridor space.

 

The uphill battle seems to be slowly paying off, with signs that turtle populations may finally be stabilizing in Los Cabos, and each delicate hatchling that sprints across the sand toward the crashing waves is a tiny ambassador signifying that hope. Thanks to the commitment of Los Cabos conservationists, that miracle will live on for generations to come.

 

How can I see sea turtles in Los Cabos?

There are numerous opportunities for visitors to Los Cabos to see and interact with sea turtles in safe and responsible ways. 

 

In Los Cabos, ASUPMATOMA is a preservation and education group focused on protecting sea turtles. They can help you attend a hatchling release, but also have opportunities for volunteers to help them with their turtle camps, conducting night patrols, recovering eggs from nests, helping with turtle releases, and educating the public about this vital species. 

In Todos Santos, Tortugueros Las Playitas offers similar opportunities. They also operate an incubation greenhouse which creates the ideal sand temperature, maximizing hatch rates and thus balancing gender ratios. Beginning in December or January, they host near-daily hatchling releases that are free to the public.  

 

Many hotels and eco-tour providers offer visitors the chance to help release newly hatched baby turtles into the sea after emerging from their nests. Developments like the aptly named Tortuga Bay have also had their own beachside turtle nursery for years.

Turtle release at Tortuga Bay

An incredible experience, these release events both raise awareness about sea turtles while also giving the hatchlings a helping hand in their race against predators to reach the safety of the waves.

 

Another way to see turtles is to strap on your snorkeling gear. You can often spot sea turtles grazing and swimming around rock outcroppings, coral reefs, and bays around Cabo, such as Chileno, Santa Maria, or up the East Cape road to Cabo Pulmo.. Green and hawksbill turtles are most common to see snorkeling, while loggerheads and others may be spotted from boats or swimming from beaches.

If your timing is right and the moon is favorable, those living or staying on the beach can regularly spot females arriving on shore under cover of darkness, scurrying through the sand to dig nests and lay eggs. 

If you're intrigued by the prospects of swimming with sea turtles, watching them nest, or learning firsthand about regional conservation efforts during your vacation, be sure to do some research ahead of time. Contact legitimate organizations and learn about tangible support you can offer like "adopting a nest" or donating to these nonprofits fighting for turtles’ survival.