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Written by SARAH McCRAW   
Wednesday, 13 June 2012 15:41

Mark Hiller and Jessica Schmidt have a special place in their hearts for sea turtles and devote part of their lives to protecting them on the Pacific coast of Mexico

Mark Hiller and Jessica Schmidt were a long way from their home in Port Washington, riding through the night in a dune buggy along a remote Pacific Ocean beach, when they heard the scream.

    “Poacher.”

    The chase was on, and although the thief got away, he left behind his precious plunder — a bag of Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs stolen from the beach of San Francisco, Nayarit, Mexico.

    Hiller and Schmidt are turtle defenders. Every year, they travel to this small, quaint village just north of Puerto Vallarta to work with Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde overseeing a natural marvel called the arribada, the mass nesting of turtles that gather off beaches in the hundreds of thousands, then come ashore at once to lay their eggs in the sand.

    Their job is to ward off poachers who steal and sell turtle eggs as aphrodisiacs, collect and protect the eggs and, finally, shepherd baby turtles into the Pacific Ocean.

    “I just feel a really selfishly great feeling of reward from doing his,” Hiller said. “I feel so satisfied with myself at the end of the day.”

    Turtle protecting is just part of the dual lives of Hiller and Schmidt, who are engaged to be married, lead.

    Hiller, 31, is a financial planner for a Milwaukee firm.

    Schmidt, 27, a cook at the Pasta Shoppe in Port Washington, is an artist with a fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    Not surprisingly, her big, bold, three-dimensional murals, as well as her nuanced charcoal drawings, are inspired by sea turtles and other marine life she has seen during her work in Mexico.

    “Most of this artwork pertains to the turtle organization and stuff that I have seen, or would like to see one day, and my interpretation of local stories,” Schmidt said while at the Java Dock in Port Washington, where her turtles, whales and fish grace the walls.

    Schmidt donates some of the proceeds from the sale of her art to Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde to protect the creatures that are her muses.

    “I thought it was really, really cool that she donates part of her profits to this group, so I decided if she sold anything we would help her out,” Java Dock manager Nichole Kloss said. “I think saving or preserving any wildlife is a good cause.”

    Animals aren’t the only benefactors of Schmidt’s philanthropy. Knowing well the inspirational powers of art, Schmidt collects old crayon pieces, most of which come from the Pasta Shoppe after they have been used by children to entertain themselves while waiting for dinner, and melts them down to makes new crayons to give to poor Mexican children.

    But the time for making crayons is over. It’s June, time to pack away her art, take leave from her job and head back to the beaches of Mexico with Hiller.

    Armed with a flashlight, Styrofoam containers and a long stick used to locate nests buried in the sand, the couple travels down the beach during the night in search of the unmistakable divots of turtle tracks.

    Volunteers collect between 80 and 120 turtle eggs from each nest and pack them in layers of sand in the containers.

    The eggs are taken to one of two nurseries maintained by the group and hatch about 45 days later.

    Once the turtles are born, volunteers return them to the beach and provide assistance as they make their way to the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

    “You kind of have to prep the area. You have to bury crab holes because they’ll fall in and the crabs will eat them. You have to make sure dogs stay away, make sure birds stay away, make sure people stay within a safe distance from them,” Schmidt said.

    The marine turtle protection program was created nearly 20 years ago by Frank D. Smith, a retired worker with the U.S. Forest Service.    

    While the 100-pound Olive Ridley turtles are beautiful to look at, Schmidt said the volunteer job can be messy at times, particularly when old or broken eggs have to be cleaned out from nests.

    Once in awhile an exhausted turtle will need to be stirred awake during her nesting mission that usually lasts about 45 minutes.

    “Sometimes a turtle will fall asleep while she’s laying her eggs and it will be late at night, so you’ll have to give them a little tap or flip their fin to wake them up and get them going again,” Hiller said.

    Very rarely will a turtle that comes to shore need to see a veterinarian.

    One time, Hiller and Schmidt had to take a turtle that swallowed a fisherman’s hook to an animal hospital.

    “We were able to get them (the local veterinarian) to purchase a special tool that removes a fishing hook if it gets stuck,” Schmidt said.

    Volunteers have asked fishermen to ditch their single hooks and use treble hooks instead because they are too big for the turtles to swallow.

    Schmidt and Hiller said they are starting to see the long-term positive effects the organization is having on the area.

    A nearby town that had poached many turtles off its beach has seen the return of nesting turtles to its shores since the group started.

    Schmidt said she feels a connection with the animals when they come up on shore.

    “I love being on the beach at night and there are so many stars because there isn’t pollution and the ocean is coming up,” she said. “It’s really fun to just watch a turtle coming out of the water or as they go in because it’s slow and awkward, but the second they hit the smallest bit of water they zoom in and they’re gone.”

    Schmidt hopes that at least one of the baby turtles she has released will make it to maturity.

    “I just like to think when I come back in 15 or 16 years, some of the turtles that come up will be ones that I’ve released,” she said.



Image Information:

Top Photo - Mark Hiller and Jessica Schmidt will soon be in Mexico protecting sea turtles during their nest season. Schmidt created the turtle-inspired artwork.   Photo by Sam Arendt

Bottom Photo - OLIVE RIDLEY TURTLES RARELY nest during the day like the one in the picture with Jessica Schmidt. Schmidt has been volunteering with Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde, a marine turtle protection program, for nearly five years.   Photo courtesy Jessica Schmidt

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