Here and There in Yucatan/Among the Turtle Catchers


The air was exquisitely soft and balmy, the moon so brilliant that every fleeting cloud was reflected in the clear water of Dolores Bay, while the white sand of the shore glittered under our feet as we sauntered along enjoying the beauty of the scene. In this peaceful bay, six miles from the eastern coast of Yucatan, the Spanish ships anchored nearly four hundred years ago. The principal industry of the villagers is fishing, and from the month of April to August, all their attention is given to turtle-catching. So, on that moon-lit night, as we strolled along the beach, men, women, and children also wended their way to the north end of the island, where all was silent as the white tombstones in the village grave-yard by which we passed. A few hastened their steps as if they feared a departed friend might stalk forth in winding-sheet.

Reaching a place where thick shrubs grew, not far from the water's edge, all concealed themselves behind the bushes or in the shadow cast by them, and from their hiding-place watched silently for the turtles. These prolific creatures come to lay their eggs in the sand, never failing to select a spot above high-water mark; consequently at low tide they have to go a good way up on the beach.

Having chosen a place, they quickly make a hole, and deposit therein about one hundred eggs, over which they again put the sand, leaving the spot in appearance as they found it; so that no one would discover the nest but for their tracks. The turtle immediately returns to the water, leaving the eggs to be hatched by the heat of the sun; in due time the little ones make their way out and go straight to the sea.

When the turtle begins to cover the eggs the people creep from their hiding-place and cut off her way to the water; then, when she starts toward them, they capture her and turn her over, not without trouble, for some weigh as much as five hundred pounds. The flaps are tied, and a mark set on the shell, so that when morning comes each party may know which they have captured. The family that catches two or three in a night is well satisfied.

The turtles have formidable jaws, and it is necessary to keep one's hands well out of their reach, for they can break a man's limb as we can a match. As for conchs—most abundant in those waters—though the shell is hard to break with a hammer, the cahuamo easily cracks it, to eat the delicious contents.

The cahuamo, or hawk-bill, is the largest kind of turtle, weighing from 200 to 500 pounds. Its flesh tastes like good beef, but is generally left on the beach to rot and be consumed by buzzards, the people not being numerous enough to eat it all, though large quantities are dried and salted to be sold as jerked beef. Speculators once went to considerable expense to try and preserve this meat, but we are told it turned bad in the cans.

The catchers gather the eggs, the fat, and shell, though the last is worth so little that they do not always take the trouble to lift it from the beach; many are scattered over the sand. The eggs are considered a great delicacy, and taste very rich, but have a strange sandiness that is unpleasant to the palate.

The carey (Chelonia imbricata) is smaller and of more value. The least the islanders will take for the shell is two and a half to three dollars a pound; rather than accept less they will keep it in their house from one year to another. The carey, as well as the green turtle, is caught with harpoons and nets. The green turtle is carried to British Honduras, where they are worth from one and a half to three dollars each, the shell not being used. The poor creatures are transported in small sailing vessels, where they lie on their backs on deck exposed to the scorching sun, and once a day have buckets of water dashed over them to keep them alive.

Large pens are built at the water's edge to keep the turtles in until shipped for the market. When they become lean, from being kept thus too long, in order that they may fatten again, they are set free in the lake that is in the interior of the island—after being branded with the mark of the owner. They never multiply there, nor make their way through the channel out to the ocean, but owing to the good aliment that they find, are soon again in fine condition for the market.

  1. Published in "Harpers' Bazar."