There are many reasons that a turtle conservation organization like Ayotlcalli should not exist. The group was started by a school teacher, Damaris Marin-Smith and her husband Gene Smith who had no experience with sea turtles and no experience with running a nonprofit. Heck, she was afraid of the ocean and didn’t like sand or mosquitoes, let alone saw herself leading an effort to protect an ocean creature! But there she is, inspiring her community to protect turtles and their nests, educating kids, and showing the older and better funded organizations how it should be done. Ayotlcalli has succeeded over the past decade with minimal financial support but a boatload of passion and enthusiasm.
Walking around the communities of Barra de Potosi, Zihuatanejo, and Ixtapa with Damaris is like being in the entourage of a celebrity. People’s faces light up when she arrives and everyone wants a hug. It is difficult to go more than 30 minutes around this area with her and not meet one of her many volunteers.
Ayotlcalli, which means “Place of the Turtle” in the indigenous Nahua language, began in 2011 when Damaris was visiting family in Zihuatanejo. An ecologist friend who lived there told her about the sea turtles nesting in this area and the problems they were facing including people eating turtles and their eggs, as well as feral dogs. In the evening, the friend took Damaris out to the beach to see a nest of hatchlings that a community member had saved and was releasing and later she saw a nesting turtle. The tears that flowed from the turtles eyes while expelling the salt water caused Damaris to tear up herself, and from there she was hooked.
In the first years of the project, Damaris and Gene played the role of international donors, funding the construction of a hatchery and supporting the effort out of her pocket from her home in Houston, Texas. That first nesting season, the work started late and only found a couple of nests, but they kept working at it, and the following season they had much more success. However, by the third year of the project, her friend decided to move and Damaris was going to close the project. But some of the volunteers working there at the time convinced her to keep going and helped to manage the project over the next few seasons.
Her reach goes well beyond the turtles nesting on the three beaches where Ayotlcalli works; her popular camps attract kids both wealthy and not wealthy, for two weeks of learning about the natural world. From hands on work with the turtles, to cleaning the beaches, observing whales, visiting local wildlife refuges, and more, Damaris puts her teaching skills to work. The kids learn leadership and build social skills while gaining an appreciation for wildlife and their extraordinary community. (SEE Turtles has provided financial support for the camp.)
In 2017, Damaris retired from teaching in Houston and instead of relaxing or traveling the world, she and Gene began to manage the organization directly. She threw herself into learning about these animals and how to best protect them. She attended conferences and symposia to build her knowledge, meeting experts like Dr. Andy Coleman, Assistant Professor of Biology at Talladega College, who visited and provided guidance as the program grew.
The areas where Ayotlcalli works include Playa Larga, Playa Blanca, and Barra de Potosi, in addition to supporting efforts on nearby Ixtapa Island. They work to protect four species of sea turtles that nest in this area, including the critically endangered hawksbill, the locally endangered leatherback, olive ridleys, and black turtles (a sub-species of the green turtle). Each season, they protect more than 800 olive ridley nests along with a handful of nests of the other species. They release more than 80,000 hatchlings each season, protecting nearly 90 percent of the nests, which is a tremendous accomplishment on long beaches with few staff. Our Billion Baby Turtles program provided a grant in 2021 and we plan to continue supporting the project in future seasons.
On our recent visit, my colleague Dr. Adriana Cortes and I were impressed by Damaris’ energy and sincerity. But as we visited their hatchery (where the nests are watched until hatching), we were caught by surprise as she showed us Ayotlcalli’s data collection system. Where most sea turtle organizations continue to use data sheets on paper (even the most well-funded organizations do this), Damaris pulled out her phone and opened an app. With fields for all of the information any turtle project could want to collect, volunteers can fill out all of the data, collect the exact GPS location of the nest, and immediately notify Damaris. The hatchery was on a similar system, with alerts for when nests are ready to hatch, which species is which nest, and more. It was the most advanced data collection system either of us had ever seen (and we have visited a lot of turtle nesting beaches between us). The system was set up by local expat volunteers Mitchell Thorp and Patty Sullivan, who were able to get the app cost donated.
But as great as this system is, Damaris’ most impressive skill is her teaching. We brought a group of friends to visit and release hatchlings one evening, and her presentation was one of the most entertaining and engaging sea turtle talks I’ve ever seen. Adults and kids alike were enthralled by her love for these animals. Adriana and I even learned new things from her hatchling release, such as using individual bowls for each hatchling, which eliminated the need for disposable plastic gloves while still giving each person an intimate experience with their hatchling. The entire sea turtle community could learn a lot by Damaris and Ayotlcalli, SEE Turtles hopes to help make that happen.