Meet Damaris Marin-Smith, the founder and director of Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli

The following post is the summarization of an interview with Damaris Marin Smith in November 2018.

In 2011, Damaris started Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli in its’ current location in Playa Blanca, Guerrero which, at the time, was a vacant piece of beachfront property.

The story of Damaris’ life, how she came to establish the camp seven years ago, and how the camp has evolved is an interesting one that took her from her childhood home in Michoacán to Houston, Texas, and then to Playa Blanca in Guerrero.

Damaris was born in a small town in the mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacán where her father was a farmer.  In all, there were ten children including Damaris, the seventh child and second daughter. And she had an even bigger extended family that was so large that she says there are cousins, aunts, and uncles that she doesn’t even know.

When she was five years old, her family moved to Zitácuaro so the children could attend school because there was no school in her hometown.  There, she attended elementary and middle school.  After completing middle school in Zitácuaro she moved to Toluca in the state of Mexico to continue her studies.  In Toluca, Damaris completed two years of high school and two more years of training to become a certified teacher at the young age of eighteen.  Later, after six years of additional study, Damaris earned a master’s degree in Social Studies.

Damaris taught in Mexico for a total of nine years at all levels, including elementary, middle, and high school.  The only level she didn’t teach was Kindergarten.

In 1990, Damaris went to visit her brother Armando in Houston where he was living at the time.  While she was there, she learned of an alternative teacher certification program that was offered in Texas.  Damaris decided to apply for the program which required taking a qualification test to be accepted.  She passed the test which she credits to the fact that she was already an experienced teacher and having recently completed her master’s degree, she had many of the concepts and knowledge covered on the test fresh in her mind.

Damaris took classes at the University of St. Thomas and Southwestern University in Houston and after a year, she earned her certification allowing her to teach in Texas.  While taking courses and looking for a teaching job after she earned her certification, Damaris worked for almost two years in a daycare center.

When Damaris began teaching, she taught fifth grade bilingual students, most of whom where immigrants that had recently arrived in the United States from Mexico, Central American, and South America as well as immigrants from other parts of the world, primarily Asia.

After teaching for ten years, Damaris was named the Instructional Coordinator in her school.  She continued in that position until she retired in 2017 after twenty-four years of working as an educator.

While Damaris was working as an Instructional Coordinator, her son Enrique was injured in an accident while serving in the United State Navy.  Following his discharge while still recovering, Enrique traveled to Zihautanejo and fell in love with the beauty of the area and decided to move here.

During the few years that he lived here, he discovered the Playa Blanca property that would become the future home of Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli.  He didn’t know what exactly he wanted to do with the property but he dreamed of opening a restaurant that would take advantage of the gorgeous view even though the area was very undeveloped and the road was not even paved.  With Enrique’s vision in mind, Damaris, Enrique, and the family decided to purchase the property.

Fast forward a couple of years, Enrique decided to move back to the states and the decision was made to sell the land.  Just as they came to that conclusion, Damaris learned that their property (and the entire 15km) beach, was an active sea turtle nesting area.

A local resident that Damaris knew urged her not to sell and to consider creating some sort of sea turtle rescue and conservation camp.  Damaris didn’t know anything about sea turtles or setting up a conservation organization but decided to go for it.

Starting in 2011, she and her family, including two of her nephews, met to start planning how to create the camp and one of the first things on the agenda was coming up with a name.  Her nephew Octavio has an interest in ancient cultures and came up with the name Ayotlcalli.  A compound word that combines ayotl, meaning turtle and calli which means house or temple in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language.  So, Ayotlcalli, the temple of turtles was born

Starting with a group of volunteers from the local community of Coacoyul, Damaris and her team patrolled the beach on foot looking for nests and moved the eggs back to her property where they would be safe from poachers, dogs, and other hazards.  In that first season, patrolling as far as they could walk and carry the eggs, they were able to relocate about 200 nests (compared with a thousand so far in 2018).

Damaris was still working in Texas and wasn’t able to be here full-time so she relied on her network of volunteers to do the day-to-day work. Key among those volunteers was a young woman who had just completed a degree in marine ecology.  This volunteer took on the responsibility of running the camp with daily consultation with Damaris by phone.

The local woman that urged Damaris to start the camp also worked with Damaris for the initial three seasons, helping to establish the camp in those early days.  Eventually she left to pursue opportunities in the Caribbean but her involvement helped Damaris meet people who became volunteers, some of whom are still with the camp.

In the early years, the property remained completely undeveloped and was a rugged and harsh environment in which to work.  It was hot, there was no shelter, no amenities, just an empty, sandy lot.  Eventually, a cabin was built where Damaris and her husband Gene could stay during time at the camp and where volunteers could seek shelter from the elements.

With no prior experience working with sea turtles, Damaris, being a self-described perfectionist, set out to become as knowledgeable and educated as possible about sea turtles and the how to properly run an organization dedicated to their preservation.  Preferring to learn things on her own, she read anything she could find on the topic and attended symposiums locally and internationally where she could make a network of connections with knowledgeable and experienced people all over the world.

Resulting from her hard work, she was able to tap into that network of support to answer questions she couldn’t find through her own research or if she ever needed anything, she was able to reach out to her network for support and they are always there for her.

And, of course, she learned a great deal through her hands-on daily experiences.

Our beach is visited by three different species of sea turtles; Golfina (Olive Ridley), Prieta (Black), and Laúd (Leatherback).  The Golfina turtle is the smallest of the three, with an average length and width in the 60-70cm range.  They visit year-round but their peak season is July to February with the peak continuing some years to March or April as it did in 2017-2018.

The larger Prieta and largest (and rarest) Laúd usually have peak nesting seasons of October through February.  The Laúd can be as large as a Volkswagen beetle and weigh up to 700kg.   In all the years since the camp started and the thousands and thousands of nests hatched, Damaris is still dreaming of the night she gets to see a nesting Laúd.  Laúd nests have been found by the camp and Damaris has had releases that include hatchlings from all three species but contact with a nesting Laúd has been elusive.  All of the volunteers know that if a Laúd is encountered, the first call needs to be to Damaris, so she can realize her dream.

The camp’s nest count of over a thousand this year can be attributed to many factors, but one Damaris believes to be true is that the collective work of organizations like Ayotlcalli is making a difference and that sea turtles, while still endangered, are benefitting from conservation efforts.

On average, the female Golfina turtle starts to lay eggs as early as 13 while the female Prieta and Laúd females are between 15 and 20 years old.  With the camp being seven years old, Damaris and her team will begin to see the camp’s former hatchlings and now adult females returning to our beach in another seven or eight years.

In addition to the work or relocating sea turtle nests to the safe corral and having controlled releases that maximize the hatchlings chances of survival, Damaris focuses a lot of attention on education.  A palapa structure that is used as an outdoor educational center was built several years ago.  Whenever there is a public release at the camp, the visitors are able to attend a presentation that explains the life cycle of the sea turtles, the hazards the turtles face from humans (poaching, development, and pollution), and things that can be done in everyday life to make a difference.

As a lifelong educator, Damaris believes the key to the future of sea turtles, and the environment in general, is teaching children the importance conservation.   She said, “the most important thing is to educate the children because they are the future leaders and decision makers in regard to conservation.”

Damaris often hosts large school groups at the camp where the children learn about sea turtles and have the chance to participate in a release.  And in recent years, Damaris also started a two-week summer camp that is open to children from local communities and focuses on educating about a wide range of environment issues.

Another form of education takes place when international volunteers come to stay and work at the camp.  Damaris makes sure that each volunteer receives thorough training on the proper handling of nests, eggs, and hatchlings and learns about ways in which humans are impacting species like the sea turtles.  These volunteers can then take that knowledge back to their home countries and share what they learned.

Each year, Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli is required to apply for a permit to work with the turtles from La Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) abberivated as Semarnat.   The permit requires that we collect data on our activities and to report that data back to Semarnat where data from other organizations working with Sea Turtle conservation throughout Mexico is compiled into a national database that helps to determine how these species are faring.

Additionally, Damaris reports our data to some international organizations that compile data from conservations around the world that give a global view of the status of sea turtles in our oceans.  These international databases give the camp some interesting benefits too, things like being able to the track the number on a tagged turtle to see where the tag originated.

Through reporting to the government and these international organizations, Damaris and the camp are playing an important part of educating the world about the health of sea turtle populations globally.

While very rewarding, running the camp is hard work too and it takes Damaris away from her family in Texas more than she would like.  Sometimes she misses a grandchild’s football game or just spending time with Gene, but she is dedicated to the Camp’s mission.  And, she’s happy that many family members (Gene, daughter Tanya, son Enrique, brother Armando, and others) are involved in one way or another with the camp.  Even her brother Armando who she went to visit in Houston before moving to the U.S. lives at Casa de Tortuga and volunteers with the camp.

The work is hard also because it’s entirely reliant on volunteers and donations.  Sometimes there are not enough of one or both and Damaris must work even harder.  When the 2017-2018 peak season kept going past the normal February end, she and her right-hand volunteer Felipe patrolled together seven nights a week for two months straight.  With patrols running between midnight and dawn, that made for a lot of sleepless nights.

In closing our interview with Damaris, we asked her to share something we don’t know about her.  Her answer was that there are three things she doesn’t like about the beach; sand, mosquitos, and fear of the ocean.  She doesn’t like the sand because of the sand fleas and she doesn’t like mosquitos for obvious reasons.  And, while she’s fascinated with the ocean and loves looking at it, she finds it frightening.

Finally, Damaris shares the following advice if you have a sea turtle encounter –

  • If you’re on our beach, you can contact the camp to report the turtle (or hatchlings).
  • Do not disturb the turtle or hatchlings.
  • If the turtle is laying eggs, stay with her until she goes back into the ocean. Your presence will discourage poachers and dogs who won’t approach if you are there.
  • Erase the tracks in the sand.
  • Do not touch an adult turtle or hatchling.
  • Allow the turtle or hatchlings to go to ocean on their own. Do not try to help them even if they appear to be struggling.
  • Take pictures but make sure the flash is turned off.
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