I have never seen a giant sea turtle up close before, let alone one in the throes of labour. Yet here I am, sitting in the eerie glow of the moon on a remote island off the northern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, witnessing this enormous creature push out a hundred golf-ball-sized eggs.
Groaning and heaving slightly, the turtle, measuring more than a metre in length and weighing close to 100 kilograms, is oblivious to the biologists huddling around her at 3 a.m. as the moon rises high in the sky over ghostly pale Isla Holbox.
We have trekked to the northern deserted beaches of this tiny 35-square-kilometre island to document the phenomenon of the sea turtles, which return by moonlight to the beaches of their birth each year to dig their nests. The group of volunteer biologists returns nightly during turtle season, roughly April to November, to count new nests and ensure that previous nests lay undisturbed by poachers. This predawn, we see no fewer than six turtles lay their legacies.
Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh) by night contrasts sharply with the isolated island by day, when the vibrant colours and stark, windblown landscape mix with the turquoise waters, icing-sugar sands and azure skies. The island lies two hours north of Cancun along the road to Merida within the 154,000-hectare Yum Balam Reserve, which was established in 1994 to allow indigenous control over community development of the area's natural resources. Yum Balam, meaning "lord of the jungle" in Mayan, contains diverse ecosystems such as flooded mangroves, savanna, thick jungle and coastal dunes.
Holbox sits in the midst of this, surrounded by a shallow halo of aquamarine waters that form a lagoon ideal for spotting schools of bottlenose dolphins and hundreds of bird species that populate an estuary on a neighbouring sandy isle.
Life for the 1,500 residents continues as it has for generations. Fishermen rise at dawn and are on the water by sunrise. Tarpon, bonefish, permit, snook, barracuda, and red snapper are the most common species inhabiting the shallow waters, often drawing fly fishers to cast their rods for fish that have never seen a lure before.
At Xaloc Resort -- a rustic 18-cabin hotel with thatched-palapa roofs and dreamy hammocks strung up beside the pillow-stacked daybeds that furnish each private porch -- the proprietors keep up local tradition with a keen respect for the island. Owners Mallorkans Goncha Juan Sabater and Juan Felix Sanchez have created a serene and natural escape that unites the elements with pleasing primitive architecture. Xaloc's cabins are surrounded by tropical vegetation (alas, a disease has wiped out most palms on the island) and are linked by winding paths of sand laced with shells. Their effervescent, black-spotted dog, Luna, spends the day chasing golf carts -- the main form of transportation -- as they chug by on the beach in front of Xaloc, where you can gather shells by the handful and wade a kilometre out into the shallow waters.
We spend our first few hours soaking in the peacefulness and lounging in the pool, and meet a German couple who are on their second visit this year to the island. The man, Hans, had no luck fly-fishing but couldn't care less.
Laughing, he recalls what he told co-workers when they asked what he did on Holbox. "Nothing," Hans says with a grin, not a wrinkle or worry on his beaming face. "Exactly the reason we came back."
The couple is torn between the midnight turtle trek and a day-long excursion to the deep outer waters to snorkel with 15-metre spotted whale sharks, filter feeders that eat plankton and small fish and are the largest sharks in the world.
"Sometimes you can actually grab onto their dorsal fin and go for a ride," Juan Felix later tells us.
We opt for a tour of the island bird sanctuary, a 20-minute boat ride away. We marvel at the clouds of pink flamingos that pass us along the way. Once on the island, we climb a rickety wooden watchtower that provides access to the treetops, and a bird's-eye view of the nesting seabirds and their squawking youngsters.
Our next stop is Yalahao spring, a jungle-cloaked cenote (natural sinkhole) fed by two freshwater, subterranean rivers that locals call the "fountain of youth." Blue mud crabs scuttle around the edges as yellow and green birds dart through the thick vegetation. Small fish slurp green algae growing on logs. The frigid water shocks our systems in a delightful way, and we take turns peering underwater with a snorkel mask at the spot where the rivers emerge into the spring.
Later, we drop anchor, strap on our snorkels and fins, and go hunting for lunch. I am unsuccessful, but Goncha emerges with an enormous orange starfish for me to hold before letting it gently float back down to the ocean floor. Juan Felix returns with no fewer than 10 conch shells -- their occupants prized for their sweet-tasting meat -- and we prepare the freshest ceviche in the world, with chopped up tomato, onion, jalapeño and lime juice right there on the bow of the boat.
If you go
Isla Holbox is about three hours north of Cancun along the highway to Merida, followed by a 20-minute boat ride from the town of Chiquila.
WHERE TO STAY
Xaloc Resort is the island's best guesthouse, with 18 rustic cabins (costing around $150 to $250 a night) and a fabulous restaurant called Maja'che. The hotel also offers five-night packages until Dec. 19 ($580 to $830 U.S.), with transportation to and from Cancun airport and daily breakfast included. For more information, call 1-866-818-8342 or visit http://www.holbox-xalocresort.com.