Thursday, February 12, 2009

Manzanillo Part 2 - Wildlife in the Cuyutlán lagoon

Surveying his realm. A Great Blue Heron scans the Cuyutlan Lagoon for lunch opportunities. Previous to visiting Manzanillo, Carole and I had heard about the wildlife around the down-at-the-heels but still charming old beach town of Cuyutlan. In addition to a turtle sanctuary, reports spoke of a "don't miss it" boat ride around the huge Cuyutlan Lagoon.

Cuyutlan lies on the coast about 14 miles (28 kilometres) southeast of Manzanillo, just after the cuota (toll road) from Guadalajara turns north west to follow the beach to Manzanillo (click to enlarge the map in the link above).  A tip to those who might visit by car: plan to make your visit either on your way to Manzanillo, or on the way back to Guadalajara/Lake Chapala. A toll booth charges 92 pesos (about $6.33 US) just after the exit to Cuyutlan while you are heading toward Manzanillo. If you wait until you've arrived in Manzanillo to plan your visit to Cuyutlan, you'll have to pay the toll both ways during your Cuyutlan visit, in addition to the toll you pay on the way in from Guadalajara and out from Manzanillo.

Mexican Green Sea Turtle.  This large turtle (about 4 feet from snout to tail) lives in a tank at the Santuario de las Tortugas operated by the non-profit Centro Desarrollo Productivo, Recreativo, y Ecologico (Center  for Development, Production, Recreation, and Ecology) also known as the CDPRE.  Although it acts in concert with the Mexican government to protect the turtles and green iguanas in its preserve, the CDPRE is entirely funded by private donations. We were glad to pay the modest fee to take the tour.  To find the Santuario de las Tortugas, follow the road into Cuyutlan until you find the street that parallels the beach.  Turn south on that street and follow it until it dead ends into the Santuario, just outside of town.  The facility is open  10:00 AM until 5:30 PM.

Up close and personal.  In this close-up, you can  see the beautiful intricate markings on the turtle. Instead of the legs and feet that freshwater turtles possess, saltwater turtles have large fins which they fold back over their shells when they rest while floating on the surface.  They are protected by the Sanctuario against the wholesale slaughter of female turtles for steaks and soup, and the theft of the eggs they bury in the sand.  This is a serious crime now in Mexico, and a restaurant owner in Guadalajara was recently arrested for listing turtle eggs on his menu. When the turtles return from the sea to lay eggs, they used to arrive in vast numbers--more than 50,000 in  some areas  of the coast. Now they are listed as endangered. 

"Slowpoke" hot foots (hot fins?) it for the water.  The eggs female turtles in the tanks produce are buried in the sand until they hatch. The hatchlings are then taken to the nearby beach and released.  The high point of the tour occurs when the staff brings a bucket of baby turtles and a gaggle of tourists near the water and hands each tourist a small wriggling creature.  They draw a line in the sand and everyone releases their turtles, cheering their dash to the surf. We all named our turtles, of course.  We dubbed our little guy "Slowpoke" for his somewhat timid start. He finally got the idea and made it to the water.  Only about 1% of turtles will survive to return as an adult to lay eggs in this same area. The experience of launching these creatures on their long journey gave us a special appreciation for the efforts of CDPRE. For information about tours of the Sactuario de las Tortugas, email

A quiet and mysterious lagoon.  Cuyutlan Lagoon is adjacent to the Sanctuario, reached by a short walk down a cobblestone path to a dock shrouded by a jungly swamp.  A one-hour motor boat tour of the Lagoon costs 40 pesos/person ($2.75 US).  This was one of the best values of the whole Cuyutlan visit. There were seven of us in the roomy boat, including the English-speaking guide. The best time to take the tour is 10:00 AM when the first tour starts, because the animals have not yet tired of gawking tourists and withdrawn into the impenetrable gloom of the swamp. Another tip is to pick a spot at the prow of the boat if you want to take pictures. The prow is upturned and can block the forward view from further back, so I missed some really spectacular shots.

On the far left of the picture above, you can see the entrance of one of the channels (really a tunnel through the thick jungle) cut by the boatmen to pass from one part of Cuyutlan Lagoon to the next. The Lagoon is huge, following the coast behind the barrier of dunes for many miles to the north.

A ray of sunshine cuts through the gloom of the swamp.  You can see how thick the vegetation is on either side  of the channel as it winds through the jungle.  We could only see the animals on the edge of the channel, but you can be sure that life teems out of sight within that thick matting.

Arboreal termite mound.  These termite mounds can be seen at intervals in the thickest part of the swampy jungle. This mound, about twice the size of a large watermelon, was part way up a tree, and is called "arboreal" for that reason. The mounds  are made of soil, mud, chewed wood/cellulose, saliva, and faeces.  They are quite ingenious, having tunnels with openings which allow airflow to regulate the climate within the mound. Some mounds can contain thousands, even millions, of termites.

Freshwater turtle basks in the filtered sunlight of the Lagoon channel.  This fellow blended so nicely into his environment that I almost missed him until the guide called him to our attention.  There are 6 species of freshwater turtle on the coast, but I don't know which one this is.  Any zoologists out there who can give me a clue on this would be appreciated.

Green Iguana is another protected species.  In a leafier part of the swamp, this green iguana would have completely disappeared.  Against the gray-brown bark of the tree, he stood out.  He appeared to disapprove of our visit to his world.

Pelagic Cormorant was fearless.  A cormorant perched on a limb overhanging the channel and calmly observed us as we passed  underneath.  The word cormorant comes from Latin, meaning "black raven".  Until after the Middle Ages, people believed the cormorant was related to the raven. Cormorants were originally freshwater birds, but can be seen off Mexico's coasts, as well as in freshwater lagoons like the one at Cuyutlan.  Cormorants eat small fish, eels, and snakes. Given the profusion of life in the lagoon, this one must have been well fed.  My thanks goes to my friend Vince Gravel for identifying the cormorant and the next two birds. Vince takes wonderful photos of Mexico's birdlife.  

Black Hawk views our passage through burning red eyes.  Our boat guide originally told us this was an eagle, but it seemed too small.  After searching the internet for an eagle resembling this fellow, I consulted Vince who thinks it may be a Black Hawk, but may also be a snailkite or hook bill kite.

Anhinga stretches her neck for a nibble.  The formal name of this  animal is Anhinga Anhinga. Sounds like a the title for a 1950's rock 'n roll love song. The bird above is apparently a female, since the males have much more striking plumage. The long neck has been described as snake-like and uncoils while hunting like the neck of an egret.  Although it can swim, it much prefers to stand on logs or branches. The Anhinga spreads out its broad wings to dry them because it lacks oil glands to protect them from getting wet. Its long tail spreads out in flight like a turkey's. I thought this was the oddest looking bird of the lot.

Great Blue Heron flapping and honking its way across the lagoon. This shot captures the great size of the Blue Heron's wings.  The Blue Heron is a very impressive bird to suddenly come flapping by in front of your face. The bird has a huge range, from as far north as Alaska to Central  America and the Galapagos and even Europe.  When we lived in northern Oregon, a Blue Heron regularly took up residence in the creek behind our house.

The Thinker. Brown Pelicans often seem to be contemplating deep philosophical issues.  That is, at least when they are not comically flapping their huge wings and fighting over fish scraps. They are also the most prehistoric-appearing birds, resembling pterodactyles from the dinosaur age. They are equally at home off the shore of the ocean and in quiet freshwater lagoons.  Unfortunately, Brown Pelicans have been dying off in huge numbers for unknown reasons. 

Great White Egret.  I was pleased to encounter this old friend from the shores of Lake Chapala. The Great White Egret above was so intent on his prey that he ignored the close passage of our boat. That sharp beak, propelled by the long snake-like neck, can instantly snag a small fish, snake, or insect which are the diet of these strikingly beautiful and graceful white birds.

Northern Jacana.  Known in some places as the "Jesus Bird" because they appear to walk on water, these Northern Jacanas scour the lily pads of the Lagoon for a meal. The Jacana is somewhat unusual because the male tends the nest (which floats on the water) and incubates the eggs, while the female guards the nest.  In fact the female often has a harem of males and may guard as many as four nests at a time.  Vince came through with an i.d. on this one just before I published this post. Thanks again, Vince! 

Lagoon provides a livelihood for people too.  Local Mexicans harvest some of the reeds that grow in vast profusion  along the shores of the Cuyutlan Lagoon.  The reeds are often used to create colorful and beautifully woven baskets and other objects for sale. These friendly reed harvesters waved and called out "hola!" as we passed by.

This  completes the second of my series on our Manzanillo adventure. In the next posting, we will look at Barra de Navidad and Melaque, two small beach towns about an hour north of Manzanillo which have become a favorite of expats on a budget who are looking for some quiet away from the bustle of Manzanillo's busy seaport.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Jim, the cormorant is a Pelagic Cormorant. The Anhinga must spread it's wings to dry after feeding because it has no oil(uropygial) gland to keep its feathers water repellent. The male has a crest, otherwise the sexes are similar. Birders are picky.

  2. The turtles are fascinating to watch. One year we were in Florida when the Green Turtles came ashore to nest and it was awesome to watch them.

    Great pictures


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