To witness a turtle laying its eggs is one of the Caribbean’s great natural spectacles. The mother drags herself up onto the sand, propelling herself laboriously around the beach, leaving a trail like a tank-track. She half digs a decoy nest and then selects a laying spot where she digs her hole, flinging the sand away with her rear fins. And then, as laying begins, she goes into a trance. In years past this made her, and her eggs, uniquely vulnerable to human predation. Species of turtles are reckoned to have lived on the earth for around 250 million years. Now they are on the endangered list.
And if nesting is so fantastic, hatching is another wonderful sight. The tiny turtles struggle up out of the nest and flip their way to the sea, guided by the slight differential of light on the sea horizon. They have an immense challenge ahead. About a one in thousand will make it into adulthood. And the human threat is there again. There are even slightly macabre stories of baby turtles marching straight off to a bar, because they are confused by the lights inland.
Of course there are efforts to help them. Turtle products have long been banned in the United States and there is a growing consciousness in the Caribbean itself. In some communities they have become part of the tourist fabric - bringing visitors to watch can bring in cash, which gives the community a reason to protect the turtles.
Key to the efforts to help turtles are organisations such as the BSTP in Barbados, the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. It has monitored the critically endangered marine turtle species that forage around and nest on Barbados for the last 20 years. Based at the University of the West Indies (UWI) at Cave Hill Campus, their involvement includes monitoring and conservation of nesting females and hatchlings, research, education and public outreach.
Professor Julia Horrocks, director of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, is the Country Coordinator for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) in Barbados, and of the regional WIDECAST Marine Turtle Tagging Centre. The BSTP gives presentations at schools, churches and other institutions to raise public awareness and support. During the nesting season (May to October), they lecture weekly at Treasure Beach Hotel on the West Coast.
The BSTP invites anyone to sign up for a hatchling release. The hawksbill turtle’s hatching season runs from mid-July through to mid-October and hatchlings usually emerge naturally between 6pm and 6am. However the BSTP will try and time their releases between 6pm and 8pm.
Activity is not restricted to the West Coast and it is not just the hawksbills that lay their eggs in Barbados. Until recently green turtles had never nested in the island and those seen along the West Coast are actually juveniles (10-15 years old), primarily from Ascension Island, Costa Rica and Surinam. They are expected to leave Barbados and swim back home to nest once they have reached maturity (25-30 years of age). However the BSTP estimate that about five females have begun nesting on the south east coast. As there are no historical records of this happening before, so it appears to be a new population that is colonizing Barbados for the first time.
It may also come as a surprise to hear that between 50-80 mighty leatherback turtles also head to Barbados each year to nest. These massive creatures are confined to the east coast as they need the help of powerful Atlantic waves to heave themselves up onto the beach. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtle and an adult male can weigh as much as 920kg and grow up to three metres in length – adult females are 1.4-1.8m long and weigh 250-650kg. The leatherback nesting season is a little earlier in the year, between March and July, and they lay between 70-90 eggs at each nesting. Once they have laid their eggs they head off to feed in British or Canadian waters where there is a plentiful supply of jelly fish. A fourth species that is occasionally spotted in Barbados waters is the loggerhead turtle. It does not nest on the island.
All of the Caribbean sea turtles mentioned above are endangered and protected species – leatherback, hawksbill and Kemps Ridley sea turtles are critically endangered.
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