Caribbean Expedition Helps Save Turtles

Caribbean Expedition Helps Save Turtles

Aug. 15, 2002

<1b>By Michael Hildbold

<bt>Standing on the beach at night on the island of Barbados, I witnessed a 150-pound hawksbill sea turtle emerge from the sea and lumber up the sand to lay its clutch of eggs which, if undisturbed, would hatch in 60 days. Like other volunteers working with me this summer, I watched the small hatchlings scramble to the sea and disappear into the gentle Caribbean waves. These shy, powerful creatures swim the seas of the world for decades until they are ready to lay eggs. Then, at the age of 20, they return to the very same beach where they were born.

The thrill of seeing this is unforgettable and hopefully it will be there for future generations to enjoy. If the hawksbill sea turtle does not survive due to poaching and increasing development on the beaches of the Caribbean we will lose these mysterious treasures. The beautiful beaches of Barbados are recreational areas for tourists and Barbadians alike. There are no protected turtle nesting beaches on this small island, however.

Anyone strolling the beaches at night might come upon a hawksbill turtle walking from sea to nest, or a group of hatchlings making their way to the sea. For thousands of years, these turtles have been hatching and scrambling toward the light of the sea on beaches where man never set foot. Now the turtles have to contend with disorientation from beachfront lighting, getting lost in drainage ditches, roads, or stumbling into bars, restaurants or pools. Hatchlings are attracted to light, as the sea is always lighter then an undeveloped coastline during the night. This presents a large problem, as hotel beachfronts tend to be garishly lit, and hatchlings will actually crawl out of the sea if they encounter bright lights shining from the shore. They also must content with poachers who collect them for their shells and meat. The hawksbill is now classified as critically endangered globally, primarily because of the demand for tortoiseshell created by the Japanese. Man's presence on the beaches are another obstacle to the tiny newly hatched turtles, who struggle to make their way out of the depths of a human footprint.

MY SUMMER in Barbados, working with biologist, Dr. Julia Horrocks and her staff, helped me to see for the first time how successfully wildlife and humans can inhabit the same space when humans are willing to make adjustments. hawksbill sea turtles are an endangered species found mostly in the islands of the Caribbean. About 100 to 200 return to Barbados between May and September to lay five clutches of eggs. Each clutch contains about 150 potential turtles, 97 percent of which will hatch. Only about one in 1,000 survives to reproductive age, however.

Barbados is the only country in the Caribbean to monitor hawksbill nesting activity island-wide and throughout the year. Furthermore, there is a moratorium on the killing of turtles on the island of Barbados. This was achieved through the initiatives of a small staff of biologists at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, and with the cooperation of the Government of Barbados. The goal of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project is to bring about a recovery of the depleted populations of turtles.

During the month of July, I became a researcher with Earthwatch, working the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift, patrolling the nesting beaches. Turtles approach the beach to dig a nest in the sand at night. During the egg-laying process, we measured and tagged the turtles, as they are less aware of their surrounding during this period. Hatchings also occur at night, as the temperature change from day to night triggers the hatching response in the baby turtles.

This experience gave me a firsthand perspective on how scientists can interact with a community to increase the chances for survival of endangered species. At the same time, I learned about a new culture, climate and also had the opportunity to do field research. I found that the sea turtle project has been a success on the island of Barbados because of the work done by dedicated biologists, as well as volunteers. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Horrocks and her small staff have succeeded in raising concern and awareness of the turtles among tourists, locals and community groups. Dr. Horrocks works with the hotels and restaurants along the beaches to reduce bright lights and increase vigilance and protection of the turtles and their nests. Everywhere I went on the island, there was information about the turtles, and the turtle "hot-line" was posted widely.

THE INITIATIVES of the Barbados sea turtle project include: community education of locals and tourists; a turtle hotline which provides 24-hour response to public sightings of hatchlings, stranded turtles or nesting turtles; the establishment of a monitoring program to assess status of turtle populations and the reduction of adult and hatchling turtle mortality; all-night beach patrols on high-density nesting beaches; staff and volunteer measurement and tagging of turtles; marking nest locations and relocating nests when necessary; conducting presentations to schools, hotels, community groups; supplying monitoring data to the Government of Barbados; a liaison with Barbados Government to implement protective laws such as a moratorium on sea turtle capture; and promoting the value of the turtles as an eco-tourism attraction

Many tourists who arrive in Barbados have never seen a sea turtle before. The biologists and volunteers use interactions with tourists along the beachfront as an opportunity to pass on information to the public about sea turtle biology and the public's role in the healthy functioning of nearshore ecosystems. For example, the hawksbill sea turtles are the only sea life that eats sponges. With the diminished populations of turtles, the numbers of sponges increase and tend to dominate and kill coral reefs. If the turtles become extinct, the underwater ecosystem will be forever imbalanced.