I was never really sure why, but for a long time I’ve been wanting to witness the hatching of turtles. Lucky me was able to not only experience this, but also a mother laying eggs simultaneously! A short 2.5 hour experience at Treasure Beach’s turtle sanctuary taught me so much about the preservation efforts to save the turtles and inspired me to learn more and share that information with you. Knowledge is power.
Why are Sea Turtles Endangered?
Though turtles literally wear a suit of armour, they are fragile creatures that need additional protection – more so from us, by us. Their existence is threatened at every single life stage, mainly by:
- Slaughter for their meat, eggs, skin for leather, and shells for ornaments
- Habitat destruction by uncontrolled coastal development
- Being captured or harmed by fishing gear
- Climate change altering sand temperatures, which affects and skews the gender ratio of hatchlings
The toxins in hawksbill turtle meat for example actually exceed international food safety standards and can result in neurotoxicity, kidney disease, liver cancer, developmental effects in foetuses and children, and even death. Research has shown that sea turtle ecotourism can generate 3x more income than selling sea turtle parts, making them worth more alive than dead.
What are some endangered sea turtle species?
7 different species of sea turtles exist. Depending on who you ask, you may be told 8 if they consider black sea turtle a separate species from the green sea turtle. Globally, 6 of the 7 species are classified as threatened or endangered! They are classified as follows according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:
- Leatherbacks: Vulnerable
- Greens (and Blacks): Endangered
- Loggerheads: Vulnerable
- Hawksbills: Critically Endangered
- Olive Ridleys: Vulnerable
- Kemp’s Ridleys: Critically Endangered
- Flatbacks: Data Deficient
Why Should We Save Sea Turtles?
The decline in sea turtle numbers reduce the species’ ability to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem. Even with diminished population levels, their roles remain important for balancing underwater life (as well as that on land).
- Preserve seagrass beds and coral reefs: Seagrass beds and coral reefs are important because they provide breeding and developmental grounds for many species, while reducing beach erosion. Sea turtles and manatees are some of the very few animals to eat seagrass. It needs to be constantly cut to be healthy and grow across the sea floor. Hawksbills remove sponges with their beak-like mouths from reefs which allow other species to colonize and grow. If sponges grow to smother reefs, they’ll eventually kill them and modify the structures of ecosystems. Essentially, one big reason why we should #savetheturtles is also why we should #savetheparrotfish. As reefs become more threatened by climate change and other impacts, the role of the hawksbill on the reef is even more vital.
- Balance Food Webs: The physical and chemical makeup of sea sponges prevent most animals from eating them. As a hawksbill rips sponges apart during feeding, they expose and provide food to other marine species typically unable to penetrate the sponge’s exterior. Sea turtles also prey on jellyfish, which prey on larval fish. Without turtles, jellyfish populations would explode and larval fish populations decline. If larval fish aren’t allowed to grow, there would be no fish in the sea! Again, it’s all about balance.
- Facilitating nutrient cycling: Sea turtle eggs directly and indirectly affect the vegetation distribution and stability of sandy shorelines. Beaches and dune systems do not retain nutrients well because of the sand, so no to little vegetation grows there. By supplying a concentrated source of nutrients via eggs, sea turtle improve the beaches they nest on. Plant growth helps to stabilize the shoreline, prevent coastal erosion, and provide food for a variety of animals. The eggs also provide a food source for predators, which in turn distribute nutrients through their wastes.
- Transporting marine life: Sea turtles act as a carrier for barnacles, algae, and other organisms by transporting them to and from reefs and seagrass beds. They help structure marine habitats through the dispersal of these epibionts.
How Can I Help Protect of Sea Turtles?
Now that you know why preserving turtle populations is important, here’s how you can help. A few seemingly simple yet important protective steps that you can take are:
- Book a sustainable tour to see turtles, particularly when it benefits local communities (like I did with the help of Turtles’ Nest Villa)
- Attend organized sea turtle watches that know how to safely observe nesting
- Participate in coastal clean-ups and reduce plastic use to keep our beaches and oceans clean. You can join this monthly clean up group in Kingston or others
- Plastic bags are a particular threat, since sea turtles can mistakenly eat them instead of jellyfish prey. Carry reusable bags (like these stylish discounted ones)
- Refrain from releasing balloons outside. They’ll likely end up in the ocean
- Buy seafood that’s certified as being sustainable
- Don’t buy tortoise shell souvenirs, coral jewelry, or ‘genuine snake skin’ accessories
- Fill in holes and remove sandcastles before leaving the beach. They can become obstacles for nesting turtles or emerging hatchlings
- Remove recreational beach equipment (eg. chairs, umbrellas, boats) at night
- Keep nesting beaches dark (or use red/amber lighting). Turn off, shield, or redirect lights visible from the beach so they don’t disorient turtles or discourage nesting females from coming to lay
- Do not disturb nesting turtles, nests, or hatchlings. Nesting sea turtles can get easily spooked, sometimes causing them to return to sea without finishing
- Avoid beach bonfires during the nesting season. The light and heat from fires can disorient them, causing crawling towards fire
- Stay alert when boating. Boat and propeller strikes can injure or kill sea turtles, so slow down if a turtle is spotted. Also stay in channels and avoid boating over habitats such as seagrass beds and corals
Protection of Sea Turtles by Jamaican Law
In Jamaica, all species of sea turtle and coral are protected under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1945 and the Endangered Species (Protection, Conservation and Regulation of Trade) Act, 2000. 4 species have been identified on our beaches by National Environment Planning Agency (NEPA): Hawksbill, Green, Leatherback, and Loggerhead sea turtles. Due to their threatened status, all 4 species are protected by Jamaican law. By law, it is an offence to have sea turtles in one’s possession, whether whole or part, dead or alive! Persons found in possession of turtles or their parts can be fined up to J$100,000 (which is really too small a price to pay if we’re being honest) or imprisoned for up to 1 year, like in this local case.
When do Sea Turtles Lay Eggs?
Sea turtles lay eggs mainly at night. The number of eggs in a nest (called a clutch) varies by species, and more than 1 clutch may be laid by a single turtle each season. On average, 110 eggs are laid per nest, and between 2 to 8 nests are made per turtle each season. The smallest clutches are by flatback turtles – about 50 eggs each; the largest clutches are [ironically] by the critically-endangered hawksbills – over 200 eggs each. Sea turtles nest year-round in Jamaica, but the most active period for us occurs from June to November.
How Long is it Before Sea Turtles Eggs Hatch?
This also varies by species. For example, it takes about 45-60 days for hawksbill, loggerheads and green turtle eggs to hatch. Leatherback eggs take a bit longer, reaching upwards of 70-80 days.
Treasure Beach Jamaica History Museum
While staying at Turtles’ Nest Villa, the staff helped me arrange a night beach tour with non-profit organization Treasure Beach Turtles Group to hopefully spot some hatchlings. Only Hawksbill turtles have been identified in the Treasure Beach area, the 2nd largest turtle nesting area in Jamaica. The US $30 / J$2500 tour includes a visit to their natural history museum which provides a wad of informative displays on marine life and its preservation. The museum would ideally require at least an hour to absorb most of the education center’s information.
Turtles Tours and Sanctuaries in Jamaica
Treasure Beach Turtle Group’s hosts Camar and ‘Teddy’ will provide headlamps, water, and bug repellant before beginning to trod the sands. They checked existing nests for any activity.These nests are identified by colourful tags, and include their estimated hatch dates. The 2-hour stroll on the moonlit Treasure Beach initially only seemed to reveal scurrying crabs and sand tracks of travelling turtles we missed. Upon our return to the starting point of our journey, after maneuvering rocks and being soaked by waves, we were delighted to see fresh tracks emerged from the sea! We followed them into a bushy area to find a nesting female hawksbill sea turtle in the process of digging to lay. At this point, the light from your head lamps are replaced by red or yellow lighting, which is less intrusive to the turtle. Natural moonlight guides sea turtle hatchlings and nesting females, so flashlights or fluorescent lighting can disorient and mislead them. Before this, the only time I’ve probably ever seen a wild sea turtle was at Blue Lagoon during the Love Not Likes blogger excursion.
As the sand was kicked up on us by mother nature, we watched as she began filling the hole with multiple ping pong-sized eggs. Camar and Teddy began preparing a metal flipper tag to clip on her. These tags contain a unique serial number and the address of the applying organization. They are used to identify turtles to help researchers learn about nesting site fidelity, the number of nests laid during a season, the number of years between nesting, growth rates, and possibly their migration pathways.
If observing her wasn’t incredible enough, 5 hatchlings emerged from another nest just behind her! With guidance from the Treasure Beach Turtle Group, we moved the newborns from the rugged crab-inhabited bushes onto the beach to begin their journey to the sea. Hatchlings should generally not be taken straight to the water, as their journey from the beach helps to build their strength. They tend to rest during their journey, which is the ideal time to briefly pick them up for a photo op (no flash photography).
Other popular turtle sanctuary areas and organizations include:
- Portland: Caenwood, Turtle Cove, Alligator Head Foundation
- Westmoreland: Bluefields Bay, Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society
- St. Mary / St. Ann: Gibralter Beach, The Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary
- Trelawny: Silver Sands beach
A lot of this information is new to me, thanks to this special experience! In my opinion, it’s another prime example of reasons you should travel more, don’t you think?
Hope you learned something valuable here (and apply it positively).
What are your comments on the save the turtles narrative?
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