Saving sea turtles in the Grenadines…one turtle at a time

Two small-scale conservation projects in Bequia and Carriacou help protect the Grenadines’ sea turtles

A leatherback turtle being rescued at the Kido Ecological Research Station in Carriacou. Photograph courtesy Lesley Anne RoseLeatherback hatchlings at the Old Hegg turtle sanctuary in Bequia. Photograph courtesy Lesley Anne Rose

Sea turtles have been swimming the world’s oceans since the days when dinosaurs walked the land. Now all seven species of these ancient and enduring creatures are endangered, some critically. As threats to their survival increase – such as pollution, poaching, fishing, and coastal development – so turtle numbers have decreased by an alarming ninety per cent over the past decade. The vast distances that turtles migrate complicates their conservation at an international level. Leatherbacks, for example, are found in the waters of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the British Isles. Luckily, attempts to save them at a local level are increasing, and visitors to the Grenadine Islands in the south Caribbean have several opportunities to witness and participate in conservation at a grassroots level.

Although they spend vast amounts of time in water, the behaviour of turtles while at sea is the least understood of all marine animals. Capable of great longevity, turtles are in no hurry to reproduce, and when, after many years of floating in the sea, a female does come ashore to nest, each egg she lays has a one-in-a-thousand chance of reaching maturity.

Old Hegg turtle sanctuary on Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine Islands, works to increase the hatchlings’ chances of survival through their earliest and most vulnerable years. Situated on the stunning Park Beach on the north-east coast of Bequia, Old Hegg was founded in 1995 by Orton “Brother” King, a retired professional skin diver, whose dedication and passion over the last ten years has saved the lives of countless hawksbill turtles – distinguished by their beak-like mouths.

Turtles usually nest at night, laying around a hundred eggs at a time. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers, while others are destroyed by eroding sand. Those that do survive take fifty to seventy days to hatch, and when they do, baby turtles emerge at night when there are fewer predators around. Guided by the light of the moon, they head for the sea.

It is at this critical point that Old Hegg staff step in to carefully collect the hatchlings as they emerge. They then provide them with food and protection for three years before releasing them into nearby waters, by which time their chances of survival are massively increased.

Year round, visitors to Old Hegg can see around two hundred turtles of various sizes and ages at any one time. During the winter months, visitors can also see bowls of hatchlings – so tiny they fit into the palm of your hand.

Even when turtles have reached maturity, their struggle for survival is far from over. Kido Ecological Research Station, on the north-west coast of Carriacou – a Grenadine that is part of the nation of Grenada – works with schools, local communities, and visitors to conserve turtles of all ages in this region.

From March to September, visitors and Kido volunteers patrol Carriacou’s beaches at night to measure and tag female turtles, conceal and mark their nests, and simply watch these amazing creatures while they are out of the sea.

Kido’s commitment to protecting sea turtles does not end there. They have saved countless from the cooking pot by buying them at local markets. After tagging, they are released back into the ocean, with the understanding of local fisherman that if caught again they will be recorded and released.

The work of organisations such as Kido and Old Hegg is helping to stabilise turtle populations. Visiting such places and experiencing turtles firsthand, nesting or just resting, can be a rewarding and fascinating experience. Each visit, through support and the injection of tourist money, contributes to efforts to create a future for sea turtles, rather than condemning them to extinction.

For more information on these conservation projects, visit www.oldheggturtlesanctuary.com and www.kido-projects.com

Practical ways that visitors to the Caribbean can help save sea turtles:

• Don’t buy products made from turtle shells.

• Don’t eat dishes containing turtle meat.

• When visiting beaches where turtles nest, walk close to the sea to prevent the sand above their nests from compacting and making it hard for newborn baby turtles to dig their way out.

• Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and try to eat them, so don’t throw any into the sea or leave them on the beach.

• If you come across a turtle while it’s nesting, don’t approach it. Keep a distance of fifteen metres and don’t shine any bright lights at it. If disturbed or disoriented, the female will return to the sea before she has laid and dump all of her eggs into the ocean.