Precious and Protected: The Sea Turtles of BarbadosShana Jones January 11, 2017
Originally written for Mélange Travel & Lifestyle Magazine. Re-printed with permission.
One evening as I was nearing the end of my jog on the boardwalk on Barbados’ south coast, I noticed a crowd gathering and peering intently at something in the sand just up ahead. Small pockets of people dotted a rough line crossing my path from one side of the boardwalk to the other, cresting a small sand hill and continuing towards the sea. My mildly aroused curiosity was tempered by an urgency to get to my car because the looming greyness overhead had started to shower lightly.
Upon reaching the crowd, the reason for the fuss was revealed: some baby sea turtles had just emerged from a nearby nest and the hatchlings were making their way to the sea! So many thoughts came to mind as I viewed the tiny black specks scampering frantically towards the water: awe at new life, wonderment at the long journey ahead, and shock at their vulnerability, to name a few. The rain now a distant memory, I shuffled to get a good viewing point while some trained their cameras and others (volunteers, I would soon discover) re- directed some disoriented hatchlings back on track to the water. We all stood captivated, forming a cheering section of sorts, and waited until the last of the stragglers touched water and was swept away by a gentle wave.
I later found out that sea turtles are a critically endangered species (approaching a ¨very high risk of extinction¨, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature), and so episodes such as this one I witnessed are very important to increasing the turtle population. The odds of survival for sea turtles are daunting: from the time a mother turtle digs her nest in the sand (about 50 cm in depth) and deposits her eggs, predation by stray dogs is a real threat. After the 55-75-day incubation period, the hatchlings dig their way out of the nest over a 2-4-day period and then follow the light of the “brightest horizon” towards the sea. When that “brightest horizon” is caused by car lights or the flash of photography, they become disoriented and risk being run over by vehicles or eaten by crabs or stray animals. It is this same sensitivity to light that may scare a nesting turtle back to the sea, causing her to abandon the nesting process. The 1 sea turtle in 1000 that survives the 25-30 years into adulthood may get caught in fishing nets and accidentally be drowned.
Thankfully, the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP) has been working diligently over the past 25 years to protect sea turtles and restore their population. Through collective efforts with WIDECAST, the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, the volunteers and UWI (University of the West Indies) students of BSTP operate a community-involved program in pursuit of BSTP´s vision to ¨restore local marine turtle populations to levels at which they can fulfil their ecological roles¨. The program includes the operation of a marine tagging centre that tracks turtle numbers for research, a 24-hr emergency hotline number, mobile beach patrols to monitor nest sites and recover disoriented hatchlings, and public education/outreach initiatives. Through its work, the BSTP has been involved in documentaries for the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, the Discovery Channel, and numerous TV internet sites.
I had no idea that the tiny beings scampering before my very eyes were part of a larger interesting, yet desperate, story. Each one represented odds that had been overcome and staggering new ones to conquer; each one’s tumultuous life journey was aptly captivated by its zig-zagged path to the water. As the waves swiftly gathered the turtles in their embrace, my mind drifted to the memory of a beautiful sea turtle meandering peacefully through the water on my most recent catamaran cruise: this one had made it! What a journey it had traveled to be able to grace me with its presence! What a show of resilience! I could only hope fervently that these hatchlings would be similarly lucky enough to complete their life experiences and bless others with the knowledge of their existence.
Sea turtle hatchlings have just left a nearby nest and make their way to the sea