6 of 7 species of sea turtles are either threatened (Loggerhead), endangered (Olive Ridley and Green) or critically endangered (Leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley, and Hawksbill). No information is available on the status of the Flatback turtle. As a result of this several conservation projects have sprung up across the world.
You might wonder why there’s a hoo-haa about sea turtles when we’ve got bigger problems like polar bears and melting ice caps to worry about. Sea turtles are an integral part of the marine eco system. They (and manatees) eat sea grass and keep sea grass short. Sea grass needs to be short in order to remain healthy and also provides a perfect breeding ground for other marine species. Far fetched as it may sound, turtles also are responsible for flora and fauna in some deserts. An estimated 150,000 pounds of turtle eggs were laid on the beaches of Florida last year alone and eggs that don’t hatch provide vital nutrients to the soil and encourage the growth of plants.
Although this bout with extinction isn’t entirely the fault of humans, we’re not blameless. Turtle eggs and meat have been considered delicacies throughout the World. Turtles have been poached for their shells from time to time as well.
Guyana has its very own Turtle conservation project that has been running for the past 25 years. Located in a remote region of Guyana, Shell beach sits on the border of Guyana and Venezuela. If you spend enough time on the beach you’re sure to spot speedboats making quick drug runs across the border. Getting to Shell beach however, is quite a challenge. The daylong trip requires a bus from Georgetown to Parika, boat across the Essequibo to Supernaam, bus to Charity and finally a 5-hour speedboat ride to Shell Beach. This 5-hour boat ride involves navigating ‘the river of 99 turns’ and is unforgettable for the still black water and the pristine untouched banks. While exceptionally long, the trip is part of the adventure and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see otters, scarlet ibis and river dolphins before even getting to the turtles.
Sand on shell beach contains tiny broken up pieces of shells, which probably gives the beach its name. Mosquito beach would be the obvious name if an alternate name were necessary. 6pm and the mosquitoes come out and attack every moving object in sight demonstrating a clear lack of respect for insect repellant and DEET.
Once you put the mosquitoes behind you, a 4 km trek down the beach gives you the chance to spot turtles laying their eggs along the shore. Turtles lay their eggs at night since the usual predators (seagulls, birds, dogs etc) aren’t around. They hobble onto shore and start digging a wide foot deep body pit. One this is complete, they use their hind flippers to dig a small hole that’s up to another 2 feet deep. Flippers are made to swim and not dig, and so progress is painfully slow. All through this process, the turtles seem to go into a trance focusing only on the task at hand and completely ignoring the tiny bunch of curious tourists. Once the hole is ready, the turtles lay anything between 50 to 200 eggs (depending on species) and then cover the eggs with sand, pressing down each mound to ensure that the eggs are well packed. The turtle then flicks around sand in a wide area to protect the location of its eggs and heads back to the sea. The entire process takes between 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on the turtle’s skill.
Eggs take 2 months to hatch and little turtles have an evolutionary drive to dig their way out of the sand at night, avoiding predators and heading towards the brightest light source (supposed to be the moon). However, bright lights on several beaches have contributed to the confusion among the hatched turtles causing survival issues. Added to this, turtle eggs are a rich source of protein and are easy pickings for predators if they manage to find the eggs. The dogs at Shell beach try to dig up the eggs for a tasty treat. (However, the jaguars in the adjoining forest are always on the lookout for a stray dog for a tasty treat.) It takes decades before these young turtles reach maturity and start reproducing. One in about a hundred hatched turtles reaches maturity. The leatherback turtles are the biggest turtles and the leatherbacks we spotted at Shell beach were over 6 feet long.
A typical turtle-spotting trek would last 5-6 hours and would depend on the tide since turtles prefer to come out at high tide to prevent the waves from an advancing tide uncovering their eggs. Turtles are very sensitive to white light (but can’t see red light). Scrambling over toppled coconut trees on an eroding beach with only a little red light can be a challenge but the rewards are worth the effort.
Guyana, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Surinam and Sri Lanka come to mind when talking about endangered sea turtles. Have you had the chance to see turtles lay their eggs elsewhere?