October 23, 2013
Keen to give something back while on holiday in Jamaica? Then why not help out with some Caribbean conservation. Help protect endangered sea turtles by assisting experts in monitoring eggs and hatchlings (May-Dec) or join 4,000 volunteers on “˜Beach Clean-Up Day’ (late Sep).
Marine turtles are one of our most-loved ancient species: an awkward and vulnerable creature on land that becomes a graceful giant in water. Traced back to the Jurassic era, sea turtles have evolved and adapted over time in order to survive. Modifications to the forelimbs, shell and rear limbs have helped them swim better and added greater protection. Sea turtles spend almost all their lives submerged, but breathe air for the oxygen required to meet the demands of energetic activity. A single inhalation is followed rapidly by an explosive exhalation to refresh the air in their lungs. When relaxed, sea turtles can sleep underwater for several hours – less if stressed.
Now, all seven species of sea turtles across the world are either critically endangered or threatened. Of these species just two are regularly sighted now in Jamaica after decades of dramatic decline in numbers. A century ago, the green turtle was the most abundant species in Jamaica. Today hawksbills are more frequently encountered with the other species found elsewhere in the Caribbean – leatherback and loggerhead – very rare. Scientists predict that some turtle species could vanish entirely from the planet in the next 5 to 30 years if current threats persist – a horrifying thought.
Few people are lucky enough to encounter this magnificent ancient sea creature unless in a tank at an aquarium. Adult turtles are elusive creatures, spending the majority of their time in deep offshore waters. Hatchlings crawl from nests on the beaches and into the surf to all but disappear off the radar. Yet females do return to the sand to lay their eggs and a good handful of Jamaican beaches host more than 10 nests each year.
Efforts to conserve turtle stocks began as early as the 1700s in Jamaica. Today visitors are invited to contribute and play a crucial role in conserving sea turtles at a variety of events run by the Sea Turtle Recovery Network. Nesting sites are found on Jamaica’s north coast near Ocho Rios with others close to Montego Bay and Kingston’s Palisadoes spit. Each year, in late September, thousands of volunteers comb lakes, rivers, and beaches across the island to rid them of litter – last year 4,000 helpers cleared a staggering 50,000lbs of debris, much of it discarded plastic. Visitors are encouraged to lend a hand at local community turtle conservation projects on Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, Bluefields and Westmoreland as well as Hope Bay and Winnifred Beach in Portland.
Nestling mortality can be radically reduced by carefully timing the hatch to shortly before sunset as this limits exposure to herons and frigatebirds and helps protect young turtles from predation by land crabs. Volunteers get to help with monitoring exercises that record nests, eggs, hatchling activity and illegal poaching as well as assisting nestlings as they emerge from their sandy incubation. You’ll learn a lot from a team of turtle experts who are passionate about their subject. For example, did you know that the temperature of the sand in which the turtle eggs are laid can help to determine the gender of the sea turtle? Or that sea turtles are toothless creatures with internal, not external ears?
Jamaica’s sea turtle nesting season runs from May to December each year, with only one in 1,000 hatchlings surviving to adulthood. Nothing can prepare you for an encounter with this 5ft-long giant of the deep, with its large, teardrop-shaped carapace and pair of over-sized paddle-like flippers. Those that reach maturity can live for eighty years or more in the wild and reach a hefty 350 lbs in weight. Other than sharks, adult sea turtles have just one predator – man.
Header photo: Green Turtle underwater © The Sea Turtle Conservancy
See the Jamaican Environment Trust: www.jamentrust.org for details of turtle projects island-wide.
Have you helped out with the Caribbean conservation effort in Jamaica? Tell us about your experience below.