Turtley Addicted to You

Go baby turtle GOOO!

You can’t help but cheer these little guys on as they make their epic journey across the beach into the ocean. Watching their tiny flippers scamper across the sand, toppling and turning in the sand, and finally seeing those flippers push and pull them into the water! An exhilarating moment in nature for those lucky enough to witness it. Whether you commit the hours to sitting by a nest at night and waiting for the volcano of baby turtles to erupt or helping the remnants of the nest to make it to the ocean, it’s incredible to watch.

I’ve loved turtles from an early age. As a teenager, I visited the Outer Banks in North Carolina where I witnessed my first controlled turtle release. After that, I jumped at the chance to volunteer with sea turtles as a dive pro in Thailand but it was Little Cayman where I received my formal training and became co-leader of their volunteer turtle conservation program. From there, I was turtley addicted! When I moved to Bonaire, I immediately signed up to volunteer with the Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB) program.

During the nesting season (normally from April to January), STCB staff and trained volunteers patrol the beaches most used by turtles, recording signs of nesting and hatching, as well as monitoring the safety status of the nests. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays STCB also head to Klein Bonaire at 7 AM to patrol the beaches there. As Mondays are one of my days off, I try to attend every week! The first couple of trips, there was also a lot of walking and trash collecting; I’m always happy to do this as I know clearing beaches is good for ALL marine life. But it wasn’t long before turtle tracks and activity appeared and I was asked to pull my sleeves up and help verify nesting activity. It involves a lot of digging, I mean a lot! STCB even labelled one of the nest’s ‘Caitlin’s Nest’ You can only imagine my excitement (and social media posts!).

Only Sea Turtle females prepare the nest and they do this mostly at night. The female crawls out of the ocean to find a prime spot for her to lay the nest but, for unknown reasons, sometimes she decides not to nest and returns to the water. When this happens, it is marked as a “false crawl.” Most females nest at least twice during the nesting season, although individuals of some species may nest only once and others more than ten times. The average size of a clutch ranges from about 80 to 120 eggs, depending on the species. Incubation takes about 60 days; the temperature of the sand governs the maturation rate and sex of the eggs. Cooler sands tend to produce more males while warmer sands producing a higher ratio of females. Once the nest is ready to go, it’s like a volcano of baby turtles erupting to the surface and the hatchlings begin their climb out of the nest in a coordinated effort. Once near the surface, they will often remain there until the temperature of the sand cools, usually indicating night time when they are less likely to be eaten by predators or overheat. Once the baby turtles emerge from the nest, they use cues to find the water including the slope of the beach, the white crests of the waves and the natural light reflecting off of the ocean horizon (most often from the moon).

The obstacles are so numerous for baby turtles that only about one in 1,000 survives to adulthood. For example, sometimes turtles cannot get out of the nest, either because they hatched late or are buried under shells. Some turtles never even hatch out of their eggs. Other turtles hatch out of their eggs but die before making it out of the nest. Once on the surface, any light sources other than the moon can disorientate the turtles and cause them to crawl in the wrong direction. This includes beachfront lighting, street lights, lights from cars, campfires etc.

All sea turtle species are listed as either endangered or critically endangered,  so scientists try to help their populations whenever they can. One way Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire tries to help is by excavating, or digging up, a nest that has already hatched as a this can provide a lot of valuable data. For example, the number of eggshells left in the nest show how many of the turtles hatched successfully. Hopefully, most of these hatched turtles were able to get out of the nest. Some hatched turtles might still be hanging out in the nest, unable to get out. Others may have died before being able to get out of the nest. Scientists count empty egg shells, hatchlings left in the nest and unhatched eggs to determine the total number of eggs laid. This information is then used to help monitor sea turtle health on Bonaire and across the Caribbean. For me, collecting this scientific data makes me feel like I can put something a bit more tangible on the experience!

Turtle interactions are always a fan favourite amongst divers, whether it be a Hawksbill, Loggerhead, or Green: they all get us excited! Sometimes on Bonaire we are spoiled and take these interactions for granted considering the endangered status on all turtle species; some more vulnerable than others. So next time you see a turtle chomping, finning, or just chilling out – they deserve added respect for making it this far!

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Written by Caitlin