by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director
To arrive to a new place in the dark is like tasting a new food with a blindfold on. You can feel the edges, but a full color appreciation isn’t possible until daylight arrives. Night time in the small town of La Pirraya on an island in Jiquilisco Bay is quiet; the fishermen and their families gather in small compounds preparing the days catch and saving energy for an early rise the next day. But hiding outside the lights of the town is the beginning of a conservation movement that could save one of the world’s most endangered populations of ocean wildlife.
My arrival to Jiquilisco Bay in southern El Salvador started at the small port town of Puerto Parada. We waited for the boat to arrive on a small concrete dock at the end of the main road into town. There was little indication that we were on the edge of the largest wetland in the country other than the mangrove trees across the channel. The dark boat ride was punctuated by distant lightning that was more entertainment than threat. Once our group, an international team of sea turtle conservationists, was settled into our rustic cabins, our night began. We received word of sea turtle hatchlings at a nearby hatchery and set off on a short boat ride up the beach.
The few dozen hatchlings in the blue bucket at the hatchery were the first newborn hawksbill turtles I’d ever seen. With a red flashlight to protect their eyes, we inspected this healthy group who were eager to get to the water. No sooner had we released them on the beach than we received a call of a nesting female hawksbill on a nearby island. We hopped back into the boat for another short ride across the calm water.
Hawksbills are well known for their preference for nesting much further up the beach, normally venturing into the beachside vegetation to lay their eggs. That knowledge didn’t prepare me for the location of this turtle, probably more than 50 feet inland on the other side of a barbed wire fence that was tall enough to keep people out but let turtles through underneath. That turtle was the perfect illustration of why this population remained hidden for so long; many turtle experts had considered the hawksbills of the Eastern Pacific functionally extinct until just a few years ago.
That turtle decided not to nest so a few of us broke off from the group to visit another hatchery where we waited for sunrise to inspect three hawksbills that were being held to put satellite transmitters on the next day. Along the way, we stopped the boat to see another hawksbill that was on another isolated stretch of beach. Finally, we arrived at the hatchery with an hour or so left in the evening. I stole off to find a hammock and was asleep before I could even take off my sandals.
I wish I could accurately describe my first impressions of Jiquilisco Bay in the daylight but after the long night, I was so disoriented my vision was pretty blurred. Stumbling out of the hammock, I walked over to a four-foot deep hole where three large hawksbills were calmly waiting to be released. These turtles were much larger (their shells measured about 3 feet long) than the one small hawksbill I had worked with years before in Costa Rica; if I didn’t know better I would have thought they were a different species. In addition, there were more hatchlings to release.
Our visit to Jiquilisco was organized by ICAPO (The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative) and these turtles are part of an ongoing study looking to unlock the mysterious life cycles of these turtles. There are estimated to be fewer than 500 nesting females hawksbills left in their range, which goes from southern Baja California, Mexico to Peru. Until recently, researchers assumed that hawksbills only lived in and around coral reefs, of which there are relatively few along the Pacific coast of the Americas. However, research by ICAPO and their partners has shown that these turtles live primarily in mangroves, a fact that surprised many turtle experts.
Jiquilisco Bay is estimated to harbor nearly half of their nests and most of the rest are found in Padre Ramos Estuary, not far south in northern Nicaragua. Through the hard work of several organizations working in these two hotspots, there is a growing group of people working hard to ensure these turtles are around for a long time. ICAPO and its partners coordinate a local team of 75 residents, known as “careyeros” (carey is Spanish for hawksbill) who patrol key beaches around the bay, looking for nesting turtles and relocating their eggs to hatcheries.
Once I finished photographing these turtles and headed out to the beach, the incredible beauty of this area hit me full force. Across the water, a series of perfectly shaped volcanoes rose up over the bay. As the baby turtles slid into the water, the human residents of Jiquilisco were just getting started. Fishing boats crossed the water, heading to preferred spots in the brightening day.
As we arrived back to La Pirraya, the town was in full swing, preparing for their annual hawksbill festival, complete with parade, dignitaries, throngs of media, and more. The parade got off to a loud start with the Navy’s marching band and a parade of more than a hundred local students. The students held home made signs about protecting turtles and keeping trash out of the ocean and a few wore turtle costumes despite the quickly rising temperature.
While I was pleasantly surprised at the large turnout to the festival, the sheer number of media outlets in attendance was shocking. Roughly 30 people from seemingly every media outlet in the country was there including TV news, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and more. Many citizens of El Salvador are proud of its role in protecting hawksbills and the mix of cutting-edge technology, international turtle experts, and beautiful children was a potent combination that media outlets could not ignore.
Many of the students stood outside a canopy, looking over the shoulders of the researchers to catch a glimpse of the turtles being prepared for attaching the transmitters. It took more than an hour to clean and sand down the shells, place several layers of epoxy around the transmitter, and allow them to dry. Once completed, the turtles were taken to the water and released. The crowds were kept back to give the turtles room and once they had their bearings, they went directly to the cool water.
I wish this story could have a neat and tidy ending with the turtles heading off into the water, their transmitters providing valuable information for years to come. However, less than a week later I got word that one of the hawksbills was already found dead. The likely culprit was blast fishing, a barbaric practice where fishermen use homemade bombs to kill everything in their range of impact. Read more about this tragedy on our partner EcoViva’s website here.
That news was a reminder that, despite a tremendous amount of progress studying and protecting Jiquilisco Bay’s turtles over the past few years, there is still a lot of work to do. The first order of business is to ensure that the bay receives protection; effective regulations are currently lacking for this spectacular wildlife hotspot. ICAPO is hoping to guarantee protection of the critical hawksbill habitat, namely the 50 meter fridges along the primary nesting beaches as well as all the marine habitat within the estuary. These actions by the government of El Salvador are the minimum necessary to give hawksbills its best shot at survival in the eastern Pacific.
SEE Turtles supports this project through our Billion Baby Turtles campaign. Click here to donate, every dollar saves at least 2 hawksbill hatchlings.