Protecting Nicaragua’s Sea Turtles

Saving Hawksbills and Olive Ridleys Through Tourism & Education

Our two boats rounded a bend in the mangroves and spotted two men in the water collecting fish and passing them to another person onshore. Though it was early, the sun was already strong as we patrolled the Padre Ramos Estuary, a key hawksbill site in the northwestern corner of the country. Our goal was to capture juvenile hawksbill turtles with nets to study and release and we were approaching one of the best sites to find them. Our partners Fauna & Flora Nicaragua (FFI), in partnership with ICAPO, manage this site, one of the most important hawksbill conservation projects in the world.

However, our first attempt came up empty and we soon learned why. The fishermen we saw nearby were using homemade bombs, which blow up an area of water. This is one of the most destructive forms of fishing, indiscriminately killing everything in its wake, including turtles and fish, and damaging the habitat. The blast may have scared turtles away, leaving us empty-handed. So we moved on to another nearby spot, where we spotted a turtle coming up for air. The fishermen hired by FFI, quickly set their net around the turtle, eventually pulling up the one we spotted as well as two others.

The research staff took the turtles onto a boat and collected important data including their health, length, weight, and tag numbers (tagging them if they weren’t already) and taking small tissue samples used to study their genetics. This was the first opportunity of our tour group, there in Padre Ramos for a week to volunteer with conservation efforts, to see the beautiful hawksbills that they traveled thousands of miles to see and help.

Our other reason for being in this remote corner of Nicaragua was to hold a workshop where we trained teachers about sea turtles and how to teach their students about these incredible creatures. We spent a full day with a group of local teachers, playing games and discussing why hawksbills are endangered and how they and their students can contribute. That evening, we headed over to the FFI hatchery, where local residents are paid to bring hawksbill eggs collected from nests around the estuary to protect until they hatch.

We were once again lucky to see more turtles, this time little hatchlings who had recently emerged from their nest. The teachers got a great opportunity to watch the research done on the hatchlings, which included measuring and weighing, before they were released to the water. These hatchlings are critical to restoring this population of sea turtles, believed to number less than a thousand adult females in the region from Mexico all the way to Ecuador. Every hatchling released gives hope that this population can recover from years of poaching.

Our Billion Baby Turtles project supports this work by giving funds for the egg collecting program which we raise from tours, school groups, green businesses, and individual donors. Over the past five years, we have donated more than $35,000 to support hawksbill conservation efforts, resulting in the protection of more than 70,000 hatchlings. We have also helped to bring volunteers whose energy and money help to fuel this important effort.

Later we hopped into our rental car for the long drive to the southern Pacific coast, home to the country’s biggest turtle nesting beach at La Flor Wildlife Refuge. La Flor is one of roughly a dozen beaches worldwide home to the “arribada”, a mass nesting event where tens of thousands of olive ridley turtles can nest at one time over a few days on a beach less than one mile long.

 
 

Here, we worked with conservation organization Paso Pacifico to hold another turtle education workshop for local teachers and that night headed to La Flor to walk the beach. Though we weren’t able to spot a turtle that night, our enthusiastic group was excited to begin working with their classes to teach them about the sea turtles that live in the area. In addition to the workshop, SEE Turtles also provides scholarships for the teachers to bring their students to participate in the conservation efforts and nearby turtle projects, so the impact will be spread to many local schools.

After the workshop, I wandered through the popular tourist town of San Juan del Sur, about 30 minutes from La Flor. Despite tours to La Flor being one of the town’s most popular attractions, it’s not hard to find jewelry made from endangered hawksbills at gift shops and tables set out by artisans around town. Artisans can sell this jewelry with little risk of being caught as enforcement of the illegal trade of turtle shells is non-existent.

Over the next week, I spent a lot of time at La Flor, working with Paso Pacifico to develop guidelines for improving turtle watching at the reserve. Turtle tours to La Flor is a big local attraction; nearly every hotel in the area offers tours and tours are offered around town by local operators. Each night I went to the reserve, between 50 and 100 people arrived even though there were few turtles. A lot of work will need to be done to ensure that the people coming to the beach to see the turtles aren’t impacting the turtles themselves.

Each night I awaited news of the arribada, which generally happens during certain stages of the moon but the turtles can be fickle, as I found. It seems everyone here has their own way to tell when the turtles are coming and nobody was seeing any signs of their arrival. On my last full night, one solitary olive ridley made its way up the beach, with a group of roughly 70 people watching while it laid its eggs.

I woke up my last day in Nicaragua assuming I would miss the arribada, on my “sea turtle bucket list” for more than a decade. I stopped by La Flor on my way to Managua to take a few pictures, only to find out that a couple hundred turtles nested late in the night – the start of the arribada. Five or so ridleys were still there on the beach nesting. Obviously I would need to alter my plans to return to Managua.

 
 

That day moved slowly as I waited for night to fall to witness the mass invasion of turtles. Heading over at sunset, the first few turtles of the night came out of the water with just a few people there to witness. As dark fell, more and more dark shapes emerged from the water as more and more cars arrived to the parking lot. The bright white lights of members of army soldiers shined across the beach, there to keep poachers from taking the eggs.

La Flor has tremendous potential to be a model spot for turtle watching. Done well, tourism to the reserve could help reduce poaching, support local communities, and inspire people to support sea turtle conservation efforts. As one of the few accessible arribada sites, it’s our responsibility to make sure this treasure protects its turtles and provides a great experience for people coming from around the world.