Bay of Turtles: Bahía de Jiquilisco, El Salvador

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.

 

Get Involved:

SEE Turtles supports this project through our Billion Baby Turtles campaign. Click here to donate, every dollar saves at least 2 hawksbill hatchlings.

Read more about ICAPO’s efforts to protect Jiquilisco Bay and how to volunteer with the program here.

12 Miles of Paradise

Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

I’ve spent a fair amount of time hiking in the jungle but almost never at night and definitely never at this pace. Four of us were moving quickly through the rainforest, hurrying to the sea turtle nesting beach at the end of the trail, in the hopes of arriving in time to put a satellite transmitter on a black turtle currently on the beach. The rumble of far-off thunder faded into the sound of crashing waves as we crested a hill near the end of the trail.

Our destination was Brasilon Beach, within the La Flor Wildlife Refuge in the southwestern corner of Nicaragua. This beach is one of several turtle nesting beaches along this stretch of coast protected by Paso Pacifico, an innovative young conservation organization. Paso Pacifico focuses on protecting the “Paso del Istmo”, an incredibly beautiful 12-mile stretch of land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean.

My visit started in Managua, where I was picked up by Liza Gonzalez, Paso Pacifico’s Country Director, on the way to the isthmus. I can’t imagine a better guide than Liza, who intimately knows the region and its residents. She’s held lofty positions in the government (she was formerly director of the National Protected Areas System) but her passion for spending time in the field and with the people who depend on natural resources was obvious. 

Cathedral in Grenada

Cathedral in Grenada

Hawksbill shell jewelry

Hawksbill shell jewelry

Along the way, we made a quick stop in Granada, the beautiful colonial town on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. Strolling through the market in front of the dramatic cathedral, I found more hawksbill turtle jewelry for sale than any other place I’ve been in Latin America. This reminder of how much work remains to be done helped to set my perspective for the visit.

The view from the car gradually changed from open pastureland to intact forest as we went south. We passed through San Juan del Sur, a growing tourist town that is the main stopping point for backpackers in this area. Before arriving at our ultimate destination, Ostional Beach, we saw beautiful nature murals on local schools, ate at a restaurant supported by the organization, and passed areas their reforestation project is restoring. Paso Pacifico’s impact is visible almost everywhere you go in this region.

Photo by Hal Brindley

Photo by Hal Brindley

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At Ostional, we arrived to the Manta Ray hostel, where we were staying for two nights. Walking out to the beach, I was stunned by the dramatic view. The rolling rocky coast of Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica stretches across the entire horizon giving the impression of a huge bay. After nightfall, the only visible lights were bright stars and the far off overdeveloped resort area of Papagayo, Costa Rica, a reminder of the type of coastal development that many local residents hope to avoid in this region. This town is home to a sea turtle hatchery, run by a group of local women and supported by our Billion Baby Turtles program.

Here we met up with Marvin Chevez, a ranger with Paso Pacifico and a former student in an ecotourism class that I teach at Mt. Hood Community College. Marvin had just returned to Ostional after two years of living in Oregon and is putting his new degree to good use in the reforestation program.

We headed out by boat to explore the spectacular stretch of coast, possibly the most beautiful and dramatic of coastline that I’ve ever seen (and I live in Oregon). Crashing waves batter sloping flat rocks and white sand beaches hide behind rocky-forested outcrops. Moving north along the coast of the wildlife refuge, we stopped in front of La Flor beach, one of a handful of beaches in the world that host the arribada, a mass nesting event of olive ridley sea turtles. My years of experience being quiet around turtles on nesting beaches went right out the window as I let out a yell as a small head popped out of the water not far from our boat. The turtle heard me and dropped right back into the water, but there were plenty more bobbing around.

Mating olive ridleys off the coast of La Flor (by Hal Brindley)

Mating olive ridleys off the coast of La Flor (by Hal Brindley)

That evening, we hiked to Brasilon, unaware of the weather that was on its way. Catching our breath upon arrival to the beach, we checked in with the rangers who let us know this turtle wasn’t suitable for a transmitter (her shell was too thin). Before the female black turtle (as known as the Pacific green turtle) headed back to the ocean, we collected her data and let her on her way. As the turtle got wet, so did we as a light rain began to fall.

Anticipating a wet return hike, we set off up the steep trail again as lightning approached. The hike back through the forest challenged my ability to concentrate; our pace increased and the trail became slick. I desperately tried to keep my camera dry while avoiding slipping on the rocks and mud. When we finally reached the end of the trail, not one dry spot remained on anyone.

The next day, sun shining once again, we visited La Flor beach. Though a small arribada of roughly 1,000 turtles had happened three days before, there was little evidence of turtles on the beach. At its peak, La Flor can host up to fifty thousand turtles during an arribada. With so many turtles, the refuge’s rangers can have a hard time protecting the nests on the edge, which often get poached for sale on the black market.

A short drive took us from La Flor to Hostal Don Miguel, a charming new small hotel owned by local residents. Don Miguel is participating in Paso Pacifico’s reforestation program and hosts a nursery for native trees used throughout the region. Nicaragua has been hard hit by deforestation but Paso Pacifico’s award-winning program has helped to restore more than 1,000 acres to rainforest. This inspirational project not only helps recover wildlife habitat, it also helps to create jobs, absorb carbon in the air, and prevents erosion and flooding.

Don Miguel with trees planted through Paso Pacifico's program

Don Miguel with trees planted through Paso Pacifico's program

While a student in my class, I had Marvin promise to take me on a kayak tour. Unfortunately, he hadn’t warned me just how big the waves at his beach were. After a couple of attempts to pass the waves (on a kayak built for rivers) and a couple of times being tossed into the water, we figured walking the kayaks to the nearby estuary was a better idea. The quiet river was a big contrast to the crashing ocean though the calm was broken when Marvin’s howler monkey imitation awoke a big group sitting in a nearby tree.

The haunting call of the howlers stayed with me the next day as I headed to the airport to head back to Portland. After 10 days in two countries (El Salvador and Nicaragua), visiting four turtle beaches, spending 25 hours in cars and buses, numerous boat rides, and staying at 6 hotels and cabins, I was ready to head home. The dozens of local and international turtle conservationists that I met on this trip have given me hope that, despite large threats and little funding, the sea turtles living along this stretch of coast have a chance not only to survive, but to thrive.

The Last Refuge: Padre Ramos Estuary, Nicaragua

By Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

A wide beach on a warm clear evening may be the most relaxing setting on earth. We weren’t likely to come across any nesting turtles on this beautiful evening in the far northwest corner of Nicaragua (the tides weren’t right), but we didn’t mind. The soft sound of surf provided a soundtrack for the brightest Milky Way I’ve seen in years. Just being out on the sand was enough entertainment. But we didn’t travel 10 hours by bus from El Salvador for a tranquil beach walk.

We came to Padre Ramos Estuary because it is home one of the world’s most inspiring sea turtle conservation projects. Our motley group of international sea turtle experts was there as part of a research expedition to study and protect one of the world’s most endangered turtle populations, the Eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle. Led by the Nicaraguan staff of Fauna & Flora International (FFI, an international conservation group) and carried out with support from the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known as ICAPO), this turtle project protects one of only two major nesting areas for this population (the other is El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay). This project depends on the participation of local residents; a committee of 18 local non-profit organizations, community groups, local governments, and more.

The coastal road leading into the town of Padre Ramos felt like many other spots along Central America’s Pacific coast. Small cabinas line the beach, allowing surfers a place to spend a few hours out of the water each night. Tourism has barely touched the main town however and the stares of the local kids hinted that gringos are not yet a common sight walking around town.

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After arriving at our cabinas, I grabbed my camera and took a walk through town. A late afternoon soccer game competed with swimming in the cool water for the favorite pastime of the residents. I walked out to the beach as the sun set and followed it north to the mouth of the estuary, which curls around the town. The flattened crater of the Cosigüina volcano overlooks the bay and several islands.

The next day, fully rested, we set off early in two boats to try to catch a male hawksbill in the water. Most of the turtles studied in this region have been females easily caught on the beach after nesting. We spotted a hawksbill alongside an island called Isla Tigra, directly in front of the Venecia Peninsula, and the team sprung into action, one person hopping out of the boat with the tail end of the net while the boat swung around in a large semicircle, the net spreading out behind the boat. Once the boat reached the shoreline, everyone hopped out to help pull in the two ends of the net, unfortunately empty.

Despite our poor luck at catching turtles in the water, the team was able to capture the three turtles we needed for the satellite tagging research event. We brought one turtle from Venecia, which is located across the bay from the town of Padre Ramos, to involve members of the community who participate with the project in the satellite tagging event. Little is known about these turtles, but satellite transmitters have been part of a groundbreaking research study that has changed how scientists view the life history of this species. One finding that surprised many turtle experts was the fact that these hawksbills prefer to live in mangrove estuaries; up till then most believed they almost exclusively lived in coral reefs.

A few dozen people gathered around as our team worked to clean the turtle’s shell of algae and barnacles. Next, we sanded the shell to provide a rough surface on which to glue the transmitter. After that, we covered a large area of the carapace with layers of epoxy to ensure a tight fit. Once we attached the transmitter, a piece of protective pvc tubing was placed around the antenna to protect it from roots and other debris that might knock the antenna loose. The final step was to paint a layer of anti-fouling paint to prevent algae growth.

Next, we headed back to Venecia to put two more transmitters on turtles near the project hatchery, where hawksbill eggs are brought from around the estuary to be protected until they hatch and then are released. The tireless efforts of several local “careyeros” (the Spanish term for people who work with the hawksbill, known as “carey”) was rewarded with the opportunity to work with cutting edge technology on this important scientific study. Their pride in their work was obvious in their smiles as they watched the two turtles make their way to the water once the transmitters were attached.

Turtle conservation in Padre Ramos is more than just attaching electronics to their shells. Most of the work is done by the careyeros under the cover of darkness, driving their boats throughout the estuary looking for nesting hawksbills. Once one is found, they call the project staff who attach a metal ID tag to the turtles’ flippers and measure the length and width of their shells. The careyeros then bring the eggs to the hatchery and earn their pay depending on how many eggs they find and how many hatchlings emerge from the nest.

It was only a couple of years ago that these same men sold these eggs illegally, pocketing a few dollars per nest to give men unconfident in their libido an extra boost. Now, most of these eggs are protected; last season more than 90% of the eggs were protected and more than 10,000 hatchlings made it safely to the water through the work of FFI, ICAPO, and their partners. These turtles still face several threats in the Padre Ramos Estuary and throughout their range. Locally, one of their biggest threats is from the rapid expansion of shrimp farms into the mangroves.

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One of the tools that FFI and ICAPO hope to use to protect these turtles is to bring volunteers and ecotourists to this beautiful spot. A new volunteer program offers budding biologists the opportunity to spend a week to a few months working with the local team to manage the hatchery, collect data on the turtles, and help to educate the community about why it’s important to protect these turtles. For tourists, there is no shortage of ways to fill both days and nights, from surfing, swimming, participating in walks on the nesting beach, hiking, and kayaking.

On my final morning in Padre Ramos, I woke up early to be a tourist, hiring a guide to take me on a kayaking excursion through the mangrove forest. My guide and I paddled across a wide channel and up through increasingly narrow waterways that challenged my limited ability to navigate. Halfway through, we stopped at a spot and walked up a small hill with a panoramic view of the area.

From above, the estuary, which is protected as a natural reserve, looked remarkably intact. The one obvious blemish was a large rectangular shrimp farm that stood out from the smooth curves of the natural waterways. Most of the world’s shrimp is now produced this way, grown in developing countries with few regulations to protect the mangrove forests that many creatures depend upon. While crossing the wide channel on the to return trip to town, a small turtle head popped up out of the water to take a breath about 30 feet in front of me. I like to think it was saying “hasta luego”, until I’m able to return again to this magical out of the way corner of Nicaragua.


Get Involved:

Volunteer with this project! – Come participate with this project, helping local researchers manage the hatcheries, tag turtles, and release hatchlings. The cost is $45/day which includes food and lodging in local cabinas.

SEE Turtles supports this work through donations, helping to recruit volunteers, and educating people about the threats these turtles face. Make a donation here. Every dollar donated saves 2 hawksbill hatchlings.