Turtle Conservation & Cultural Reality

By Jessica Pate, Marine Scientist, Sea I mester

On a picture-perfect Caribbean morning on the island of Bequia, my first mate dropped me off at the dinghy dock to provision vegetables for our 18-man crew.  As this was my third attempt in forty-eight hours to acquire all our veggie needs, the walk down the dock was a familiar one.  However, as I approached the junction between water and land, I saw something new and unwelcome.  Lying on its back was a large (sub-adult/adult) hawksbill sea turtle, apparently dead.  I took a quick glance (and a quick photo with my smart phone) and headed to some benches within sight of the dock.  Having travelled extensively, I’m aware that locals do not like to harm charismatic animals in front of visitors or tourists. Within a few minutes some men with a dull machete approached the turtle and began to cut its throat.  I watched with unease as I realized that the turtle was still alive, its flippers flapping in protest against its side.  This lasted for what seemed to me a long time, and before the decapitation could be completed I fled inside the veggie market to collect my order.

In early September, I began working as a Marine Science Instructor for Sea|mester, a company that takes students to sea for a semester, teaching them sailing, diving, leadership skills, oceanography and marine biology.  Sea|mester owns and operates two sailing vessels.  Ocean Star, the one I currently work and live on, has been travelling the Caribbean for almost two decades.  Up until taking this job, my resume has largely revolved around sea turtle conservation and biology.; ranging from my first post-undergraduate position as a research assistant tagging Olive Ridleys in Costa Rica to recently completing my Master’s thesis on comparative morphology in hatchling sea turtles.  Through this experience, I have seen much evidence of the misfortunes of turtles including eggs being poached on the beaches of Central America and Florida, the circling tracks of hatchlings disoriented by the lights of condos, and even a female loggerhead that died of head trauma while attempting to nest, after falling in hole dug by happy beachgoers the day before.  In West Africa, I have eagerly followed the alternating flipper tracks of a nesting Olive Ridley, expecting to find a female in part of the nesting process, only to find the flipper tracks end and be replaced by the smooth track of a turtle that’s been flipped over and dragged on her carapace to someone’s hut. 

Despite all these experiences, I still hadn’t prepared myself for the sight of a turtle being brutally slaughtered alive, especially on such a picturesque Caribbean morning.  To be honest, I was woefully ignorant on the status of turtle conservation and management in the eastern Caribbean islands.  I was completely unaware that many of these islands have an extended turtle fishing season.  Sometimes open turtle season overlaps with nesting season, resulting in the capture of gravid females.  According to the Fishery Division of Bequia’s website, open season for sea turtles runs from August 1st-February 28th and hawksbills must be at least 85 lbs to be legally taken (Leatherbacks must be 350 lbs, green turtles 180 lbs and loggerheads 160 lbs).

Despite the fact that many of these Caribbean islands allow endangered species to be hunted, there are many people supporting turtle conservation in the Caribbean.  On the island of Nevis, my students and I observed nesting hawksbills on Lover’s beach with Emile of the Nevis Turtle Group.  Emile and his group of volunteers tag hawksbills, green turtles and leatherbacks during the nesting season.  At night, after the females finish nesting and leave the beach, the volunteers wipe the turtle tracks away from the sand in order to disguise the location of the eggs from poachers.

Also in Bequia, the island where I observed the turtle slaughter on the dock, there is a turtle sanctuary established by a retired fisherman, Orton ‘Brother’ King.  He established the turtle sanctuary in 1995 (at the age of 57!) when he noticed a decline in turtle’s swimming on the reefs.  Mr. King raises the turtles up to 3-5 years of age, until they are large enough to avoid many predators, and in this way gives them a ‘head-start’ in life.  Talking to Brother King at his beachfront turtle facility left me feeling hopeful for turtles in the Caribbean islands.  It is always inspiring to see someone who used to make their living from the ocean, dedicate their life to saving its inhabitants.

After collecting all my vegetables from the market, I walked outside and found the turtle being ‘dismantled’.  I walked over and politely asked if I might take some photos.  The man with the machete acquiesced, and acknowledged that he knew I didn’t like what I was seeing but for him it was a way of life.  The head and flippers of the turtle had been removed, and all of the internal organs had been taken from inside the shell and placed inside a cardboard box.  I peered inside and I was surprised to see the turtle’s heart still beating.  I detached myself from my inner soft-hearted ‘turtle hugger’, and marveled at the chance to see the anatomy of these amazing creatures.  

From a group of men off to the side, I heard “Hey you, are you a turtle conservationist?”  I had forgotten I was wearing one of my many sea turtle shirts and this man, on seeing my shirt and camera, was obviously concerned.  Not wanting to cause trouble, I simply told him I was from a schooner anchored offshore and was simply curious about the turtle’s fate.  Not completely believing me, he began to tell me how this turtle had been attacked by a shark and would not have survived in the ocean.  I didn’t remember seeing any shark bites when I walked by earlier, and know he was just trying to assure me, the tourist, that they only kill these animals for altruistic purposes.  I simply said ‘Okay’ and talked with him for a little about free diving and fishing off the coast of Bequia.

This interaction tugged at two parts of myself that are often contradictory.  First, the part that believes in peoples’ right to carry on cultural traditions without input and dissension from outsiders (including myself).  To see different ways of life is one of my main reasons for traveling and nothing upsets me more than to see traditions fall away due to the infiltration of Western ideas and technology.  The other side of me knows that killing animals who reach sexual maturity at a late age and have a low hatchling survival rate cannot sustain all the human pressures being put on them.  It is this constant internal battle that compels me to travel and find the balance between conserving culture and protecting wildlife (not necessarily mutually exclusive objectives).

I am more than halfway through my first ‘seamester’ and I look forward to what interesting surprises (good or bad) the rest of the Caribbean has in store for me.