Hawksbill sea turtle

Worth The Wait: Sea Turtles and Cuban Art In Many Forms

Arriving to Jose Marti Airport in Havana, the first hint you are somewhere different is the wait to get your bags. The throng of people standing around the two baggage areas, barely able to stand in the three hour wait to get bags checked for a 30 minute flight. The pavlovian response you feel whenever a new bag drops onto the conveyor, only to realize it’s not your bag.

The good news is that Cuba is totally worth the wait.

Once our group, participants in our Cuba Sea Turtle Volunteer Expedition, all got through customs and onto our bus, the real adventure began. Our intrepid group of travelers from across the US remained enthusiastic despite the arduous journey from Miami. One by one, we dropped the group off at their homestays, Cuba’s version of AirBnB, for some downtime before dinner. That dinner was the highlight of the first day, a fabulous multi-course meal at San Cristobal, a well-known paladar (Cuba’s unique family-owned restaurants set in former homes) where President Obama dined on his recent visit. The ornate décor combined with the creative menu, mojitos, rum, and cigars was the perfect introduction to this country.

After dinner, those not drained by the long day headed out to the Fabrica de Arte (the Art Factory), a unique Cuban institution. Few cultures in the America’s are as supportive of the arts and this museum/night club is the perfect example. A former cooking oil factory given to a group of artists, the Fabrica is an extraordinary mix of art forms, from photography and painting exhibits, to live music, a DJ, and a movie theatre (currently playing: Hail, Caesar!). The line outside was around the corner all night, something rarely seen at an art museum in the US.

But good food and the arts were not our primary reason for the visit. Our group was the first international group of sea turtle volunteers to come to Cuba, part of a partnership between SEE Turtles, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, and INSTEC, a Cuban government agency in charge of the turtle conservation program at Guanahacabibes National Park where our group was headed the next day. Guanahacabibes is one of the country’s most important turtle nesting beaches for green and loggerhead sea turtles.

 
 

We met our bus early the next morning for the long drive to Guanahacabibes after a quick stop to pick up Dr. Julia Azanza, the biologist in charge of the conservation program (and her adorable son Dario). Our group stayed at the Maria La Gorda resort, named for a woman who by some accounts was the adopted mother of a group of pirates that once lived on this remote stretch of coast on the far western point of the island. After dinner the first evening, Dr. Azanza gave a presentation on the research program, which she has directed for more than a decade.

The next day our group headed out with Osmany, a ranger for the park to look for some of the unique avian critters that live here. Osmany is so good at bird calls that it was often difficult to tell where a call was coming from, him or the birds. In a short span of time, we got to see several bee hummingbirds (the world’s smallest bird at just 2 inches tall), the Cuban trogon, the emerald hummingbird, and many other species.

Bee hummingbird

Bee hummingbird

Cuban trogon

Cuban trogon

That evening was our first visit to the nesting beach. We hadn’t been waiting long at the ramshackle shelter that houses the incredibly dedicated student volunteers before a green turtle was spotted nesting near the water. Unfortunately just as the turtle was getting ready to lay its eggs, a storm moved in with heavy winds that forced our group from the beach. By the time it passed, the turtle had returned to the ocean. Over the next three days and nights, our group explored the coral reefs of the park by snorkel and diving during the day, and returning to the nesting beach each night. Some in our group spotted a hawksbill while diving as well.

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

The next two evenings we were treated to green turtles nesting and many in our group had opportunities to participate in the research by helping to measure the turtles, count the eggs, and walk the beach. The conditions that these turtles face on this beach are more challenging than most; between clamoring over exposed coral and dealing with roots and coral in the sand while digging nests, these turtles have to expend more energy than the average turtle nesting on a typical Caribbean beach.

We had originally hoped to have more than 3 turtles nest in four nights on the beach, but after two very high nesting seasons in previous years, the turtles were due for a down year this year. Our final night on the beach was idyllic; no turtles but a nice light breeze and full moon rising over the ocean as we waited.

Returning to Havana, our group dove headfirst into the extraordinary cultural treasures that we sampled the first night at the Art Factory. We were treated to a private concert by Mezcla, a well-known group that combines many styles of music including jazz, rumba, rock, and African rhythms. Many of our group took advantage of a last minute impromptu visit to the famous Cuban ballet for a wonderful performance of “Don Quixote” in the exquisite Gran Teatro and afterwards to see some local music at the famous Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club.

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

The one time we came across turtles that was not a happy occasion was on a visit to a handicraft market. As we walked by one stall, the owner quietly mentioned she had turtleshell for sale (see photo at right). We stopped to document this illegal sale; items made from the shell of hawksbill sea turtles (incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”) are a major reason why this species is considered critically endangered. The good news is that our staff met afterwards with a local organization called “ProTortugas” who is launching a campaign to educate people about turtleshell and encourage people not to buy these items.

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Seeing these items for sale was sad but only serves to remind us why we do these trips and reinforces our need to take people to Cuba to work with sea turtles. By partnering with great organizations like CMRC and INSTEC, we can not only provide important financial support for conservation efforts but also help to educate travelers about wildlife-friendly shopping while there.

Ecotourism is proving to be a significant tool for supporting sea turtle conservation in Cuba, the tours that SEE Turtles and our sponsor Oceanic Society completed this year are providing $10,000 in funds to help protect the nesting turtles through our Billion Baby Turtles program. In 2017, we hope to provide even more support and to recruit other tour operators to spread the word about turtleshell products so we can reduce their demand.

Sea Turtles, Dolphins, & Scarlet Macaws

By Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

Our group of amateur marine biologists milled on a quiet beach on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, anxious to head out into the calm Golfo Dulce (aka Sweet Gulf) to study sea turtles as part of a local research project. The calm was broken with a sudden screech from two passing scarlet macaws, their bright red color standing out against the light blue sky. The harsh call of this spectacular bird would become the soundtrack to our exploration of this peninsula, described once by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth.”

A GAGGLE OF MACAWS (PHOTO BY HAL BRINDLEY)

A GAGGLE OF MACAWS (PHOTO BY HAL BRINDLEY)

Heading north out into the glassy gulf, our group applied their sunscreen and readied their cameras. After a smooth 20 minute ride, the boats came to a stop and the research staff of Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) started unraveling their nets and placing them in the water as turtles popped their heads out of the water to breathe. The nets are designed to catch sea turtles but also allow them to reach the surface and breathe. Our goal was to catch green and hawksbill sea turtles that forage in the Golfo Dulce so that we could collect data and judge their health before releasing them back to the water.

The Golfo Dulce is an extraordinary wildlife habitat. Among the ocean wildlife found here include three species of sea turtles, two species of dolphins, several species of whales, and whale sharks. The Gulf is considered one of only five tropical fjords found throughout the world and is one of the only places in the world where two different populations of humpback whales come to breed.

After the nets were set, volunteers hopped in the water to swim along the nets and unravel any sections that got entangled. We then headed to the beach to wait. As if on cue, within minutes a large male green turtle was caught and brought by the researchers to the beach. Our group scrambled to claim jobs helping with the data collection including measuring the shell, plastron (underside of the shell), tail, keeping a towel over the turtle’s head (which keeps it calm), and writing down the data onto a data sheet.

GREEN TURTLE RETURNING TO THE WATER (PHOTO: BRAD NAHILL)

GREEN TURTLE RETURNING TO THE WATER (PHOTO: BRAD NAHILL)

After that turtle was released, our group spread out to explore the area. Some played in the water while others wandered along the coast to look for more macaws and other wildlife. Throughout the day, we caught four more turtles, all of them green turtles, and everybody in the group had opportunities to help. One of the turtles was well known to the staff, a female green turtle that migrates to the Gulf from the Galapagos each year. The sea grass beds and mangroves provide foraging habitat for the greens and hawksbills but where most of the turtles come from and go to afterwards is still a mystery.

The next day, we headed to LAST’s mangrove restoration project. Our volunteers lined up around a mud pit with nervous looks, unsure of what was to be asked of them. The coast around the Gulf is rich with mangroves but many acres have been lost over the past few decades. Mangroves are critical to the health of coastal species, providing both protection from erosion and storms and places for fish and other small animals to reproduce and grow. To our relief, our job was only to fill plastic bags with dirt and plant them with mangrove seeds. Working efficiently, our small group knocked out more than 200 bags, ready to be planted by the next group of volunteers.

MANGROVE HATCHERY (PHOTO BY HAL BRINDLEY)

MANGROVE HATCHERY (PHOTO BY HAL BRINDLEY)

After a couple of days focused on reptiles and trees, we turned our focus to marine mammals. Joining a group of researchers from the Cetacean Research Center (CEIC in Spanish), we headed out again into a different part of the Gulf to look for bottlenose and spotted dolphins. Each person was assigned a job to collect data every half hour during the day, including weather, air, and ocean temperature, and the level of waves. Our two boats spread out to cover a larger area and after about an hour we got word the other boat had found a large group of spotted dolphins.

Keeping mostly to the deep waters in the middle of the Gulf, the spotted dolphins travel in large groups for safety. Roughly 100 of the slippery cetaceans foraged, socialized, and occasionally jumped out of the water while our two boats recorded their behavior and took photos used to identify individuals by their dorsal fins. Once we had our fill with this pod, we moved to the coastal areas near river mouths where the bottlenose dolphins can usually be found. We saw two small groups of mothers and calves of this more solitary species of dolphin.

DOLPHIN WATCHING WITH CEIC (PHOTO HAL BRINDLEY)

DOLPHIN WATCHING WITH CEIC (PHOTO HAL BRINDLEY)

Our tally from the Gulf was five sea turtles, dozens of scarlet macaws, and more than a hundred dolphins. We raised roughly $1,000 for sea turtle and marine mammal research and conservation in addition to our volunteer help and several thousand dollars invested into local communities. 

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.