billion baby turtles

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.

2015 in Review

2015 was a banner year and we have all of our travelers, donors, sponsors, teachers, and students to thank for it! This year, we nearly doubled the number of baby turtles saved at 8 important turtle nesting beaches across Latin America, we trained 40 teachers, college students, and community leaders in sea turtle education, helped hundreds of students participate in conservation efforts, and much more.

 

Here are the highlights from 2015:

Billion Baby Turtles: 230,000+ Hatchlings Saved (500,000 total to date)

  • More than 20,000 critically endangered hawksbill hatchlings at important nesting beaches in Nicaragua and El Salvador through our partners ICAPO & Flora & Fauna Nicaragua.
  • 150,000 endangered green turtle hatchlings at Colola, Mexico, the most important nesting beach for these turtles along the Pacific coast through the University of Guadalajara.
  • Nearly 40,000 endangered green turtle hatchlings at Guanahacabibes National Park in Cuba through Cuba Marine Research and Conservation
  • More than 10,000 endangered green and loggerhead hatchlings at Tulum National Park in Mexico.
Green turtle hatchling in Nicaragua (credit Hal Brindley)

Green turtle hatchling in Nicaragua (credit Hal Brindley)

Sea Turtle Education

  • Through our teacher workshops, we trained more than 40 Nicaraguan teachers, college students, and community leaders in sea turtle educational techniques and provided scholarships for them to bring their students to participate in local conservation programs. The workshops were done in partnership with Paso Pacifico and Flora & Fauna Nicaragua.  
  • Our School Fundraiser Contest raised more than $5,000 to help save 5,000+ baby sea turtles. More than 350 students at 17 schools across the US participated.
  • We provided scholarships for more than 400 Latin American students to participate in local conservation projects.
  • We gave our popular sea turtle educational presentations to more than 700 students in the US.
Teachers visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Nicaragua (credit: Brad Nahill)

Teachers visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Nicaragua (credit: Brad Nahill)

Sea Turtle Conservation Tours

  • 120 travelers visited sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico. These tours generated more than $100,000 for sea turtle conservation and local communities.
  • Of those travelers, 95 volunteered during their trips, completing more than 300 work shifts.
A young traveler watches a green turtle return to the water in Costa Rica (credit: Hal Brindley)

A young traveler watches a green turtle return to the water in Costa Rica (credit: Hal Brindley)

There's one final thing we want to do by the end of the year - save 1,000 more hatchlings! We're more than halfway there and need your help. Every dollar donated helps save at least one hatchling and each gift comes with great thank you gifts. 

500,000 baby turtles!

When we launched Billion Baby Turtles 2 years ago, we had no idea how many hatchlings we could save and how fast we could save them, but we knew that with the help of travelers, green businesses, donors, and students, it could be a lot.

We are thrilled to announce that we have passed 500,000 hatchlings saved, a huge milestone! We focus our support on important turtle nesting beaches in Latin America, where small donations can go a long way towards protecting lots of endangered hatchlings and providing funds to hire local residents to patrol those beaches and help them get to the water.

 
 

With the help of partners and donors, we have accomplished a lot since our launch:

  • Saved 70,000 Eastern Pacific hawksbill hatchlings in Nicaragua and El Salvador, possibly the most endangered sea turtle population in the world with fewer than 1,000 adult females by supporting our partners ICAPO and Fauna & Flora Nicaragua;
  • Saved nearly 250,000 black turtle hatchlings in Mexico, a population once written off and now rebounding due to local efforts over the past decade due to the great work of the University of Guadalajara;
  • Saved 100,000 green turtle hatchlings at Guanahacabibes National Park, Cuba, the islands 2nd most important turtle nesting beach in partnership with Cuba Marine Research and Conservation and INSTEC.

Over the next few years, we will increase the number of hatchlings saved by offering new tours to destinations like Belize and El Salvador, starting new partnerships with socially-responsible companies, and through our annual School Fundraising Contest

One great new way that people can get involved is to become a monthly donor, helping to save baby turtles all year long. Check out our thank you gifts at each level of donation here. 

This success wouldn't be possible without help from hundreds of donors, travelers, and students as well as sponsors like Endangered Species Chocolate and Nature's Path / EnviroKidz.

Exploring Cuba's Natural & Cultural Treasures

The large green turtle arrived to the beach as if on cue, just minutes after our group arrived to the main nesting beach in Guanahacabibes National Park, near Cuba’s westernmost point.  We waiting anxiously for her to dig her body pit and start digging it’s nest, which is when we can approach without worry of scaring her off. One of our group volunteered to be the one to count the eggs as they fell, getting a front row seat to the action. The turtle spent more than an hour digging through the coral-filled sand to lay her eggs and then we watched as she made her way slowly back to the water.

 

This Cuba Sea Turtle Adventure was the result of more than 2 years of discussions, negotiations, planning, and marketing, the result of a fledgling partnership between SEE Turtles, the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation project, Altruvistas, and the Center for Marine Investigations. This partnership includes funding for beach patrols at this park through our Billion Baby Turtles program and developing a model for this project to become self-sustaining through educational and volunteer tours.

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It didn’t take long to be introduced to Cuba’s reputation for long lines. A third of our group ended up in the slowest immigration line and were the last ones through to baggage claim. On the bright side, we expected that our bags would be waiting for us when we got through. We were wrong. It was another 3 hours before the last of our bags came out and darkness started to fall as we made our way to dinner. Taking advantage of the dying light, we had dinner at El Torre, a restaurant at the top of one of Havana’s tallest building, giving us a stunning view of the city and Caribbean.

Now free of the lines, we started the next day with a presentation from Dr. Patricia Gonzalez of the University of Havana on the state of Cuba’s coral reefs, which are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean. A walking tour of Old Havana allowed our group to compare the squares and buildings that have been beautifully restored with sections that are awaiting restoration. Few places in the world (especially in the America’s) have such an incredible mix of architecture from more than 5 centuries and every block has an important historical or cultural treasure.

The next morning, we boarded our bus to head to the Viñales Valley, a stunningly beautiful region that is in the heart of tobacco growing country, about 2 hours west of Havana. We stopped at an organic farm with a beautiful view of the valley for one of the largest family-style meals I’ve ever had, with plates coming non-stop for more than a half-hour while an acoustic band sang in the background. That evening, we headed out for a party with a “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution”, a neighborhood organization that acts as a form of local government. After a few words of introduction, the music started and soon our entire group was dancing with our new Cuban friends.

The next morning, we hopped again on our bus headed for Maria La Gorda, the resort near Guanahacabibes National Park. Our exploration of this incredible park started the next day with a bird watching tour; the participants braving hordes of mosquitoes to see some extraordinary birds including the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird. That afternoon, our group snorkeled the reefs off the beach in front of the resort while a few, including myself, went diving, where we saw a beautiful young hawksbill sea turtle. We then rested up for the main attraction, the visit to the nesting beach where we saw the large green turtle.

The next day our group took a group snorkeling tour to explore the incredible reefs around the area. Guanahacabibes National Park includes some of Cuba’s healthiest reefs as well as nesting beaches and coastal forests. A smaller group went out again to look for nesting turtles and were rewarded with a smaller green turtle that we were able to observe for a short while before heading back to the resort.

On our last full day in Cuba, we drove back to Havana in time to check in at the Hotel Nacional, one of the country’s most famous and historic hotels. We were treated to a private rooftop concert at dusk by Pablo Menendez and Mezcla, one of Cuba’s most popular bands, which was followed by our best meal of the trip, a multi-course feast at La Casa, and then more music at the well-known jazz club Zorro y Cuervo (Fox and the Crow) in downtown Havana.

One final tour of the National Aquarium and souvenir shopping on the last morning wrapped up the trip before heading to the airport. To bookend our marathon wait for our bags the first day, it took our group about 3 hours to get through check-in and security, though thankfully the plane was late and nobody missed it (though there were a few missed connections in Miami). But getting acquainted with Cuba’s charmless airport did not distract from an incredible week of exploring the country’s natural and cultural treasures.  

Oasis in a Sea of Humanity: Wildlife of the Yucatan Peninsula

by Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles Director

The Caribbean was calm as our boatload of snorkelers headed northwest from the Yucatan Peninsula on a bright summer day. A group of dolphins known locally as the “Rude Boys” made a brief appearance. To our left, the only view on the horizon was Isla Contoy, protected as a bird sanctuary.

After an hour or so, a small city seemed to appear on the horizon. As we approached, the city morphed into a group of boats collected together in a seemingly random spot. Once we got close, we saw the large dorsal fins that attract thousands of people to jump into these deep waters.

Our boat came to a stop on the edge of a swirling mass of giant sharks. My wife and daughter pulled on their snorkeling gear as I readied the camera. As they slipped into the water, an enormous creature slid by the boat. One thought ran through my head: Am I crazy to bring my family thousands of miles to come face to face with the largest shark in the world?“

I knew these animals were big. I’ve seen lots of photos, read many stories, and heard first-hand accounts of their gigantism. However, none of that prepared me for the actual sight of a whale shark. From the boat, their length is astonishing. But once you are in the water, you realize that the overhead view of these sharks is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 

After donning my own snorkeling gear and getting my first underwater view, I quickly lifted my head, needing a second to comprehend what my eyes had just seen. The whale sharks’ easy grace in the water belies the fact that these animals can be up to 40 feet long and weigh up to 20 tons.

To maintain such a large size, they spend nearly all of their time feeding, moving along the surface with their gaping mouths collecting plankton and fish eggs. This area is one of a few different places around the world where whale sharks gather in large groups. Our group of 10 people rotated in and out of the boat with our two guides every few minutes, giving everyone several chances to see the sharks from the water.

The next night, my family visited X’cacel beach, one of Mexico’s most important nesting beaches for green turtles, located in a national park near Playa del Carmen. "We may have to walk a bit to see a turtle,” I told my daughter Karina as a huge supermoon rose over the Caribbean. 

As it turned out, we only had to walk about 20 feet before a dark round shape appeared in the surf. The turtle emerged right in front the research station run by local organization Flora, Fauna y Cultura de Mexico. To give the green turtle space to find a good spot to lay its eggs, we retreated back up the walkway, only to have the turtle follow us up the path. It eventually changed its mind, however, and made its way back to the water.

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

Cloaca and eggs of a green turtle

It wasn’t long before several other turtles came up on the beach. We waited until the closest turtle was laying its eggs before approaching to avoid disturbing it at a sensitive point in the process. This was also a green turtle, a female weighing probably over 200 pounds. Its multicolored shell appeared faintly white in the moonlight. Karina was entranced by the spectacle of the ancient ritual.

X’cacel is located on a nondescript road; no signs promote this incredible place, which in tourist-friendly Mexico may be a good thing. Turtles nest all along the stretch of beach from Cancun to Tulum known as the Riviera Maya, but this is one of the only spots where the beach is free of large resorts and hotels. Lights, beach furniture, and crowds all reduce the number of turtles that come up to nest, so undeveloped stretches like this are critical to keeping these ancient reptiles around.

Flora, Fauna y Cultura has spent the past 30 years protecting three turtle species that nest on more than 10 beaches in the region. These turtles face an array of threats including human consumption of their eggs and meat, and here – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – coastal tourism development. Despite being a national park, known as Santuario de la Tortuga Marina Xcacel-Xcacelito, Xcacel still faces a threat of having its natural coastal area developed into big resorts.

The next morning, we headed over to Akumal (Mayan for “Place of the Turtles”), which has a bay well known for the green turtles who feed on the seagrass. We got there early to beat the crowds and put on our snorkels and headed out in search of the ancient reptiles. Before long, my wife found a turtle calmly grazing on the grass and we quietly watched it at a distance. Its beautifully patterned orange, brown, and gold shell was much more clear than the one we’d seen the night before on the beach.

We had the young green turtle to ourselves for about 15 minutes before other snorkelers moved in. The reptile moved slowly along the seagrass, occasionally rising gently to the surface to fill its lungs before sinking back to the bottom. Most of the observers gave the turtle enough space, though one overzealous snorkeler eventually drove the turtle away by getting too close and trying to follow it with a video camera. Exhilarated by the experience, my daughter said later that watching that turtle go about its business gave her hope for the future of this species.

Green turtle in Akumal

Green turtle in Akumal

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

Hatchery at Nueva Vida

That evening, we headed south to Tulum. Everything slowed down as we turned off the main highway and drove our rental car over the frequent speed bumps along the road towards Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. At Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro, a great local hotel that works to minimize its ecological footprint while creating an inviting setting, most of the grounds are planted with native trees.  The small resort hosts rangers from Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a hatchery to protect the eggs laid by turtles that come up this stretch of beach.

That evening, the rangers knocked on our door to let us know that a turtle was nesting right in front of the hotel, one of the few to turn off its lights that face the water during nesting season and remove furniture from the beach at night. This turtle, also a green, headed towards the resort’s hatchery but changed its mind and returned to the water without nesting. Fortunately another green turtle emerged just a short walk down the beach, so we were able to see the whole nesting process, from digging the nest and laying the eggs to camouflaging the nest to hide it from predators. 

Our tour of the area’s turtle beaches finished up with a meeting with our friends at Flora, Fauna y Cultura and a group of Mayan youth who patrol a beach in nearby Tulum National Park, near the town’s famous ruins. This beach, with its location near the town, is a hotspot for egg poaching. Our Billion Baby Turtles program and our friends at Lush Cosmetics are helping to fund this program, which provides employment for these young men while helping to protect an important nesting beach for green turtles and hawksbills.

During our visit, we walked with the turtle protectors over to the beach. While my daughter buried her feet in the water, the young mean told us about their hard work. Each night, they spend the entire night on the beach, walking up and down the sand in search of emerging turtles. At dawn, they are picked up and return home to rest and recover. It’s this kind of dedication that is needed to keep the turtle returning to these beaches year after year.

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.