Last summer I went on a short holiday to Barbados, and the thing that stuck in my mind were the sea turtles. We met a group called the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, who were sponsored by the University of the West Indies. They were digging up turtle eggs, so that they wouldn't be washed away by the storm which was due that night. They found about 200 hatchlings, and the next night we watched as they went down the beach and into the sea. The next day we went diving with them to catch turtles. What they do is catch the turtles, bring them up, tag them, weigh them, measure them and number them. If they have already been caught then they will record this instead of tagging them, and then do all of the other things.
One of the ones that they caught they called Miles (after me), he was quite small, caught on the 23rd of August 2001 just off Church Point, and he is number 300.
There are three main types of Sea Turtle:
And The Green Turtle.
The Hawksbill is by far the most commonly sighted around Barbados, my father and I caught two in one hour just snorkelling in the reefs. It feeds mainly on sponges, which grow in abundance around the reefs in Barbados, and thus they have a narrow, beak-like mouth, which is how they get their name. The shell is mottled (brown, yellow and black) and has schutes that overlap, like the tiles on a roof. The adults can weight anything from 68 to 100kg, and can reach a length of around 1 metre. It moves about using its flippers, the front two are used for propelling itself through the water, and the back (shorter) two are used for steering.
They nest on the south and west coasts of Barbados, as these are the calmest and sheltered from the stormy Atlantic. An adult female will lay eggs every two to four years, the peak season being between June and September. They nest on the beach where they were born, some 20 to 30 years earlier. They nest at night and above the tide line. About 150 leather eggs (about the size of ping-pong balls) are laid, at about half a metre depth. Once she has compacted the sand she will go back to the sea, before predators spot her.
The eggs take about 55-75 days to incubate. Once they are ready they will dig to the surface, using most of their energy, this will take a few days. They then head to the brightest horizon, which under natural conditions is the sea. Then the swim and swim until a major Atlantic current picks them up and carries them away. The stay with this current for years until they are strong enough to return to the shore.
Unfortunately these turtles are an endangered species, due to over “harvesting” by man, mainly for the shell, but also for the meat and eggs. All turtle jewellery is made from Hawksbill shell. The population is now on the increase though, and it is illegal to hunt them, or take their eggs, with a fine of about 50, 000 Barbadian dollars (25, 000 US dollars), and/or two years in jail. Also because of new housing developments beach is lost and the females are forced to lay their eggs further down the beach, and the tide may wash them away. Plus when the hatchlings emerge from the ground they head towards the brightest light, which may be light in houses, hotels, bars or roads, and as you can imagine most die, only about 1 in 1, 000 actually live to adulthood.
Then there is the Leatherback turtle, the largest of all of the Sea Turtles. It gets its name because it has a smooth back, which looks quite a lot like leather. Females weigh from 270 to 500kg, and the males can be any thing up to 1000kg!! They are an open ocean species, and only come to the shore when breeding and nesting. They navigate the ocean searching for jellyfish, their primary diet. A small number of these live near the rugged East coast of Barbados. They are not particularly in danger, mainly because they live for a long time, live in the open ocean and must be bloody difficult to catch!
Green turtles (they have this name because they are green) feed on sea grass and algae, mainly on the South and East coasts of Barbados. Unlike the Hawksbill, the Green turtle do not nest in Barbados, but go as far as Costa Rica and Ascension Island!