Whilst on my travels around Sal, Cabo Verde around a month ago, I had an incredible opportunity to participate in one of the sea turtle nesting walks operated by a local organisation – Explore CV – who work in conjunction with Project Biodiversity, a local non-profit organisation responsible for the conservation of sea turtles on Sal island. Prior to this experience I happened to see a pair of mating loggerheads – much like the photograph above – whilst on a diving trip, wetting my appetite for seeing these majestic animals up-close in one of natures greatest events.
After being picked up from my hotel in the dead of night, we were escorted to Kite Beach, Sal where the project is based. Over the course of three or so hours we walked the length of the beach, with only our guide’s infra-red light and the accompaniment of the moonlight to aid our vision. Any sign of unnatural light, like a flashlight or a phone screen, would make the females unsettled and unlikely to nest on the beaches. Although hearing the soothing noise of waves falling on the beach and the feeling of sand between our toes is always a pleasure, as the duration of our walk went on, there was only one thing on my mind – loggerhead turtles.
Marine turtles are for many the symbol of the Cabo Verde islands. Within almost every souvenir shop there were items painted with or carved into turtles; there is very much the sense that the ecotourism industry is fundamental to the local economy. Five different species of marine turtles inhabit the waters surrounding the Cabo Verdean waters – Leatherbacks, Loggerheads, Hawksbills, Greens and Olive Ridleys. During my evening on Kite Beach I was lucky enough to witness the nesting of three individual female loggerhead turtles. From the initial process of the turtles heaving their gargantuan weight up the beach, to the laying stage itself, and then the returning of the female to the sea, it was awe-inspiring.
Like many, I am an avid viewer of marine life documentaries, so prior to this experience I thought I’d be quite prepared on what to expect. But, on seeing the first female haul herself out of the water, it really was mesmerising. First and foremost, the organisms size is breath-taking. One of the females was thought to be a youngster, taking a staggering six attempts to find an appropriate nesting site and lay her eggs. Once she had laid roughly eighty eggs the female rested for several moments before attempting to return to the sea. I was positioned just to the side of her on the sand, and looking into her eyes I could tell she was knackered. For a few brief moments she rested her head and closed her eyes, before scooping the sand out from in front of her and beginning her journey back to the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the major reasons for the beach walks is to deter hunters from poaching the turtles as they are nesting. Poachers hunt the nesting females for their meat, whereas dogs and artifical lighting are the largest threat for the clutch. Project Biodiversity ensure those nests that are threatened are moved to the protected hatcheries. Since the implementation of beach protection in 2008 the number of nesting females has drastically decreased. Thanks to Project Biodiversity’s aims of encouraging the local community to become involved with the preservation and restoration of the natural habitats of Sal Island, as well as the vast number of hard-working volunteers who come to Sal for the Turtle Conservation Project, loggerhead turtle populations are increasing. With only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings excepted to survive until adulthood, these reptilian giants already have the odds stacked against them, without the added pressure of any human-induced threats.
As with everything though, marine turtles are threatened by various activities being carried out in Cabo Verde. Aside from poaching, the increasing demand by tourists for luxurious holidays on the Cabo Verde islands has caused tourist developments to drastically increase over the past few years. These touristic developments can have terrible consequences on the precious sand dune ecosystems that nesting females rely on so much; Sand dunes are integral for providing the nesting turtles with protection for their clutches. As previously mentioned, females will not nest on the beach if they see any sign of human activity. Many hotels on Sal have changed their lights in order to not scare the turtles – those that haven’t are reported to have not had many, if any, nest sites on their beaches. Known to have one of the best biological GPS systems in nature, allowing them to nest on the exact beach on which they were born, it is possible that the unnatural light as well as interruptions in the earth’s magnetic field, may disrupt turtle navigation routes.
There is no doubt that these are truly beautiful animals. It’s not hard to be in awe of their evolution and mechanisms by which they return to nest – the ability to naturally follow the earth’s magnetic field, sometimes for over 1,400 miles in distance staggers me. It would be heartbreakingly awful if we could not manage to conserve a species that has existed on earth for more than 100 million years. There is still so much of their lives that remains a mystery, so many more discoveries to be made and research to be undertaken.
So what can you do? There exists a variety of ways to get involved with this amazing NGO. From adopting a turtle nest to becoming a member of the organisation, you can make a difference through your donations. If you prefer a more hands-on approach, Project Biodiversity offers volunteer placements during the nesting season each year, which is a fantastic way to get first-hand experience as well as making a real-impact on marine turtle conservation. Fancy staying longer? Then perhaps you’d like to apply for one of the variety of jobs required to run a project like this for next year’s nesting season! However you’re capable of helping will be greatly appreciated by the organisation and I really cannot express enough how inspiring of an experience this was for me. As an aspiring marine biologist seeing these animals partake in one of natures wonders was a truly fascinating experience, and one I will not be forgetting in a long time.
If you’d like more information on the project, or would like to donate, please visit Project Biodiversity’s website – https://www.projectbiodiversity.org/.