In the last few months the topic of conversations haven’t all been about ‘doom and gloom’, more of hope and possibility as we search for the silver-lining to keep our spirits high – it’s the environmentalist in me that takes some comfort in hearing of the triumphs of mother nature.
One positive subject that’s popped up in social media recently are the sea turtles nesting on empty beaches. I’m privileged to write this blog alongside turtle conservationist, Raphe van Zevenbergen, Co-Founder of Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, in Malaysia.
Beaches worldwide are deserted as result of lockdown measures and our absence has coincided with a period of the year when turtles are nesting. It’s one of the most famous traits of a sea turtle and one which amazes us – Sea turtles returning to the same beach at which they hatched, to lay their own eggs. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been buzzing over all things turtle, with reports of nesting in Brazil, Costa Rica, Florida, Mexico, Philippines, Texas and Thailand, with some boasting record numbers.
One of the most reported-on and shared articles was based in India, emphasising how empty beaches had staged a successful nesting site for Olive Ridleys turtles. According to Business Insider, 70,000 were seen nesting along the coast where lockdown measures had resulted in empty beaches. This is a huge win for Olive Ridleys, as last year, nestings were mostly unsuccessful due to cyclones.
However, another publication by Mongabay argued its link to lockdown measures but still noted how the turtles were witnessed visiting during the day as well the night to lay their eggs and in equal number, something that hasn’t been seen in seven years.
Maybe we’ve stumbled on a subject which is open to discussion, so let’s consider what impact we have on nesting sea turtles? Picture female sea turtles weighing 150kg, hauling themselves up the beach or the tiny hatchlings, only 2 inches long, making their manic dash to the sea. Obstacles such as deckchairs, trash and holes dug in the sand make it harder than necessary. Light pollution has also been found to have a negative impact on hatchlings, as during the night, the lights from homes, hotels and traffic can attract them and cause them to head in the opposite direction to the sea. Our physical presence on land can also deter nesting turtles and crowded beaches have even been linked to “false-crawls”, where a female will decide to turn around and return to the water without laying eggs. Lastly, boats and other water-craft can cause injury to turtles as they surface to breath or venture into shallow water to reach the beach and although sea turtles will dive to the sound of engines approaching, sometimes their reactions are not fast enough.
Our presence isn’t all negative however, conservation groups work hard to protect turtle nests – but due to the pandemic, many volunteers are now isolating. These volunteers would usually be helping to scare away potential predators and poachers by patrolling the beaches, and also help to ensure successful hatching by building boundaries around nests and even relocating them at times. All while conducting research to help calculate population sizes and better understand turtle behaviour to assist them in their conservation efforts. Poaching has become a growing concern with falling tourism market.
Raphe and his team at The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch were fortunate that the Malaysian government deemed its’ wildlife services to be essential during this lockdown period and they’re still out patrolling the beaches and relocating nests. However, it would usually be busy with tourists around this time of year and they rely on these visitors for educational outreach and to generate funding. Exposing them to nature’s beauty and wonder helps achieve one of the organisation’s goals – to create a more empathetic and compassionate global society – Without visitors, the scale and future of their work hangs in the balance.
You have the opportunity to help. There are many turtle conservation groups in Australia and all around the world, who depend on charitable donations to continue their work during this pandemic, organisations like The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch. If you have time, please check out their page where you can learn more about what they do and what you can do to help.
It’s not just support with funding though and Raphe has some small actions that we can all take to help:
- When you leave the beach next, simply fill in the holes you’ve dug, flatten the sand-castles that you’ve made and dispose of your rubbish correctly.
- If you’re driving at night, consider a route inland.
- If you live by the coast, turn off your lights when you aren’t using them.
- Be mindful when you’re on the water, check your speed and keep an eye out for surfacing turtles.
- Maintain a respectful distance from turtles, whether snorkelling, diving or on land.
- Reducing your use of single-use plastics such as straws – sadly, this trash can find its’ way into the ocean and turtles can mistake it food.
- Spread the news about the beauty of nature and the importance of conserving our natural world.
Raphe and I agree that it will be difficult to calculate how successful this year’s nesting sites will be without conservation groups operating to their potential, but it’s reassuring to consider that although volunteers aren’t out in the same numbers as they were, that there are fewer factors for the turtles to contend, thanks to lockdown measures. But it’s
clear that some organisations will be dependent on donations to keep their ‘heads above water’, and our beloved turtles will need their full support when we return to the beach.
Before you go… There was also a story about a Loggerhead turtle called “Yoshi” who stole our hearts having swam 37,000km to return home to Western Australia, after spending 20 years in captivity. It shows the incredible distances that turtles can travel to return to nesting sites and what I love about this story is that that you can see route she took to get home.
7 Mar 2020 – ABC news “Loggerhead turtle’s journey tracked 37,000km from Cape Town in South Africa to Australia”.
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Images courtesy of The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch.