As World Sea Turtle Day approaches, Joe Shooman heads to St Martin’s beaches to help one of the Caribbean’s most charismatic endangered species
The moon is smiling as the hazy heat of another Caribbean day yawns over the horizon. On the beach, a breeze sighs happily through the upper branches of the palm trees. We wait, our breathing and heartbeats seeming to fill the air with a rhythmic song of anticipation.
And then… it starts to happen. Tiny hatchling turtles emerge from their sandy nest; each critter determinedly scurrying over the beach toward the gaping maw of the rolling surf. It is a truly breathtaking moment, this fragile, unearthly and yet incredibly cute line of baby creatures making their first steps toward their future home.
Tough times for turtles
On the French side of the beautiful island of St Martin, turtle conservation is in the capable hands of the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de Saint-Martin. Meet Julien Chalifour, local coordinator for the Réseau Tortues Marines de Guadeloupe, the French West Indies umbrella organisation for the regional coordination and implementation of marine turtle conservation. “Since 2008, we have been involved in this initiative to promote awareness and management actions to preserve marine turtles – green, hawksbill, leatherback and loggerhead – and their habitats. Inside our Marine Protected Area, but also outside, we are spreading the word and trying to restore the habitats’ quality to ensure security for turtles.”
The turtle nesting season, which here runs from March to November, is monitored by eco-volunteers who patrol the beaches, record turtle track marks and gather information such as which species are present, the number of nests and other useful points. It is an amazing opportunity for people like you and I to observe and even help these tiny creatures on some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches.
Amandine Vaslet has been involved since 2013 as a volunteer. “I still find it kind of magical when you see the [mature turtles] swim and get to the surface to breathe,” she says. “They are among the few animals that get out of their natural habitat, the sea, to reproduce on the land. You can see how they struggle sometimes to reach their nesting area.”
Sea turtle species are threatened throughout the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists green, olive ridley and loggerhead turtles as Endangered; hawksbill and Kemp’s ridleys are Critically Endangered; leatherbacks are Vulnerable. “We have to help them as much as we can,” says Amandine. “This survey in St Martin is the opportunity to collect more information about them, in order to help protect them.”
Past and present dangers
Historically, turtles have been a source of sustenance for the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. “They were easy to catch and keep alive to transport or sell,” Julien explains.
Since 1991, all marine turtles in the French West Indies have been protected; since 2005 their habitats have also been protected. “Nowadays there is still some poaching in the French West Indies,” Julien says, “but the main causes of death for turtles from St Martin are boat collisions, environmental degradation and some diseases.”
In Guadeloupe, where fishermen are more numerous, the use of gillnets for catching queen conch is a big problem – this type of gear was used to fish turtles before, and still catches them. However, there are fewer than ten professional fishermen registered on St Martin, and they mostly use fish pots and longlines.
“The different species of turtles living in our waters are dependent on so many different habitats threatened by pollution, urbanisation and over-exploitation,” says Julien. “Here on St Martin, they suffer from anthropogenic nuisances such as organic pollution. And these threats are amplified by coastal urbanisation. One of our jobs is to make sure that laws are well applied and that there is still a piece of green between urbanised zones and the big blue.”
There are more than 60 volunteers involved with the project each year but a lack of local experts is a challenge – there are few scientists and few environmental non-governmental organisations on St Martin.
“We try to coordinate touristic activities, nature discovery and conservation of the local flora and fauna,” Julien tells me. “For that you have to be alternately a speaker, a guide, a scientist and a police officer. The hardest part is to make the practice evolve by dealing with old habits and finding converging interests.”
There are also more prosaic obstacles, Amandine adds: “It can rain a lot or it can be windy. But still, it is great to get out for a walk along the beach – a nice hike, a workout and a scientific survey.”
How to help
Volunteering to help the turtles is encouraged. Even visitors who are on the island for a shortish period can get involved. “We have all kinds of people among our annual volunteers,” Julien says. “There are St Martiners from several generations, recently settled people, people working here for one tourist season, people here for vacations. They range from eight to 70 years old.”
There are other, more general ways to have an impact, too. For instance, anyone, anywhere, can help by adopting a responsible way of living and consuming. Even small things, such as monitoring your energy consumption or opting for sustainable food helps the bigger picture. Recycle more, use less plastic, ditch nasty chemical fertilisers in favour of biodegradable garden products. All help look after the planet and, by extension, the marine habitat.
It’s also important to be aware that brief moments of magic are the reward for putting in the hard yards, advises Amandine. “It isn’t the case that, when you become a volunteer and go each week to the beach to do research, that you will see turtles every time. You are very lucky if you see them; it is quite rare to be on the beach at the right time and in the right place. It is a matter of chance. But you will see some tracks, a nest and sometimes the rest of the eggs after hatching.”
The Réserve Naturelle organises a volunteer night survey each year, which you can attend after registering. It offers a great chance of getting your feet in the soft white sand under another intensely beautiful Caribbean moon and actualy being present to see a turtle nesting. “I have participated in these surveys for the past two years and each time I have seen big turtles coming on the beach, starting to dig their nest,” says Amandine. “Last year we were very lucky to see a turtle laying its eggs. It was magical, and it encouraged all our efforts.”
The first few minutes are very important for the tiny hatchlings – for them, it is a matter of life or death, as other animals, such as frigatebirds, feed on them. However, when you do encounter turtles, it is important to remain as hands-off as possible, says Julien. “A lot of people attending this event want to have their picture taken with the turtles or put the hatchlings directly in the sea, but it is better to let them go naturally and to avoid any extra stress.”
So it’s best to leave them be, and instead enjoy watching those tiny creatures emerging from the sand and disappearing into the sea, in the knowledge that – with luck, and care – in 20 years’ time they will be back to build their own nests right here.