Sea turtles live in the ocean, but lay their eggs on land. After mating just offshore, a female sea turtle will crawl up the sand on the very same beach where she was once born (or very close to it) to lay her eggs.
Sea turtle conservation is one of my many jobs as a Peace Corps Volunteer. If we discover a newly laid nest in an unsafe location (perhaps it is located below the high tide line and will be submerged or perhaps wild dogs are likely to dig up and consume the nest) we transfer the nest to our protected sea turtle hatchery.
A nest is dug within this enclosure to the same dimensions as the original nest. Eggs are transferred with care to ensure that vertical orientation is preserved (within the first 10 hours of being laid a sea turtle embryo attaches to the roof of the egg, if this attachment is broken during transfer the turtle will not develop and then entire nest could end in mortality…thus immediate transfer and proper orientation are key!)
After about 60 days the eggs hatch. Last week we greeted 44 hawksbill sea turtle hatchlings!
After hatching sea turtles use visual stimuli to orient themselves to the ocean and crawl into the sea. Turn off bright beach lights!! Otherwise these baby turtles may mistakenly crawl to the road instead of the naturally brightest horizon of the ocean reflecting moonlight and the glimmer of stars.
Once in the ocean, these baby turtles will swim against the surf for about 15mins. As they get far from shore, turtles use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their journey to the open sea, where they will live in floating beds of seaweed until they grow large and make the journey back to the beach where they were born.
Our care of this sea turtle nest had strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, only 44 eggs of a nest of over 100 eggs hatched. This low hatch rate is likely due to damage during the nest transfer process. Therefore do NOT move a sea turtle nest unless absolutely essential (in the US this is illegal without special permits and training). Secondly, the release of these hatchlings was delayed allowing many visitors and personal handling. In the future, I hope that hatchlings can be released as soon as possible with minimum human interference.
Our strengths include smooth sand, raked free from holes or obstruction. Also we camped out at the beach that night to ensure that no dogs stole off with baby turtles and we confirmed that all 44 hatchlings had successfully swam away by daybreak.
Several months ago a huge box (large enough to fit me instead!) arrived at the Libertad Daycare in Odiongan, Romblon Philippines. It felt like Christmas as 400 storybooks including Dr. Suess, Goodnight Moon and Itsy Bitsy Spider were unpacked and placed on the brand new book shelf installed in the new reading corner of the day care.
Our Santa Claus was Pinoy Reading Buddies or PRB, an initiative that promotes engaged reading and spreading literacy through a buddy mentoring system. They generously mailed us a shipment of storybooks for beginning readers. Check out there website and get involved!!
This past Friday, I visited the daycare for a read-a-loud storytelling. The 15 preschoolers, who made it to class despite the heavy rain and soggy roads of the rainy season, learned about the life cycle of a sea turtle in One Tiny Turtle by Nicole Davies.
I even brought a pretend baby turtle to demonstrate what it is like inside a sea turtle egg!
Now I am hoping to make story time a regular activity with a different theme each week!
I believe that the ocean harbors life – life that I must protect.
I believe that the ocean is mankind’s greatest common heritage.
I believe that the diversity of the ocean is important to sustaining human life.
I believe that I am part of but one ocean, and that everything I do affects the delicate balance of life on Earth.
I believe that it is my duty to protect the ocean.
I believe that by protecting the ocean I help to protect the future.
Therefore, I pledge to always live in harmony with the ocean.
Yesterday we visited the Pawikan (sea turtle) Conservation Center just a short drive from my home in Sabang. The center was founded in 1999 by Kuya Manolo Ibias (photo below), a former sea turtle egg consumer who came to recognize the importance of marine turtles within the ecosystem and organized local community members to assist in turtle conservation. We got to see a baby olive ridley turtle (the first olive ridley I have ever seen because they are not found in the Atlantic) as well as a hawksbill and a green sea turtle.
Sea turtle nesting occurs from mid-September until mid-February here in the Philippines. During these months the 16 volunteers at the Pawikan Conservation Center patrol 6 kilometers of beach 2xs every night in search of mama sea turtles which crawl up the beach to lay their eggs. A mama turtle will typically lay an average of three clutches in a given season with just over 100 eggs per nest. After about 60 days the eggs hatch and baby turtles crawl to the surface and into the ocean. Light pollution is a significant threat to baby sea turtles, which use the glimmer of moon light off the water to orient themselves towards the ocean. Thus if you leave the back lights on at your beach house you might cause a baby green sea turtle to crawl in the direction of human development rather than out to sea.
Olive ridley sea turtles are most common along this beach. Last season Manolo and his team excavated 191 nests. The volunteers have chosen to dig up each nest they locate and transport the eggs to a hatchery at the conservation center to protect the baby turtles from various predators including dogs, crabs, birds and poachers. The hatchery consisted of a large enclosed sand pen. Half of the pen was shaded, while the other half was exposed to sunlight. Because a sea turtle’s gender is determined by the temperature of the egg during development, this hatchery design provides cooler temperatures for the shaded nests generally yielding male turtles and hotter temperatures for the sunlit nests, which tend to produce more female turtles. When transporting the eggs volunteers must move quickly because within a few hours of being laid the turtle embryo will attach itself to the egg shell at which point any rotational disturbance of the egg may kill the developing baby. New nests are dug by volunteers within the hatchery pen and monitored until the baby turtles emerge and can be released into the ocean.
Want to see a mama turtle nesting and help with nest transport yourself?! Manolo is always looking for new volunteers. Why not spend Christmas in the Philippines on the Pawikan Conservation Team?!? I will even pick you up at the Manila airport.
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17