International Turtle Experts Search For the Elusive Hawksbill
A wide beach on a warm clear evening may be the most relaxing setting on earth. We weren’t likely to come across any nesting turtles on this beautiful evening in the far northwest corner of Nicaragua (the tides weren’t right), but we didn’t mind. The soft sound of surf provided a soundtrack for the brightest Milky Way I’ve seen in years. Just being out on the sand was enough entertainment. But we didn’t travel 10 hours by bus from El Salvador for a tranquil beach walk.
We came to Padre Ramos Estuary because it is home to one of the world’s most inspiring sea turtle conservation projects. Our motley group of international sea turtle experts was there as part of a research expedition to study and protect one of the world’s most endangered turtle populations, the Eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle. Led by the Nicaraguan staff of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and carried out with support from the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known as ICAPO), this turtle project protects one of only two major nesting areas for this population (the other is El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay). This project is supported by a committee of 18 local organizations, governments agencies and businesses.
After arriving at our cabins, I grabbed my camera and took a walk through town. A late afternoon soccer game competed with swimming in the cool water for the favorite pastime of the residents. I walked out to the beach as the sun set and followed it north to the mouth of the estuary, which curls around the town. The flattened crater of the Cosigüina volcano overlooks the bay and several islands.
The next day, the local research team brought a hawksbill turtle to the town of Padre Ramos to involve community members in the application of the satellite tags. This was one of three hawksbills that the team had caught for a satellite tagging research project. Little is known about these turtles, but these transmitters have been part of a groundbreaking research study that has changed how scientists view the life history of this species. One finding that surprised many turtle experts was the fact that these hawksbills prefer to live in mangrove estuaries; previously most believed they almost exclusively lived in coral reefs.
A few dozen people gathered around as our team worked to clean the turtle’s shell of algae and barnacles. Next, we sanded the shell to provide a rough surface on which to glue the transmitter. After that, we covered a large area of the carapace with layers of epoxy to ensure a tight fit. Once we attached the transmitter, a piece of protective PVC tubing was placed around the antenna to protect it from roots and other debris. The final step was to paint a layer of anti-fouling paint to prevent algae growth and then return the turtle to the water.
Turtle conservation in Padre Ramos, however, is more than just attaching electronics to their shells. Most of the work is done under the cover of darkness, the “careyeros” (the local term for the people who work with these turtles) driving their boats throughout the estuary looking for nesting hawksbills. Once one is found, they call the project staff who attach a metal ID tag to the turtles’ flippers and measure the length and width of their shells. The careyeros then bring the eggs to the hatchery and earn their pay depending on how many eggs they find and how many hatchlings emerge from the nest.
It was only a couple of years ago that these same men sold these eggs illegally, pocketing a few dollars per nest to give men unconfident in their libido an extra boost. Now, most of these eggs are protected; last season more than 90 percent of the eggs were protected and more than 10,000 hatchlings made it safely to the water. Unfortunately these turtles still face several threats in the Padre Ramos Estuary and throughout their range including the rapid expansion of shrimp farms into mangroves.
One of the tools that FFI and ICAPO hope to use to protect these turtles is to bring volunteers and ecotourists to this beautiful spot. A new volunteer program offers budding biologists the opportunity to spend a week to a few months working with the local team to manage the hatchery, collect data on the turtles, and help to educate the community about these turtles. For tourists, there is no shortage of ways to fill both days and nights, from surfing and swimming to nightly walks on the nesting beach and kayaking.
On my final morning in Padre Ramos, I woke up early and hired a guide to take me a kayaking through the mangroves. Halfway through, we stopped at a spot and walked up a small hill with a panoramic view. From above, the estuary, which is protected as a natural reserve, looked remarkably intact. The one obvious blemish was a large rectangular shrimp farm that stood out from the smooth curves of the natural waterways. Most of the world’s shrimp is now produced this way, grown in developing countries with few regulations to protect the mangrove forests that many creatures and people depend upon.
While crossing the wide channel on the to return trip to town, a small turtle head popped up out of the water about 30 feet in front of me. I like to think it was saying “hasta luego” until I’m able to return again to this magical out of the way corner of Nicaragua.