How turtle-watching tours actually help conservation

From data collection to caring for injured turtles, get hands-on in one of Earth's most important sea turtle conservation programs.

Sea turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, having survived multiple extinction events over 100 million years. But the cascading effects of human activity have caused rapid population decline, and now six of the seven sea turtle species are considered threatened.

There are glimmers of hope, through the dedicated work of conservationists and community-based organizations around the world. It’s what has made Trinidad and Tobago—a two-island nation at the southern end of the Caribbean archipelago—one of the most important leatherback rookeries in the Western Hemisphere, and the second-largest, after Gabon.

Each season, the islands’ conservation teams depend on visitors to help give these creatures a fighting chance against the multitude of threats to their survival—including habitat destruction, climate change-induced reproductive issues, and bycatch offshore.

The turtle-watching tours they run provide vital revenue to fund monitoring and patrols; and volunteers—including travelers from overseas—power that work in the field.

“It’s literally our passion—nobody gets into this to make money,” says Giancarlo Lalsingh, who’s spent 30 years in local conservation, including over a decade at Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS Tobago). “It’s really tough. But the outcome of all that work is so worth it.”

Regardless of ability or experience, there’s a way for everyone to aid new generations of sea turtles survive against the odds. Here’s what you need to know about the threats these animals are facing, and how you can get involved to help.

A six-decade success story

Trinidad and Tobago is perhaps best known for steel drums, calypso, limbo, and Caribbean-style carnival. But in the quiet of forests and beaches, a different kind of enchantment awaits.

At night during nesting season (sometimes, but very rarely, in daylight), turtles begin to emerge from the sea. Large leatherbacks stun onlookers—they can grow to 2,000 pounds and 10 feet in length. Nesting mothers heave themselves onto land, first carving out their nests, then laying 80 to a hundred eggs before laboriously camouflaging the clutches in sand before slowly making their way back to the sea.

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Nesting mothers will make multiple visits to the beach over the season—up to 10 for leatherbacks and five for hawksbills. Roughly two months later, little hatchlings burrow their way out of the sand and dash for the open ocean.

Fewer than one in a thousand will make it to sexual maturity 25 to 30 years later. Those females that do will make the long trek back to the beaches on which they were born to birth another generation.

Five sea turtle species visit Trinidad and Tobago’s waters: leatherbacks, hawksbills, greens, loggerheads, and olive ridleys. The first three nest across both islands—primarily on Trinidad’s north and east coasts and in smaller numbers around Tobago through nesting season (March to August for leatherbacks, and May to November for hawksbills).

During nesting months, more than 6,000 turtles (and as many as 10,000) will lay on the islands’ beaches. The greatest concentration of them will be at Grande Riviere—a beach less than a mile long in a remote village on Trinidad’s north coast, and the densest leatherback nesting ground in the world. On a busy night in the peak months (May and June), up to 500 turtles can nest on this beach alone; and up to 400 at Matura, a larger beach on the rural northeast coast.

“The number of leatherbacks nesting there—it’s almost like a mass nesting event,” says Vanessa Bezy, a National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist, and wildlife conservationist from the U.S. who is working to protect sea turtles in Costa Rica. “Where I am, leatherbacks are critically endangered. I think there’s only a couple hundred left in this part of the Pacific.”

Volunteers are responsible for making Trinidad and Tobago’s humble turtle conservation a success story on a global scale. They spend untold hours tagging, counting, and measuring nesting mothers; monitoring and sometimes even relocating nests; and helping safeguard the turtles from predators and threats. Their hard work has caused leatherback meat and egg poaching to fall to near zero.

That work began in 1965 through a collaboration between the University of the West Indies and the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club. In 1989, the nation’s Forestry Division developed a co-management partnership with the rural communities where turtles nest, fostering the growth of several community-based organizations that would power the conservation effort in the decades that followed. Twenty-eight of them now comprise the Turtle Village Trust.

This distinctive community-led approach, particularly in Matura and Grande Riviere, has become a model for similar conservation initiatives across the Caribbean, and earned the organizations local and international awards for their work.

While there’s been a 99 percent drop in leatherback populations in nearby French Guiana, and a 90 percent in the Eastern Pacific, Trinidad and Tobago saw local populations rebound significantly in the 1990s, and have gradually declined since. These efforts have been bolstered by the country outlawing turtle hunting in 2011 and declaring sea turtle species as environmentally sensitive in 2014.

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There is still much work to be done. Only a fraction of nesting beaches is actively monitored, leaving a data gap not just with the leatherback but the smaller hawksbill and green turtles, which are the main target of poaching and harvesting for their meat and shells.

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Chronic funding shortfalls, equipment, and worker shortages mean that especially on high-traffic nesting beaches, some turtles return to the ocean without being tagged or recorded. There is even less coverage for offshore monitoring. All the data is key to helping researchers and public policy officials understand turtles’ migration routes; when, where, and how often they nest; how successful their nests are; and key population trends. It helps shape local, regional, and international policy.

“Nesting is just one part of the life cycle,” explains Tomas Diagne, a Senegalese biologist and National Geographic Explorer who works in turtle conservation across Africa. Sea turtles need to travel and reach their nesting ground, he says, and this directs the work he does in trying to limit the bycatch offshore. It’s the most pressing global issue for sea turtles, along with other drivers of population decline: plastic pollution; coastal development; and the effects of the climate crisis (from habitat loss to the heat-induced alteration of natural sex ratios).

One of the easiest ways people can help is through an app called TURT, a project of SOS Tobago and SpeSeas, where users can report sea turtle sightings on land or at sea. Michelle Cazabon-Mannette, one of SpeSeas’ directors (along with National Geographic Explorer Diva Amon, of Trinidad), says divers are one of the key groups they are targeting with the app, to help with offshore monitoring.

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But most of the islands’ data is collected during nesting and entered into organizational and national databases. Much of it is funded by turtle-watching tours, which are an accessible way to experience the turtles up close.

Local and international volunteers, meanwhile, are the backbone of the monitoring work. Nature Seekers welcomes the greatest number of volunteers from overseas. While they and other organizations welcome operational support for things such as data entry and marketing, the greatest need is in the field, which can be grueling.

“You’re going out there at night, you’re walking long distances, you’re exposed to the elements, to mosquitoes and sand flies and rain,” says Lalsingh. “It’s really difficult, physically taxing work.”

Assignments may vary based on experience, levels of commitment, and physical fitness. But after training, field volunteers will almost invariably begin making sure nesting mothers can access the beach and nest successfully, gathering data about the ones that do, and looking out for injured or sick turtles.

Some turtles arrive injured or impeded in some way—with ropes or fishing gear wrapped around them, flippers damaged or missing, or with other war wounds from their lives at sea (one had been impaled by a spear from a billfish). Volunteers then need to work quickly to render some emergency first aid, whether it’s disentangling, cleaning wounds, or helping dig nests.

Volunteers wait for the mother to enter the critical “trance” state, when she is consumed by the laying process and becomes minimally aware and reactive to activity around her. Then, volunteers get to work measuring, scanning tags on returning turtles (sometimes replacing or upgrading them), or applying tags on new ones. Making contact at any other time could compromise the entire nesting process.

Nests continue to be monitored all season, and volunteers work to ensure as many babies make it safely to the sea as possible. When there are hatchlings who can’t quite dig out of the nest on their own, volunteers will do a nest excavation, give the hatchlings some extra care, and then release them into the sea. And as some turtles choose inhospitable spots for nests—beach erosion is a major threat—volunteers may carefully relocate the nest, sometimes to an artificial hatchery.

“After 32 years, I’m still in awe of this gentle, magnificent creature,” says Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste, Managing Director of Nature Seekers. “I would want the world to experience it—to engage those who want to really make a difference.”

Caroline Taylor is a writer based in Trinidad and Tobago. You can find her on Twitter.

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