This past week Swisscontact, with the collaboration of Global Affairs Canada, invited me to visit the Gulf of Fonseca. This organization is the Swiss International Aid Agency. They have several programs to help develop the Pacific or Southern area of Honduras. One of the components in the project is tourism. They invited me to what has turned out to be a lifetime experience. You would think that by the time you are 60, like myself, there are few activities that would provide such an experience. Believe me, this was a one of a kind experience I will cherish forever!
We departed from Choluteca, the largest city in Southern Honduras and headed south towards the Gulf of Fonseca. This is a large bay that Honduras shares with both, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Mangrove forests line most of the Gulf´s shores. These form estuaries and lagoons which are fed from various rivers, including the Rio Choluteca that drains from Tegucigalpa to Choluteca. Our destination was a beach community with the name of Playa el Venado. This is a small community of about 37 families that are fully committed to conservation of the “Tortuga Golfina” a turtle that comes to the beaches within the Gulf of Fonseca to lay their eggs.
Adult turtles start laying eggs when they are about 20 years old. They have a natural “GPS” system that brings them back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. Each turtle lays between 75 and 150 eggs once a year. The eggs are laid in a nest and left to hatch on their own. This means that they are subject to predators. Without doubt the largest predator is man. You see, locals are convinced that turtle eggs are aphrodisiac and enhance the sexual stamina of men. This means that both, men and women are out to buy turtle eggs to make males perform optimally during sex. The truth is that this is all myth and any enhancement is the result of the psychological power of the human mind.
This myth has made the population of adult turtle’s plummet worldwide, and Honduras is no exception. The community of El Venado in Marcovia is one of several that are committed to giving the turtles a chance to survive. Their work begins with a huge effort to protect the eggs from poaching and the inclemency of weather. Work begins with nighttime watches on a stretch of beach that is 7 km. long. (this is about 4 miles long). The goal is to spot adult turtles arriving at the beach to make a nest and lay their eggs. Once they are gone, they proceed to dig up the natural nest and transport them to the turtle nursery.
The Turtle Nursury
At the Turtle nursery, they make artificial nests and keep a record of how many eggs were placed in each nest. There is one nursery nest for every natural nest found on the beach. They record the date, number of eggs and other pertinent information. This year they had a total of 143 nests with approximately 13,500 eggs! They have a hatching average of 92%, which is way over the percentage of hatching in nature. This means that this year they will have about 12,400 turtles born in their nursery! We were here to have the experience of releasing baby turtles in Honduras!
Although turtles can nest at any time of the year, most of them do so between August and September. This means that most of the hatchlings take place between October and November each year. In Honduras there is a 45 day legal ban that protects nests against poaching during the time most of the eggs are laid and when they hatch. This is an effort to give the species a relief from poaching and a better opportunity to make it to adulthood. According to scientific statistics, only one hatchling in one thousand will make it to adulthood. The odds are really against the species!
About half of the community is involved in this conservation effort. We visited the Center of Investigation and Protection of Turtles in the Community of El Venado. Mr. Jorge Hernandez, the community leader met us and gave an introduction to the community conservation efforts. We then boarded a motor boat to travel across the estuary to a sand bar where they have the turtle nursery. During the 45-day lapse between the nesting and the hatching, they have 24 hour shifts taking care of the nursery. When we arrived, on the third week of October the baby turtles had been hatching for about a week.
Upon arrival to the facility, we first visited the nursery. Don Jorge did a thorough talk about the process and the work needed to insure the hatching of the eggs. It turns out that gender in turtles is determined not by genetics, but by temperature during the incubation period. A temperature if 29.5 degrees provides for a natural 50% male and female birth. If the temperature is warmer, then they are all males, if it is colder, they are all females! Therefore, the eggs are 50 cm deep in the sand. This insures a more stable temperature during the 45 day period. But climate change is having an impact on nature. When temperature is too high, volunteers use a saran net to keep the sand cool and avoid overheating.
This year, Honduras suffered the onslaught of heavy rains in October. This cooled the sand, and thus extended the incubation period by 3 days. The rain also hardens the sand on top of the nest. This means that the volunteers moved the sand manually to soften it to make sure that the hatchlings could make it to the surface. You see, the eggs hatch 50 cm. below the surface. The first thing that these turtle babies must do is make it to the surface! They must dig through half a meter of sand to be able to breathe air and then continue their trek to the sea!
Releasing the Baby Turtles in Honduras!
But enough with the tales, lets get on with the experience! After visiting the nursery, we continued to the sand and water bins. The volunteers pick the new born turtles and put them in a large sand bin. There they rest and are fed to gather strength. After 12 hours, volunteers will move them to a water bin. They are fed some concentrate to help them keep their strength before releasing baby turtles in Honduras for the start of the journey of their lifetime!
As the sun was setting we were ready to start releasing baby turtles! There were about 400 specimens in the sand bins and another 400 in the water bins. We picked those in the water bins, put them in our hands and set them carefully in buckets. Then we took them to the beach, very close to where the waves break and carefully turned the buckets over to set them on the beach. The reaction was immediate! These baby turtles started crawling towards the beach. It is stunning to see these tiny turtle hatchlings heading fearlessly towards the huge ocean.
Some were quick to move and started what looked like a race to see who made it there first. As the first waves hit them, some were pushed back to the beach and a few were on their way. Those pushed back continued relentlessly until they found success. It was a quite an experience to hold those newborn hatchlings in my hand and then wave them on to the world. How could these tiny creatures face the world with such determination and courage. Clearly, they did not have a clue of their chances at survival!
Some of these hatchlings were not as strong and did not move much towards the sea. A young 6-year-old boy from the community was enthusiastically helping them out by picking them up and placing them near the ocean. These waves where tiny by human standards, less than 8 inches high. Yet, in proportion to our size, it would be like facing 12 foot waves and being brave enough to relentlessly try to get into the ocean! As we finished our tasks releasing baby turtles in Honduras, a spectacular sunset was in process. From our vantage point, we could see the coasts of Nicaragua, El Salvador and of course Honduras. A pleasant breeze was blowing and helped keep the fierce mosquitoes under control.
On our way back to the boat towards Investigation Center, we walked past the turtle nursery. A brand-new batch of hatchlings were working their way up to the surface. The community members stopped to help them out and then transferred them to the sand bins, where they could safely spend the night and rest before they started their journey the next day. They would join the other hatchlings already in the bins and be fed so that they could be as strong as possible.
What an experience it was to see these tiny turtles start their lives and meet the challenges they had before them. I can still picture them all swimming relentlessly away from the beach with their tiny heads over the water. I can only wish them the best of luck and pray that mother nature helps them succeed in becoming adult turtles and eventually reproduce themselves so that their species can survive. Unfortunately, the odds are against them. According to studies, out of the 12,000 plus hatchlings, only 12 will make it to adulthood! I thank those responsible community members at Playa El Venado in Marcovia, Choluteca, for their efforts!
This was indeed a once in a lifetime experience we should all have! I will be posting another article about how you can visit this community and were you can stay. They have some great facilities with outstanding accommodations. See you in my next post about releasing baby turtles in Honduras! If you are looking for a place to volunteer your work for the conservation of nature, this is a great alternative. Feel free to get in touch with Swisscontact for guidance on how to apply!