One cloudy day we got up early and took the bus to Rodadero, a few kilometers from Santa Marta. There we met our Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian at the Deep Coral dive shop, and together we drove to Casa Grande Surf Beach in Tayrona. There were a lot of people already there and more were coming in, as the day was special. A special event was going to take place, and tanks to Cata and Sebastian who invited us, we became a part of it.
Every year hundreds of juvenile loggerhead sea turtles are released in the sea thanks to a local program for sea turtle conservation- Programa de Conservación de Tortugas Marinas –a program of the aquarium Acuario Mundo Marino together with the UTADEO university, sponsored by PETROBRAS- one of the biggest petroleum companies in the region.
The beach was occupied by children of all ages awaiting the arrival of the turtles. We were all very excited. I met and interviewed Esteban Andrade from the sea turtle conservation program and he answered my many questions.
The sea turtle release program started in 1999 with research and in 2004 the first 154 turtles were introduced in the sea. Since then, every year the scientists, university students and volunteers excavate between 100 and 300 turtle eggs (1-3 nests each containing about 100 eggs) at the beaches in Tayrona, Colombia. The eggs hatch in the aquarium in Rodadero and the babies spend their first 6-8 months in the care of the marine biologists. After they are bigger and stronger, they are released in the sea- a total of 1,517 so far. Thus their chances of survival in the first critical weeks of life are much higher. The survival rate of new hatchlings in the aquarium is about 97% as opposed to about 55% in the wild.
The program’s mission is not only to help the loggerheads’ reproduction rate, but also to educate and raise awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation among the local community and most of all- among the children. Each year, the day the turtles are released at sea is a huge organized event focusing on the kids.
Even though killing loggerhead sea turtles for meat, eggs and other products is forbidden by an international law, there is no defined local legislation regulating the hunting and consumption of sea turtles in Colombia. The locals here as in many other parts of the world still kill and eat sea turtles and their eggs without legal consequences.
We didn’t have to wait for long. Soon the little reptiles arrived by truck and volunteers helped to unload them.
The containers were placed under a shed and filled with fresh seawater.
The kids piled around to take their first look at the baby-turtles. And even though they were all from the same species and had hatched at the same time, some had yellowish shells, other red-brown, others- dark brown and some were significantly bigger than others. It turned out that sea turtles, like children, are different from one another. Some are blond, others are dark-haired, and the ones who eat more get bigger. Who knew!
The loggerheads are the second largest hard-shelled sea turtles reaching 1 m and 140 kg with some individuals reaching 3 m and 450 kg. with an average lifespan of 47-67 years. They are found throughout the world in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. With massive powerful jaws they eat not only sea grass and jellyfish, but also fish, lobsters and conch.
Unfortunately, these sea turtles have low reproductively which combined with many other factors has caused the steady decline of their numbers. The females reach sexual maturity only at 30-35 years of age and ley about 3-400 eggs every 2-3 years. But the main reasons for their declining numbers are loss of habitat due to residential and commercial building, their hunting for meat and eggs, pollution of the oceans. People keep taking over their nesting beaches, eating them and using turtle products such as grease and shells for cosmetic and traditional medicines. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles suffocate and die each year caught in the nets of commercial fishing boats. A big part of their eggs gets destroyed by wild and domestic animals and men before they have a chance to hatch, and the baby hatchlings often become pray to crabs and fish in the first moments of their lives.
The moment everyone has been waiting for came- the release in the sea of 300 8-month-old turtles. First the sponsors and organizers said a few words, then the kids formed a queue at the release area and the parents like paparazzi with photo and video cameras besieged the section on the beach designated for the turtles. There was even a music band playing live music right on the beach!
The release of the turtles happened in stages. Groups of kids would line up facing the sea, then they would be given instructions and a turtle each and wait for the signal to place them on the sand and let them go.
It was like a horse race but slower. The turtles would hurry down the beach before disappearing in the waves, every time accompanied by jolly music.
Maya also had a chance to release a turtle. For your information her turtle was the fastest and bravest and after a few-second demonstration of impressive sand-swimming skills she won the race. The others didn’t have a chance, not that we are bragging about it…
We felt happy and satisfied. Not only because Maya’s turtle won the race. Imagine: this day Maya’s school was once again the sea and beach. A biology class. A lesson in marine life conservation. And not one but 300 little teachers who are now swimming in the seas, traveling the world.Share