Release the turtles

A team from the Barbados Sea Turtle Project at the University of the West Indies found 123 baby hawksbill turtles that had hatched this morning, on a beach near St. Peter’s Bay.

The hatchlings were taken back and kept cool throughout the day until they could be released further south around sunset.

The baby turtles – each only around 2.5cm long – were brought to the beach in two buckets, their instinct to get to the sea quite apparent, wriggling and clambering over one another in eagerness.

Baby turtles in a bucket.
The turtles were brought to the beach in two buckets – a seething mass of cuteness.

The Barbados Sea Turtle Project team marked out a boundary for the gathered audience, and at 6pm the hatchlings were helped from the buckets.

Sandy beach for turtle release.
A safe zone for the the turtle release was marked out in the sand.
Crowd admiring the baby turtles.
The young and not so young seemed equally fascinated by the hatchlings.
Turtle hatchlings being released.
At 6pm it was time to release the hatchlings. Cue rain.

At this point, the heavens opened; it isn’t obvious from the photos, but the rain was was torrential. My head said, ‘protect your cameras!’, but my heart said ‘this could be a once in a lifetime event!’. The assembled people got drenched, but needless to say no one cared – it was too special a moment.

Baby turtles use the moon’s reflection to help find their way back to sea, and on cloudy, moonless nights they can be lured the wrong way by artificial light, with often fatal consequences. Fortunately today’s batch had no problems figuring out which way to go, and dashed off down the sand.

Turtle release in Barbados.
Some of the hatchlings needed a helping hand getting out of the buckets.
Baby turtles crawling to the sea.
The baby turtles instinctively knew which way to head. Sadly there wasn’t enough time to paint numbers on their backs and start a sweepstake…

It was an amazing sight to behold, 123 little hatchling turtles scurrying to the sea. The waves would initially push them back, but after a few attempts, each one managed to float off into the sea, powering away with their tiny flippers.

Hawksbill turtles and the Barbados Sea Turtle Project

Surprisingly little is known about the hawksbill’s life cycle (these hatchlings are too small to tag with GPS transmitters). It takes between 10 and 25 years for a hawksbill turtle to reach maturity in this part of the world. Sadly, because of its slow maturation and reproductive rates, and because of human activity (pollution, fishing practices, coastal development, and harvesting for food and their shells), the hawksbill turtle is considered critically endangered.

Turtle hatchlings crawling across the sand.
The baby turtles move surprisingly fast – I guess they have to to avoid predators.

Since being in Barbados I’ve been fortunate enough to snorkel with turtles on several occasions, and their grace and beauty never ceases to amaze me. I recently watched volunteers from the Barbados Sea Turtle Project digging up and relocating turtle eggs to a safer place, and in June, I was privileged to watch a leatherback turtle digging her nest and laying eggs. So to now see hatchlings making their way to the sea is great, the icing on the cake.

To find out more or make donation, visit the Barbados Sea Turtle Project website. Their Facebook page has frequent updates if you’d like to see a future hatchling release too.

Turtle hatchling release in Barbados.
The hatchling turtles looked so tiny yet determined. Each time a wave washed them back, they just kept going forward into the sea.
Turtle hatchlings.
Who knows how many of the 123 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Statistically, not many, but I have a good feeling about this batch – they look very focussed.