In folklore, myths and legends, turtles depict longevity, stability and cunning. They are often featured in creation stories and have even been elevated to super-hero status on kid’s TV. Sea turtles are the poster-children for marine conservation and one of the world’s most beloved marine creatures. So it’s a little ironic that our love affair with turtles has left them clinging to a thread for survival.
Of the seven sea turtle species in the world, Vanuatu is home to two (possibly three); the Critically Endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and the Endangered Green (Chelonia mydas. Leatherbacks have also been sighted on some of the more remote islands. Turtle monitoring programs exist on Moso, Nguna and Pele islands and community education programmes such as Vanuatu Tagging Turtles for Tradition and Tourism at the Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area provide tourists a chance to tag and release wild-caught sea turtles while encouraging traditional hunters to catch for conservation rather than consumption. Other non-governmental organisations such as Wan Smolbag, use street theatre to get the conservation message across to local people in the community. Their play, ‘I am a Turtle’, led to the formation of the Vanua-Tai turtle monitoring network,which started in 1995 on the island of Efate.
The network has grown from some 40 volunteers to over 400 people in coastal villages across Vanuatu; extending its focus to the land as well as the sea. While it’s commonplace for visitors to Pacific islands to get upset about traditional hunting practices, it pays to remember that there was a time (in recent living memory) when turtles were ridden for entertainment, harvested in their thousands, and processed into turtle soup destined for Europe’s dinner tables. Activities such as these removed mature turtles from the breeding population, reducing the number of eggs laid. It takes decades for turtles to reach reproductive age – and just one in a thousand hatchlings make it to breeding age – so turtle species will take many years to recover.
The Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtle weighs in between 45 and 60kg and its carapace (shell) measures around 90cm. The “pretty boy” of the marine turtle family, the Hawksbill’s carapace is beautifully translucent and four large scutes (segments that look like big scales) overlap on either side. It is easily identified by its hooked, pointed beak and the skin colouring is brown (as opposed to the Endangered Green turtle’s olive hue). Hawksbills live a rather solitary existence, only getting together with other turtles when it’s time to mate; once every two to three years. This may occur between April and November (depending on locations), with hatchlings emerging some 60 days later. Like Green turtles, Hawksbills return to their birthplace to nest and only the females leave the water. They laboriously heave themselves up on to the beach, in search of a suitable dry place to lay their eggs and may excavate a number of potential sites before finally settling on one that they deem dry enough to help the eggs incubate. With trails like tractor-tyre marks extending behind them to the waterline, the nesting females set about laying up to 140 ping-pong ball sized eggs into a pit that they have excavated for the purpose; entering into a teary trance as they grunt and huff through the task. In a season, they may come ashore to lay two or three clutches of eggs; each time, sneaking ashore under cover of darkness. All around them, other marine life is becoming increasingly active; keenly awaiting the time of birth.
Approximately two months later, the tiny hatchlings will begin to ‘pip’ and peck their way free from their shells, using a special, temporary ‘tooth’ that is attached to their beak. They remain under the sand, digesting the yolk and regaining their energy, awaiting the rest of the clutch. Then after two to three days, they erupt en masse, pushing up through the cool night sands before making a mad dash for the ocean. Their coordinated escape is over in a matter of minutes as they scamper towards the moon’s glow upon the waterline. They run the gauntlet of excited hungry predators such as dogs, sea birds, crabs and sharks, with only a lucky few making it to the open ocean. Their mad swimming frenzy may last two or three days until they find safety in a clump of floating weed. From this time on, until they reach dinner plate size (about 35cm), this is the period known as ‘the lost years’. Eventually, when the turtles reach sufficient size, they trade in the open ocean for the reef system or rocky coastal zones. This is where we humans will most often encounter them; swimming across coral gardens and hiding among rocky ledges and ship wrecks.
It is estimated Vanuatu’s turtle species live until 30 to 50 years of age in the wild, but factors such as pollution can bring about a premature death. Two of the favourite foods of the Green turtle are the jellyfish and the sponge; both of which are often confused with floating trash and bags. When ingested, the plastic blocks the turtle’s digestive organs and they starve to death in a slow and painful manner. Another human action that is adversely threatening turtle populations is the removal of woody trees from the dune systems, which results in flatter beaches and further-reaching tides. Without these safe, dry environments, the nests are at increased risk from the elements and predators are able to unearth the eggs with greater ease. Turtle embryos do not have sex chromosomes and the gender of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest, so a removal of shade or increase in sea water inundation can impact the outcome. Whether hatchlings will emerge as male or female depends on what’s known as the “pivotal temperature;” if the nest temperature is between 28 and 29 degrees Celsius, then a mix of both males and females will emerge, whereas temperatures above this range produce only females, and colder temperatures produce only males. An imbalance either way can have disastrous consequences. As it may take up to 30 years for a turtle to reach maturity, changes to the nesting environment also present a threat. Beaches that were once-undisturbed may have become unsuitable due to noise and light pollution or gardens, houses and roads may have altered the beach profile. Reef destruction, fishing nets, pollution, habitat loss, hunting, poaching and human activity in known nesting areas all place unnecessary pressure on turtle populations. Local people, tourists, developers and local businesses all have a role to play in turtle conservation.
Protecting Vanuatu Turtles
One of the most important things each of us can do is to dispose of our litter properly. Items such as plastic bags end up in the ocean, where turtles mistake them for jellyfish. Abandoned fishing nets pose the risk of entanglement, so discarded fishing gear should be removed and disposed of when encountered on a beach or under water. Man-made light sources – such as beachfront lighting, street lights, light from cars, campfires etc – pose a problem too as hatchlings use the natural light horizon (usually over the ocean) to guide them to the sea.
Light pollution can lead to disorientation and cause hatchlings to head inland, resulting in exhaustion and bringing them into fatal contact with predators. Watching turtles nest or hatchlings emerge from their nest can be a magical and highly emotive experience. Turtle flipper-prints leave tractor trails across the sand as the hatchlings struggle across seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. When watching turtles:
-Resist the temptation to pick up hatchlings and play with them. Your interference decreases their chance of survival and removes their ability to imprint their birthplace into their memories. You may pass on contaminants such as insect repellent, which may make the fragile hatchlings ill.
-Turn off outside lights (including driveway and verandah lights), and draw the curtains in your room at night when it is turtle hatchling season.
-If approaching a turtle that is coming ashore to nest, never walk between her and the water. She may interpret this as a trap and will likely abandon that night’s nesting efforts.
-Only approach a nesting turtle once she has already started laying. At this stage, she will be in a deep trance and you can sit quietly behind her, taking photos of eggs being laid.
Finally, do not hunt or eat the turtles. If turtles are not protected and left to live, Vanuatu’s next generation will lose yet another of its precious species.
Story by Chantal Dunbar. Photography by Anne and Eric Simmons and courtesy of Sailaway Tours, Tranquillity Island Dive Eco Resort and Malvanua Island.