To arrive in a new place in the dark is like tasting a new food with a blindfold on. You can feel the edges, but you can’t begin to appreciate the colors around you until daylight arrives. Nighttime in the small town of La Pirraya – an island community in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador – is quiet; the fishermen and their families gather in small compounds preparing the day’s catch and saving energy for an early rise the next day. But hiding outside the lights of the town is the beginning of a conservation movement that could save one of the world’s most endangered populations of ocean wildlife.
My arrival in southern El Salvador started at the small port town of Puerto Parada. We waited for the boat to arrive on a small concrete dock at the end of the main road into town. There was little indication that we were on the edge of the largest wetland in the country other than the mangroves across the channel. The dark boat ride was punctuated by distant lightning that was more entertainment than threat. Once our group, an international team of sea turtle conservationists, settled into our rustic cabins, our night began. We received word of hatchlings at a nearby hatchery and set off on a short boat ride up the beach.
The few dozen hatchlings in the blue bucket at the hatchery were the first newborn hawksbill turtles I’d ever seen. Using a red flashlight to protect their eyes, we inspected this healthy group, each of them eager to get to the water. No sooner had we released them on the beach than we received a call about a nesting female hawksbill on a nearby island. We hopped back into the boat for another short ride across the calm water.
Hawksbills are well known for their preference for nesting much further up the beach than other species, normally venturing into the beachside vegetation to lay their eggs. That knowledge, however, didn’t prepare me for the location of this turtle, probably more than 50 feet inland on the other side of a barbed wire fence tall enough to keep people out but let turtles through underneath. That turtle perfectly illustrated why this population remained hidden for so long; many turtle experts had considered the hawksbills of the Eastern Pacific functionally extinct until just a few years ago.
When, after some deliberation, the turtle decided not to nest, a few of us broke off from the group to visit another hatchery, where we waited for sunrise to inspect three hawksbills that were being fixed with satellite transmitters the next day. Along the way, we stopped the boat to see another turtle that was on another isolated stretch of beach. Finally, we arrived at the hatchery with an hour or so left in the evening. I stole off to find a hammock and was asleep before I could even take off my sandals.
I wish I could accurately describe my first impressions of Jiquilisco Bay in the daylight, but after the long night, I was so disoriented that my vision was pretty blurred. Stumbling out of the hammock, I walked over to a 4-foot deep hole where three large hawksbills were calmly waiting to be released. These turtles were much larger (their shells measured about 3 feet long) than the one small hawksbill I had worked with years before in Costa Rica; if I didn’t know better I would have thought they were a different species. In addition, there were more hatchlings to release.
Our visit to Jiquilisco was organized by ICAPO (The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative), and these turtles are part of an ongoing study looking to unlock the mysterious life cycles of these animals. There are estimated to be fewer than 500 nesting females left in their range, which goes from southern Baja California, Mexico to Peru. Until recently, researchers assumed that hawksbills only lived in and around coral reefs, of which there are relatively few along the Pacific coast of the Americas. However, research by ICAPO and their partners has shown that these turtles live primarily in mangroves, a fact that surprised many herpetologists.
Jiquilisco Bay harbors nearly half of their nests, and most of the rest are found in Padre Ramos Estuary, not far south in northern Nicaragua. There is a growing group of people working hard to ensure these turtles are around for a long time. ICAPO and its partners coordinate a local team of 75 residents, known as careyeros (carey is Spanish for hawksbill) who patrol key beaches around the bay, looking for nesting turtles and relocating eggs to hatcheries.
Once I finished photographing these turtles, I headed out to the beach, and the incredible beauty of this area hit me full force. Across the water, a series of perfectly shaped volcanoes rose up over the bay. As the baby turtles slid into the water, the human residents of Jiquilisco were just getting started. Fishing boats crossed the water, heading to preferred spots in the brightening day.
As we arrived back to La Pirraya, the town was in full swing, preparing for their annual hawksbill festival, complete with a parade, dignitaries, throngs of media, and more. The parade got off to a loud start with the Navy’s marching band and a procession of more than 100 local students. The students held homemade signs about protecting turtles and keeping trash out of the ocean, and a few wore turtle costumes despite the quickly rising temperature.
Many of the students stood outside a canopy, looking over the shoulders of the researchers to catch a glimpse of the turtles being prepared for the transmitters. It took more than an hour to clean and sand down the shells, place several layers of epoxy around the transmitter, and allow them to dry. Once completed, the turtles were taken to the water and released. The crowds were kept back to give the turtles room, and once they had their bearings, they went directly to the cool water.
While I was pleasantly surprised at the large turnout, the sheer number of media outlets in attendance was shocking. Roughly 30 people from seemingly every outlet in the country were there, including TV news, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and others. The mix of cutting-edge technology, international turtle experts, and beautiful children was a potent combination that media outlets could not ignore.
I wish this story could have a neat and tidy ending, with the turtles heading off into the water, their transmitters providing valuable information for years to come. However, less than a week later, I got word that one of the hawksbills was already found dead. The likely culprit was blast fishing, a barbaric practice where fishermen use homemade bombs to kill everything in their range of impact. Read more about this tragedy on our partner EcoViva’s website here.
That news was a reminder that, despite tremendous progress studying and protecting Jiquilisco’s turtles over the past few years, there is still a lot of work to do. We must ensure that the bay receives protection; there are currently no regulations in place for this spectacular wildlife hotspot. ICAPO is working to guarantee protection, through government action, of the critical hawksbill habitat, namely the 50 meter fridges along the primary nesting beaches, as well as all the waters within the estuary, the minimum protections necessary to give hawksbills the best shot at survival in the eastern Pacific.
SEE Turtles is supporting this work by raising funds to help pay for the egg collection. Last year, we donated more than $5,000 and hope to exceed that this year. To help support this effort, visit our website; for every $1 donated, we can save two hawksbill hatchlings at this project.
Come visit Jiquilisco Bay in November with EcoViva.
– Brad Nahill, SEEtheWILD
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