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Endangered Sea Turtles Of Saona Island – In the Dominican Republic
One of the most exciting things about going to Saona Island in the Dominican Republic is getting the rare opportunity to observe a sea turtle in person! When you see one, you know you’re looking at a modern creature that has retained the traits of a much more ancient creature. In fact, some say sea turtles remind them of dinosaurs. If you travel to Punta Cana, don’t miss this rare opportunity.
Four species of large sea turtles nest on Saona Island, mostly on the southern side. This includes:
1. Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
2. Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
3. Saw-head turtle (Caretta caretta)
4. Green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
All four species are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN). In fact, both the hawksbill turtle and the leatherback turtle are listed as critically endangered, making them among the most endangered animals on Earth. Of course, that makes seeing one all the more precious.
When a female sea turtle lays her eggs, she moves out of the water and onto the beach. This usually happens at night. She digs a hole with her flippers and lays about 100-150 soft but cream-colored eggs. After placing them, he covers them with sand. Keep in mind that if she buries them too far, they won’t get the oxygen they need and will die. She repeats this process 3-10 times during a nesting season, returning to the same beach to do so (except for the loggerhead). The gestation period is anywhere from 60 – 80 days, depending on the turtle species, temperature and how deep they are buried.
When the baby turtles hatch, they go out to sea. If they can get to the mangroves, they will be much safer and have a much better chance of reaching adulthood. However, both eggs and young are extremely vulnerable to predation. Birds, crabs and lizards all love to eat them. Although they are protected by law, there are also human turtle hunters who steal the eggs and hatchlings. The eggs are considered a delicacy by some and the turtle shell and flesh of the adult turtle is highly valued by some as well. Wave action can also wash the eggs out to sea before they hatch or cover them too deeply in the sand for them to survive and hatch. For all these reasons, only about 1 in 10,000 sea turtles make it to adulthood.
Conservationists are working hard to save these beautiful creatures. The most intensive conservation efforts on Saona Island are for the hawksbill turtle. Hawksbill turtles travel thousands of miles, and if any part of their journey takes them to a place where they are killed or injured, it could mean the species will not survive. To that end, scientists need to better understand where these turtles go after they lay their eggs on Saona Island. To track them, they temporarily keep some of the female tails in a wooden corral after they lay their eggs and attach a satellite transmitter to her shell. This does not harm the turtle, but allows scientists to track where it goes.
There is a heartwarming story to tell about the hawksbill turtles. One of the first to be tagged with a radio transmitter was named after Saona Island. However, it was not named “Saona”. Instead, it was given the name the indigenous pre-Columbian Taino people called the island, “Adamanay”. Last time I checked, Adamanay had traveled a total of 1,716 miles. After laying her eggs, she traveled southwest and was known by her signal to be foraging off the coast of Nicaragua. Of course, if she survives, she will return to the same beach on Saona Island in the Dominican Republic to lay her eggs again. Scientists and others are quite fond of Adamanay and her other radio-tagged sisters.
Local residents have also participated in the sea turtle conservation action. There is a small village of 300 – 400 inhabitants on the southwest coast of Saona Island. The village school children and some of the adults are involved in the project and it is partly funded by a local eco-tour operator (see below) who runs the most popular tour of Punta Cana to Saona Island. If you go on this tour, you can see how the sea turtle conservation project works, meet some of the children involved, and if you’re really lucky, you can see some of the sea turtles that are only 1-3 days old. . These little turtles are so cute that you might want to pick them up and cuddle them like kittens. They will surely make you smile big every time you think about them.
This sea turtle conservation project involves collecting some of the eggs immediately after they are laid. They are placed in the cooler and in the exact spot on the beach where they are collected and timed. They are kept in the cooler until they hatch (60 – 80 days) and then for another 3 days so that the baby turtles have a chance to get a little stronger. They are then returned to the same spot on the beach and released. Doing things this way increases their chances of survival from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 3 – big improvement wouldn’t you say?! The people involved in this project are all amazing people who are totally dedicated to the project and the survival of these magnificent creatures.
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