It’s 4 am. Weary volunteers from Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS Tobago) have been patrolling the beaches since 8 pm the night before, ensuring that the evening’s nesting turtles and their hatchlings go undisturbed by poachers, predators, or even fascinated onlookers. In another 90 minutes or so, the sun will rise over the Caribbean Sea – just in time for them to get ready to start their day jobs – and then do it all over again. As one volunteer sums it up, the nightly beach patrols give you “bleary eyes and legs of steel”.
For six months of the year, these devoted volunteers forego a decent night’s sleep to safeguard these magnificent creatures and their young. Others support daytime tasks to raise public awareness. Board members take on everything from fundraising and meeting with stakeholders to organisational marketing, project development, and whatever else needs doing. They come from a variety of backgrounds, from both Trinidad and Tobago, but also from North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. They are professionals, artisans, retirees, fishermen, and students, all with one focus: the preservation of Tobago’s sea turtles, and their marine and coastal habitats.
The group’s president is Tanya Clovis, who became a founding board member after returning home to Tobago when she finished her university studies abroad. Clovis says it’s the patrollers, including core members like Jason Ayres, Darren Thompson, Jezrine Bovell, Amanda Sochan, and Anson “Scoutie” Alfred, who are “the backbone of what we do at SOS Tobago”.
A small, community-based non-profit organisation, SOS Tobago was founded in 2000, with support from the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST) and Environment Tobago. At the time, as in many Caribbean islands, the slaughter of turtles – particularly the leatherback – was reaching a crisis point, prompting the need for a well-co-ordinated and vigorous response.
It’s challenging work. The Caribbean has a very long way to go to shore up its conservation and environmental management programmes and infrastructure. But despite harrowing odds – funding issues, inadequate legislation, and a public under-sensitised to conservation – the small and dynamic team at SOS Tobago has made incredible strides.
Their first initiative was a patrol programme in the major turtle-nesting area of Greater Black Rock, on the southwest Caribbean coast. The area, which is also home to some of Tobago’s largest tourist developments, includes Courland (Turtle Beach); Stonehaven (Grafton Beach); and Mt Irvine and Back Bays. The patrols have evolved into a full-scale monitoring and research programme.
Additionally, the team recognised early on that public awareness – starting with young people – is a critical element in the conservation thrust. They have developed presentations for schools; training for registered tour guides (though the Department of Tourism at the Tobago House of Assembly); and school site visits and family field trips.
Clovis emphasises the generosity and significance of individual donors who have contributed through the recent Adopt-A-Turtle drive or simply help support the organisation’s work. The group’s goal this year is to raise funds for a building near Great Courland Bay to serve as an office, patrol base, and community resource centre.
SOS Tobago struggles every day to overcome other legislative, developmental, and societal hurdles. “The lack of clear policies on beachfront use and development means that we have no legal recourse when a hotel or guesthouse has bright lights shining on the beach, or someone drives down the beach, or throws a party, or holds a sporting event on the beach in the middle of the nesting season,” Clovis explains. “All of these things interfere with the nesting process and unnecessarily endanger incubating nests.”
Despite signs on major beaches, and SOS Tobago’s reaching out to property owners and beach-goers, legislation and enforcement are a major stumbling block.
“We are one of the few countries in the region that still maintain an open hunting season on these critically endangered animals. While the leatherback deservedly gets a lot of attention nationally,” Clovis warns, “the green and hawksbill turtles are perhaps at even greater risk of being lost to us here in our lifetime, given the current rate of capture and consumption in the open season.”
But the group has achieved a tremendous amount in its first decade. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the reduction of poaching in the Greater Black Rock area, which Clovis credits to the patrol programmes and the increasing involvement of the local community. Though SOS Tobago’s work initially met with some local resistance in communities where poaching was widely accepted, the group finds much greater support and acceptance of conservation initiatives today. Clovis also finds community members and turtle-watchers in general far more knowledgeable and sensitive in recent years.
They have been lucky to escape the growing problem of “turtle-riding,” which takes place on some unmonitored beaches in neighbouring Trinidad. The disturbing trend has caused increasing concern in Tobago, since she says none of its main nesting beaches have received the protected status granted to those in Trinidad.
SOS Tobago’s monitoring and research programme is another significant accomplishment. In 2005, volunteers began tagging female nesting turtles on three major beaches, which has improved the monitoring of nesting success rates. The new beach-profiling component of the programme also integrates the collection of other important data that might affect nesting success, including sea levels; erosion patterns; and the possible effects of climate change and coastal development.
But this is just the start. In years to come, the men and women with “legs of steel” hope not just to help preserve turtle nesting populations, but to make this kind of conservation work a viable career path for young people, creating a culture of preservation. “The idea that we are not just saving turtles but also in some way creating possibilities in people’s minds, that in some way we are helping to create a future where young people with a passion for the environment will have the opportunity to make a living doing this kind of work right here at home,” says Clovis. “That is tremendously inspiring.”
Turtle conservation tips
• Turtles and hatchlings can become disoriented by light and activity. Be quiet and unobtrusive on beaches during the nesting season, particularly at night
• Flashlights are not necessary and flash photography is not allowed on Tobago’s nesting beaches as the light can disorient the nesting turtle or emerging hatchlings
• Don’t drive on nesting beaches, as vehicles can crush entire clutches of eggs beneath the sand
• It’s a good idea to go turtle watching with a guide and to give nesting turtles lots of space, especially while they are digging and covering their nests
• Please co-operate with beach patrols. Remember that they are there for the turtles’ safety and are also a valuable source of information. Give them room to work and they will be happy to chat with you afterwards
Trek of the turtles
Anyone who’s witnessed turtles nesting can understand why these volunteers are so passionate. Late each night during nesting months (March 31 through August 31), green, hawksbill, and endangered leatherback turtles emerge from the waters off Tobago’s Caribbean coast – up to ten a night during peak season, in late May and early June. It’s also during peak season that baby hatchlings begin to emerge from their nests. While the mothers are best viewed well into the night, hatchlings are best seen in the evening (6 pm – 9 pm) and early morning (3 am – 6 am).
It’s an awe-inspiring annual ritual. In an epic migration, the female turtles swim thousands of miles back to the beaches on which they were born, in order to nest. As they reach land after this awesome journey, they slowly haul themselves ashore (leatherbacks can weigh up to 2,000 lbs), carving dugouts in the sand and laying dozens of eggs. After carefully covering up and camouflaging their nests, they unceremoniously return to the ocean.
Two months later, the baby hatchlings burrow their way back out, and race to the open water to begin the cycle again. Many never make it to maturity. On land and sea, predators make meals of poorly camouflaged nests or hatchlings which are too slow to reach deep water. Poachers, meanwhile, threaten populations by slaughtering nesting turtles for their meat and shells.