One of the most exciting things about going to Saona Island in the Dominican Republic is having the rare chance to actually observe a sea turtle in person! When you see one, you know you are looking at a modern creature that has retained the features of much more ancient creature. In fact, some say that 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 south side. These include:
1. Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
2. Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
3. Logger-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 which makes them among the most endangered animals on Earth. Of course, this makes seeing one even more precious.
When a female sea turtle lays her eggs, she moves out of the water and onto the beach. This usually occurs at night. She digs a hole with her flippers and lays about 100-150 soft but leathery cream colored eggs. After she lays them, she covers them back up lightly 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 the leatherback turtle). The gestation period is anywhere from 60 – 80 days, depending on the species of turtle, the temperature, and how deeply they are buried.
When the baby turtles hatch out they scamper out to sea. If they can make it to the mangroves, they will be much safer and have a much better chance of making it to adulthood. However, both the eggs and the hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predation. Birds, crabs, and lizards all love to eat them. Even though they are protected under the law, there are also human turtle poachers who steal the eggs and the hatchlings. The eggs are considered a delicacy by some and the tortoise shell and adult turtle meat is highly prized 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 of these reasons, only about 1 in 10,000 sea turtles actually make it to adulthood.
Conservationists are working hard to try to save these beautiful creatures. The most intense 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 wounded, this can mean the species won’t survive.To this end, scientists have to understand better where these turtles go after they lay their eggs on Saona Island. To track them, they temporarily detain some of the female hawksbills in a wooden corral after they lay their eggs and glue a satellite transmitter to her shell. This does not harm the turtle but it does allow scientists to track where she goes.
There is a heart warming story to tell about the tagged hawksbill turtles. One of the very first ones 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 pre-Columbian indigenous Taino people called the island, “Adamanay.” The last time I checked, Adamanay had traveled a total of 1716 miles. After laying her eggs, she had traveled southwest and from her signal was known 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.
The local people have gotten in on the sea turtle conservation action too. There is a small village of 300 – 400 people on the southwestern shore of Saona Island. The school children of the village and some of the adults have become involved in the project and it is partially funded by a local eco-tour operator (see below) who runs the most popular Punta Cana tour to Saona Island. If you go on this tour, you get to see how the sea turtle conservation project operates, meet some of the children involved, and if you are really lucky you get to see some of the baby sea turtles that are only 1-3 days old. These baby turtles are so cute you may have the urge to pick them up and cuddle them like kittens. They will certainly make you smile a lot every time you think about them.
This sea turtle conservation project involves collecting some of the eggs right after they are laid. They are placed in coolers and the exact spot on the beach where they are collected and the time is recorded. They are kept in the coolers until they hatch (60 – 80 days) and then for 3 additional days so the baby turtles have a chance to get a little stronger. Then they are taken back to the same spot on the beach and released. Doing things in this way raises their chances of survival from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 3 – huge improvement wouldn’t you say?! The people involved in this project are all amazing people who are totally dedicated to the project and to the survival of these majestic creatures.