Our 6.5-year journey in South America has been full of surprises. Few match the moment when, for the first time in our lives, we watched a sea turtle drag her pregnant body ashore, dig a nest in the dunes and deposit her eggs. On one of the remotest and vastest beach we ever encountered, the world consisted of a pitch-dark night, the crashing waves of the ocean, a raspingly exhaling turtle and us. We lived a moment of magic.
Before arriving in South America, we had no idea we would encounter sea turtles on this continent, but we got to see many of them, mostly in French Guiana. For nights on end we strolled beaches, long hours under a moon that lit our world. We watched leatherbacks, loggerheads, green turtles and olive ridley turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs, and witnessed how the hatchlings struggled their way through the shifting sand and sprinted to the Atlantic Ocean. Each sighting was incredibly imposing.
We haven’t finished our ‘South America trip’, so to speak, so maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see more of them in the countries we are going to visit in the near future (Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela – do you know of beaches to watch sea turtles? We’d love to hear about them).
UPDATE September 2015: Meanwhile we’ve been to Venezuela and watched sea turtles there. Read here.
So, as usual, we’d like to share a passion with you: watching sea turtles in South America with lots of practical info. Enjoy. And if you feel like adding info on the subject, feel free do so in the comment section below.
Every year thousands of marine turtles swim to Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela and Colombia to lay their eggs. Of the 7 species of sea turtles, 6 are found in South America and, sadly enough, they are all on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Some beaches are closed to visitors, however, on others the watching sea turtles has become an important tourist attraction.
Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches in Brazil
Brazil was our introduction to sea turtle watching. During our visit to the Falcon Park in Areia Blanca (near Aracaju, the capital of Sergipe), which by the way is definitely worth a visit, we met Peter (who made this inspiring video about the park). He pointed us out to Pirambu, where we would be able to see sea turtles.
Such a tip is priceless, isn’t it?
So, off we went. We could camp in the parking lot of TAMAR’s visitor center and met the staff. From them we learned that along 1000 kilometers of Brazilian beach, stretching from Ceará in the north to Santa Catarina in the south, there are 22 marine turtle stations. They are managed by TAMAR (TArtaruga MARinha; Portuguese for ‘sea turtle’) and under the supervision of IBAMA / ICMBio. Depending on the station they either do only research or combine this with tourism.
TAMAR stations in Brazil:
- In Espírito Santo you’ll find leatherbacks on the beaches of Anchieta, Regência, Pontal do Iparanga.
- In Bahia hawksbills and loggerheads frequent the beaches of Arembepe, Praia do Forte, Costa do Sauípe.
- In Sergipe is the largest concentration of olive ridley turtles in Brazil. Check out the beaches of Oceanário de Aracaju and Picambu.
- On the island of Fernando de Noronha you’ll see green turtles and hawksbills.
The beach in Pirambu goes on for kilometers on end. The fact that people drive here with buggies or 4WDs is one of the reason that many nests are destroyed and sea turtles get injured or killed (other reasons: climate change, beaches used to build suburban or industrial areas, artificial light, fishing, and natural enemies like foxes, wild dogs, and birds of prey (the latter are a threat to hatchlings).
As, according to TAMAR’s statistics, from the 1000 hatchlings only 2 will survive, which will return in 20 years to lay their own eggs, protecting them has become a necessity.
At Pirambu TAMAR staff collects eggs from nests that were dug in potentially dangerous spots and takes them to a fenced-in hatchery. We were lucky that, one night, eggs hatched. The staff member on duty allowed us to help bring those hatchlings to the ocean and set them free. What a privilege!
Apart from that we strolled the beach around high tide and spotted several sea turtles. We felt so rich to be here and be able to see al this!
By the way, in Brazil it is possible to watch five of the seven marine turtles:
- Olive ridley turtle (in Portuguese: tartaruga oliva)
- Loggerhead (in Portuguese: tartaruga cabeçuda)
- Hawksbill (in Portuguese: tartaruga de pente)
- Green turtle (in Portuguese: tartaruga verde)
- Leatherback (in Portuguese: tartaruga de couro or tartaruga gigante)
Watching Sea Turtles in French Guiana
Together with the coast of Suriname, this is where half of the world’s leatherback females come to lay their eggs. We saw many of them in March/April and we have been told that it is not uncommon to encounter dozens of them in one night during high season (May-June). Hatching mainly occurs in July-August.
Three species frequent French Guiana’s beaches:
- Leatherback sea turtle (in French: la luth / in Kali’na: kawa na)
- Olive ridley turtle (in French: la tortue olivâtre / in Kali’na: Kula lasi)
- Green turtle (in French: la tortue verte / in Kali’na: kada lu)
French Guiana has two easy-accessible beaches to watch sea turtles:
Outside Cayenne (the capital): the beach of Remire-Montjoly. The beach is under the supervision of KWATA, a French organization that protects not only sea turtles but also other endangered species such as the tapir and giant otter. KWATA has a sea-turtle volunteer program for the beaches of Cayenne.
We were not too enthusiastic about this place because it is frequented by too many day visitors from Cayenne who just want to bath and party and generally don’t care about these prehistoric creatures. The presence of KWATA staff prevents lots of turtles from being hassled – they are doing an important and great job out there.
On the other hand, we loved La Plage des Hattes in Awala-Yalimapo on French Guiana’s northwest coast, along the Maroni River. This beach is part of the Amaná Reserve, and is under the supervision of Maison de la Reserve in Yalimapo. Here we camped a couple of times, just outside the village.
You can also camp along the beach inside the village, which may be fun but is also more noisy. Whatever you prefer. Our spot (right after the Youth Hostel along the main road) was quiet and just beautiful. It even has picnic tables.
Access to any of the above-mentioned beaches is free of charge and you don’t need a guide. If you do like a guided tour on the beach near Cayenne, check with KWATA (16 avenue Pasteur, Cayenne, tel : 05 94 25 43 31).
Tours to Marine Turtle Beaches in Suriname
We didn’t watch sea turtles in Suriname because you need a guide, which was not our way after having seen so many sea turtles on our own. Another reason is that Stinasu (Stichting Natuurbehoud Suriname), the organization responsible for sea turtle conservation, was known for its hypocrisy and corruption, like selling sea turtle eggs themselves.
We didn’t want to support this organization in any way. Of course, things may have changed so do ask around about what their status of honesty is before deciding if you want to support the sea turtle projects here.
In case you would like do such a guided visit, here’s a bit more of info on the subject.
Suriname is visited yearly by four sea turtle species:
- Green sea turtle (in Dutch: soepschildpad / in Sranan tongo: krape)
- Olive ridley turtle (in Dutch: gewone bastaardschildpad / in Sranan tongo: warana)
- Hawksbill turtle (in Dutch: karet schildpad / in Sranan tongo: karet)
- Leatherback (in Dutch: lederschildpad / in Sranan tongo: aitkanti)
Stinasu has an office in Paramaribo where you can obtain information about visits to sea turtle beaches, and they have a volunteer program for sea-turtle conservation at Galibi. High season for sea turtle watching is March-July, hatching mainly occurs in July-August.
Stinasu: Cornelis Jongbawstraat 14, Paramaribo. Mon-Thu 7 am-3 pm / Fri 7 am-2.30 pm. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can organize a tour in Paramaribo through travel agencies or, for Galibi, in Albina. Suriname’s sea turtle beaches can only be reached by boat:
- Matapica: by boat from Paramaribo or Marienburg.
- Galibi Reserve in the northeast corner of Suriname along the Maroni River: by boat from either Albina (border town), Saint Laurent de Maroni (French Guiana’s border town) or Awala beach (French Guiana).
TAMAR and KWATA’s staff give visitors guidelines on how to watch these reptiles without disturbing them. A troubled marine turtle may stop in her tracks, turn around and return to the sea without having laid her eggs. Or she goes inland, running the risk of being hit by a car.
Government and worldwide organizations such as WWF and TAMAR are doing their share in the conservation of this marine wildlife. But you and I can, and should, do our share as well. With a couple of basic guidelines we can watch these extraordinary reptiles while it is safe for them to work on the continuation of their species.
Maybe you are already familiar with these guidelines. If so, great, but maybe you’re not (just like we weren’t before we our first sea turtle), so I thought I’d share with you what we learned.
Distances to Watch Marine Turtles Ashore
There are moments when to keep a distance, others when you can move closer to the turtle:
- Stop walking as soon as you see a sea turtle emerge from the water. If you rush up to her, she will turn around and head back to the ocean straight away. Quietly follow her at about 20 meters and stay behind her.
- Keep this distance while she digs her nest.
- Once she starts spawning you can move into as close as 2 meters because she is now in some sort of trance. The spawning generally lasts about 10 minutes after which she will close her nest.
- Slowly step back and keep 5 meters from her as she returns to the ocean. Never stand between her and the ocean, because this will distract her.
Disturbances by Light
Light can completely disorient the reptile. Light deters her from nesting or makes her seek refuge at another, maybe less-suitable, beach. Hatchlings may not be able to find the ocean, and also adult turtles are known to go inland instead of to the sea due to artificial light disturbance.
There are two important issues when watching sea turtles:
- Turn off your flashlight when you see one coming ashore. You can turn it on while she is laying her eggs, but only from behind. Never shine the light straight into her face. It is better to cover the glass of your flashlight with red foil, which you can obtain from, among other organizations, KWATA (see French Guiana section above).
- Never use a flash when taking pictures.
Touching and Helping?
To many of us, the following guidelines may seem obvious, too insulting even to mention. Unfortunately, experience has taught us otherwise, so I’ll state them anyway:
- Don’t touch the turtle. This is primarily not to bother the turtle, but also realize this is for your own safety. Some of them may bite when you come too close, and being hit by a flipper can be painful as well.
- Don’t touch means: don’t sit on it to ride it either… (yes, it happens).
- Don’t help, even though your heart aches and your hands itch at seeing their struggle. These prehistoric animals know how to do their job. Your good intent may be disastrous. This is especially the case with hatchlings. You don’t help them by opening their nest. They need the tightly packed sand to crawl upwards – they can’t climb up a steep hill made by you. By carrying the hatchlings to the ocean you take away their chance of strengthening their muscles, which they will need when swimming all those kilometers. Stick to removing obstacles such as a trunk, branches, or other things they may get tangled in.
Read More: Talking with Birds in Bolivia
Planning and Tips
So, that’s it. I hope this info will be helpful to outline your itinerary around this vast continent so you can watch them as well. We prefer traveling without thinking too far ahead but watching sea turtles is definitely a reason to do some sort of planning.
Last but not least, a couple of tips:
- Some beaches are plagued by mosquitoes and/or sand flies. To protect yourself, bring mosquito repellent and consider wearing footwear to prevent the sika sand fly from laying her eggs under your skin (as it is known they do in Suriname and French Guiana).
- Best times to watch the sea turtles are two hours before and after high tide. High season depends on the species, the beach, as well as the time of year. Check with the local authorities for specific information.
Have you seen any sea turtles in South America? We’d love to hear about it.
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