Nesting in Barbados


by Ilona Kauremszky

ST. LAWRENCE GAP, Barbados - On my first night, intoxicated by the heat, the sand, and a full moon, I took a midnight stroll along what I thought was a deserted beach by the Southern Palms Beach Club when I was approached by an excited teenager waving his flashlight at me. Breathless he motioned me to a most spectacular event, a giant sea turtle in the throes of digging her nest.

As the good news spread others joined us. Children were woken and quietly lay in the sand, their chins propped forward while we grown ups circled in awed silence as the mother hawksbill turtle laid her eggs.

It was as if we were thrown into the middle of a nature documentary until reality hit. Joyce, a schoolteacher from England who everyone seemed to know and whom I would come to call the Turtle Lady, screeched, "Oh god, I've come to this place for over 25 years and I've never seen a turtle lay her eggs before." Of course none of us had.

As the turtle effervesces into a deep hypnotic trance, oblivious to those around her, she drops her golfball-sized eggs into the belly of warm Mother Earth. After she covers the nest she is exhausted and disoriented, turning in endless circles. Our small crowd urges the straining reptile towards the sea. As if on cue, Bob Marley's "Everything's going to be alright," blares from a nearby hotel bar.

"Come on, smell the salt of the sea," pleads Joyce to the turtle. In no time Mother Hawksbill trudges toward the pounding beat of the waves, leaving her unhatched babes behind. Our crowd erupted into a spontaneous cheer. There were few dry eyes.

The introduction to our vacation could not be any better.

In the mid-eighties, the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP) began as a conservation initiative to study and protect the endangered Barbados turtles. Since then, a parallel effort to promote ecotourism has transformed the island into a turtle paradise. Thanks to the BSTP and local turtle-friendly hotels, travellers can log onto the Web prior to their arrival and request free surfside seats to peer into the magical kingdom of this marine species.

Along the island's soft coral beaches, tufts of wild seagrapes and clumps of dwarfed coconut trees have been planted to encourage the nesting of the protected hawksbill, the green turtle and the leatherback turtles. The hotels have played a major role in facilitating turtle spotting by adopting dim beachfront lighting, removing garbage from its beaches, educating their guests and informing the BSTP of sightings. There's even a handy 24-hour Turtle Hotline so you can notify the BSTP about your sightings.

Scientists from the University of West Indies are measuring and tagging the turtles in an effort to understand their nautical migration. Barbados now has one of the largest hawksbill nesting populations in the insular Caribbean where the late bloomer females begin breeding only after 25 years.

Apart from the turtles, Barbados is a veritable outdoor museum, a family friendly eco-paradise that is especially valuable for allowing families and children to veer off the beaten path into a wild kingdom.

Unlike her volcanic sister islands in the Lesser Antilles, Barbados is unique in that it is a coral island sitting on the fringe of the Atlantic and the Caribbean Ocean. Because Barbados is on a migratory flyway between North and South America, over 230 bird species have been recorded here. It is also the only place in the western hemisphere where little egrets are known to breed.

As a result, this cornucopia of eco-plenty gives families more educational activities that are awe-inspiring fun. In the northeastern part, the lush mahogany groves of the Barbados Wildlife Reserve are a children's favorite as they suss out the playful green monkeys frolicking in the late afternoon sun.

Kids will also love riding the trolley into the depths of the prehistoric Harrison Caves. This subterranean world comes alive as colored lights illuminate the massive underground warren dripping with daggered stalagmites.

Near the popular hotel stretch of the St. Lawrence Gap on the island's south side, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel sits the country's last largest mangrove and sedge swamp known as the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary. Schoolchildren arrive frequently to roam the boardwalk, eying the fiddler crabs darting around the shallow pools or zooming their binoculars into the motley crew of egrets sunning atop the red mangrove trees.

A living natural biosphere, the 117-hectacre nature reserve gives children the opportunity to get up close to observe this treasure chest of local flora and avifauna. Nametags and posters detailing the animals are neatly displayed near the plants or area where the critters are known to congregate. The reserve is home to 40 bird species, six bat species, two species of amphibians, curious green monkeys, sneaky mongooses, and they all meet somewhere between the mangrove trees and tall sedge grasses that hug the edge of the murky Western Lake.

Meanwhile eager to see more turtles, I inquire at our hotel and am told that local catamarans provide lunchtime cruises perfect for families. We hop a bus to the Bridgetown port, home of Tiami Cruises and set off for a day of sailing and swimming.

Under sail for less than an hour, we anchor off the westerly part of the island, don snorkels, flippers, lifejackets and dive overboard on our quest to spot sea creatures. I submerge, wide-eyed only to discover I am not alone.

"Watch out," says Terrence, our turtle guide as I come face-to-face with the curved beak of the ancient eretmochelys imbricata, the scientific name for the hawksbill. I let out a nervous laugh. In our midst, a shy troop of four mid-sized hawksbills eagerly snatches the sweetbread our pet detectives throw to them, erupting into a feeding frenzy around us.

On the final night of our stay, we fell asleep with the rhythmic hush of distant waves and the staccato chirps of whistling frogs piercing the air. The phone rings at 5:30 am. "I'm sorry to wake you, but the turtles are hatching on the beach," the front desk receptionist declares.

Camera in hand, I bolted outside to discover Joyce and my teenage friend earnestly counting the hatchlings emerging from the nest. Each turtle rolled over their brothers and sisters in a tireless effort to gain its balance and its bearing to the sea.

"A hundred and 27 from this nest alone," exclaims Joyce, as she pridefully mothers the newborns toward the rising surf. Home at last.

-30-


photos: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

Where to stay: We stayed at the charming turtle friendly Southern Palms Beach Club in the popular St. Lawrence Gap area in a cozy suite with kitchenette. Although not an all-inclusive resort, children under 12 stay free. For more information, visit www.southernpalms.net

Turtle Nesting Season
April through October is the best time, but hawksbill nesting occurs all year. For best sightings, fill out the online request form available at the Barbados Sea Turtle Project web site, www.barbadosseaturtles.org While in Barbados, call the "Turtle Hotline" 24/7 at 230-0142 for any turtle sightings

Other Info: Canadians need a valid passport to enter Barbados. For other travel-related information to Barbados, dial toll-free 1-800-268-9122 or visit www.barbados.org


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