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Sea Turtle Sanctuary Opening soon in Simpson Bay

Pic_3._A_healthy_leather_back_sea_turtle_laying_eggs_on_Guana_Bay_Beach._By Lisa Davis-Burnett

 

Cruising the depths of the sea, solitary and stately, the sea turtle is one of the most ancient and venerable creatures known to man. With slow strokes of its front flippers, the sea turtle will come up for a breath of air which it can hold for up to seven hours. Then it will dive down, sometimes thousands of feet. The lucky snorkeler or scuba diver, who sees a sea turtle in its natural environment, is invariably mesmerized by its sense of calm. These graceful animals have been plying the earth’s oceans for millions of years, since long before the dinosaurs ruled the land, but now they are considered endangered or critically endangered.

 

Sea turtles have always faced enormous natural obstacles to survival; but in the last century or so, a new threat has risen. Their nesting habitats have become populated by humans. Vacation homes, resorts and the like occupy their beaches; the humans have built breakwaters, piers and docks. This has had a devastating effect on the numbers of sea turtles worldwide. As it stands now, their future is uncertain. They need to be protected and studied. Helping Hands Sea Turtle Sanctuary stands ready to do just that.

 

Turtle enthusiast and surfing instructor Antony Rowett has joined forces with retired engineer Rory Mastert and his wife Rachelle to fill a much needed void here in St. Maarten and the north-eastern Caribbean. Working in collaboration with Nature Foundation, the sanctuary will offer expert care for sick or injured sea turtles found here or on the neighbouring islands of Anguilla, Saba, Statia, St. Kitts and Nevis. Prior to the establishment of Helping Hands Sea Turtle Sanctuary, injured turtles were transported at great expense to the nearest sanctuary which is in Guadeloupe. Last year alone, 38 turtles were reported to Nature Foundation as injured. Only three of these were able to be sent to Guadeloupe for treatment due to the cost.

 

Mastert explained: “We’ve worked hard all our lives and we are at the stage now that we want to try and give something back to the environment. If you look at the statistics on the sea turtles, I think it quite heart-wrenching. Only one in 200 of the eggs will survive to hatch; and only one in 1,000 of those will live to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. They have everything against them. So it’s something we are very passionate about.”

 

Edutainment

As the island’s newest ecotourism effort, Helping Hands will operate as a business, more or less self-sufficiently covering the costs of caring for the turtles with proceeds from tours. They hope to have sponsorship from likeminded individuals and from the business community.

 

The tours of their facilities will provide both education and entertainment, “edutainment” as it were. With hands-on, live and interactive presentations of the animals, with explanations by the tour guides and audio-visual movies as well, the centre has the capacity to interest locals and tourists alike with a special deal for groups of school children on field trips.

 

There is potential for growth over time, with a snack bar and gift shop in the works, but the basic operation is ready right now to receive sick or injured sea turtles. They have several tanks constructed, filled with filtered sea water where turtles can recuperate and gain strength. They even have “hospital beds” for those turtles that need to rest. Other areas are designated for eggs and hatchlings to possibly be raised.

 

Research

With the statistics on sea turtle populations so worrisome, there is a great need for research. The truth is not much is known about where turtles go after they leave their nests. Scientists call this the turtles’ “lost years” because after hatching, they are rarely seen again until the mature females return about 15 years later to begin to lay their eggs. The more that is discovered about their wide ranging travels and habits, the better the risks they face can be minimized and their survival rates will be maximized.

 

Enter our friends in Simpson Bay. Helping Hands has some big ambitions for gathering data on the population of sea turtles hatched from St. Maarten beaches. They hope to track turtles with satellite telemetry, follow their routes and thereby predict some of their feeding and other regular habits. Rowett: “Eventually, we want to have a digital screen with a live map showing where the St. Maarten turtles are located in real time.”

 

They also plan to investigate whether it is feasible to give hatchlings a head start on a successful adolescence, by raising them for six months to a year before releasing them into the sea. This could be beneficial because the new-borns are extremely vulnerable to predation from sea birds in those first few months.

 

Another concern is that certain beaches have become poor nesting sites due to people, dogs, lights and noises. If a turtle nest is found on such a beach, there is less of a chance for the hatchlings to survive, and if they do survive, their eventual return to that beach for laying the next generation of eggs is even less likely. Helping Hands is interested in exploring the possibility of relocating nests to remote beaches that would offer undisturbed sites now and in the future.

 

Sea turtles facts

Sea turtles are reptiles of the order Testudines. Scientists currently recognize seven species of sea turtles, six of which are found in the Caribbean. They are the Loggerhead, the Green, the Kemp’s Ridley, the Olive Ridley, the Hawksbill, and the Leatherback. The Flatback sea turtle is found only in the waters north of Australia.

 

Sea turtles are part of two ecosystems, the beach/dune system and the marine system. If sea turtles went extinct, both the marine and beach/dune ecosystems would be negatively affected. And since humans use the marine ecosystem for food and recreation and the beach/dune system for a wide variety of activities, any negative impact to these ecosystems could negatively affect humans.

 

The marine ecosystem is particularly supported by Green Sea Turtles. They play an important role acting as gardeners, nibbling on sea grasses and thereby promoting the healthy growth of these vegetative beds which serve as breeding grounds and protection for many forms of sea life such as fish, sea horses, shellfish and crustaceans. Only turtles and manatees eat sea grass; and without this action, the foundation of the marine food chain would fall apart.

 

They live their lives in the sea; but once every two or three years, the females come to shore to lay eggs on the same beach where they themselves hatched. All the unhatched nests, eggs and trapped hatchlings are very good sources of nutrients for the dune vegetation, even the leftover egg shells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients to the beach habitat.

 

What to do

All seven sea turtle species are listed as threatened or endangered. Every sea turtle counts, as populations are dwindling and each reproducing adult has the potential to contribute hundreds of offspring.

 

When a sea turtle is found stranded or injured, you can bring the animal to Helping Hands Sea Turtle Sanctuary for treatment or call for help. Sea turtles commonly suffer from infections, entanglement in fishing line, or shock from being injured from a boat strike or shark bite.

If you find an injured or sick sea turtle, please call St. Maarten Nature Foundation at (712) 544-4267 and they will advise you how to proceed. They will function as first responders and provide transportation for the turtle to arrive at the sanctuary. Once the veterinarian has verified that a turtle is sick or injured, you will be compensated for your efforts. The sanctuary is offering US $25 for any sea turtle reported through this process (healthy turtles should not be brought in). Rehabilitated sea turtles are to be released as soon as possible to hopefully become reproductive members of the sea turtle population.

Helping Hands Sea Turtle Sanctuary is located at Modesto Road 28 in Simpson Bay, directly across from Sister Regina Primary School. Their dedicated 24-hour hotline is (712) 586-1913. Their Facebook Page is coming soon.

 

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