Journey to the Sea – My Experience with Leatherback Hatchlings at Rosalie Bay, Dominica. (Be sure not to miss the video posted lower down in this blog)
Through the rainforest on winding mountain roads we set out for Rosalie Bay. We had left the tranquility of the Western coast of Dominica and the Caribbean Sea for the unique opportunity to witness sea turtle hatchlings on the Southeast, wilder Atlantic coast. Between March and July of each year leatherback turtles weighing up to a thousand pounds complete their migratory journey to Iceland and right back to the place of their birth, here in Dominica. The views along the jungle roads were spectacular, the air was cooler at the higher altitudes and for a time it felt like we were someplace else. Our 4WD vehicle was driven by my internship supervisor, Mr. Renneth Alexis, who shared his thoughts on entrepreneurship and tourism along the way. Traveling with us was my friend Pastor Eddie George and his daughter Charissa.
We came to a break in the canopy that opened up to a village community along the Rosalie River. We crossed over on a bridge that literally had no railings and you could see where it emptied out into the Atlantic Ocean. Up the mountain was the village of Grand Fond, and in the valley below, just beyond a field of bananas and plantains was the Rosalie Bay Resort. Once a site of grand plantation, it is a perfectly situated flat piece of land with a river on one side and a mountain on the other. As a private resort it is really the tropical escape that many people are looking for; but beyond the pool, spa, fitness center, restaurant, garden and first class lodging, is an environment meticulously created with green principles including renewable energy through a 225 kW wind turbine, really clean spring water that is sand filtered and treated with UV light, eco-friendly sewage disposal, organic produce, responsible seafood, locally sourced building materials and marine habitat protection. Rosalie Bay resort owners Beverly Deikel and Patris Oscar are true visionaries with green initiatives, excellent hospitality procedures, and generators of local employment.
Activities director, Judy Joyce took us on a resort and garden tour where we learned about all kinds of native plants, the production of bay oil with bay leaves, varieties of tropical fruit and nuts, herbal remedies and flowers. She picked a flower and said, “Smell this flower. This is Elang Elang and they make Chanel No. 5 out of this stuff. Here, smell this leaf! What does that smell like to you?” “It smells like Cinnamon.” I responded. Enthusiastically she sounded: “Exactly! Here now; take some in your pocket and when you get home tonight, boil it in some water to make your cinnamon tea. You are going to love it.” And you know what? I did. It really was delicious.
Back to the story. Judy led us on a trek all the way up to the humongous wind turbine, which she said has the potential to generate enough energy for the resort and surrounding villages. After returning to the valley, we had a delicious fish lunch and set out for the beach to look for turtles. Judy introduced us to the president of Rosalie’s Nature Enhancement Team (NET), Simon George who spends a whole lot of his time on that beautiful black sand beach.
“Welcome to my humble maternity ward.” Simon announced. “Three species of sea turtles come to nest here at Rosalie Bay: the Green Sea Turtle, the Hawksbill and the Leatherback. The Green Turtle mothers which can weigh between 500 and 800 pounds, will most often crawl up high onto the beach to lay their eggs. Hawksbills will climb up even higher into the vegetation above the beach. But the leatherback mothers can weigh between 800 and a 1,000 pounds and it takes them around two and a half hours to leave the ocean, come ashore, select a spot, prepare it, dig the chamber, enter into a trance while laying their eggs, bury the eggs in the sand and camouflage the site. And, that is if everything goes right.”
Simon went on to explain that because of their size, it is more difficult for leatherbacks to come up far enough on the beach to lay their eggs in a safe location. Often times the tide rises and the water table drowns the nests. Sometimes the ocean erodes the sand, scattering the eggs all over the place and washing them into the water. After the mother returns to the sea, the eggs are on their own without any protection. Turtle eggs are vulnerable to poachers and young hatchlings are vulnerable to predators. For this reason, the Nature Enhancement Team (NET) at Rosalie Bay has developed a plan to improve the chances of survival for the leatherback turtles. Volunteers scan the beach everyday looking for mother turtles, hatchlings and nests. Simon identifies new nests that are in poor locations, digs up the leatherback eggs and relocates them to the turtle hatchery. Each nest in the hatchery is placed in a grid system, 90cm apart from each other and organized by the the date when it was placed in the grid. Knowing the time frame that it takes for turtles to hatch, they can expect turtles to start crawling out after about 60 to 70 days. Here in Dominica, they’ve noticed that it takes around 65 days.
When a leatherback turtle lays her eggs about 80 out of 100 will be fertile eggs. She lays those eggs first, followed by yolkless eggs which create space and cushion for the fertilized eggs below them. The yolkless eggs vary in size from golf ball to marble. The turtles have an egg tooth which allows them to break through the eggs and follow each other up through the yolkless eggs and sand. Those who lag behind do not have the advantage of several turtles pressing to the surface simultaneously.
When young turtles begin to leave the nest, Simon ensures that they are counted and protected from predators. On the average, the leatherbacks lay around 100 eggs, but not all of the turtles make it out of the nests successfully. Some never develop, some never mature and some turtles never dig their way out of the sand. For that reason, Simon will dig out the remaining shells and contents from the nest. He does this for three reasons.
- To rescue the remaining hatchlings that were straggling behind whether because they were weak, deformed, trapped or just having a hard time digging out.
- To collect data on the nests
- To get rid of all of the residue in the nests, so that they do not attract predators like dogs and frigate birds.
When it is time for the leatherback turtle nest to be excavated, members of the Nature Enhancement Team document the remaining contents in the nest and complete a “Dominica Sea Turtle Nest Excavation Form.” This form requires time, date, name of principal observer, beach name, location, turtle species, tag numbers associated with the mother turtle and the nest, evidence of an existing nest (tracks, hatchlings, depression), hatch results and number of turtles released. Hatchling Release information must also include date, time, number to turtles, and number of guests witnessing the release.
The hatch results are differentiated by the following descriptions: Live/dead hatchlings out of nest; live/dead hatchlings in the nest; hatched shells; rotten eggs; undeveloped but not rotten eggs; pipped (partially hatched) live/dead turtles; full-term live/dead embryo; early-term (premature) embryo; yolkless; deformed embryo (twins, albino, undeveloped flippers).
All the collected information is submitted to a database managed by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network out of Duke University (WideCast). This is the parent body that gives guidance to Sea Turtle Conservation to 40 countries in the Caribbean. There are seven species of sea turtles in the world and six of them frequent the Caribbean waters. The Nature Enhancement Team is a member of the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSetCo).
Leatherbacks come to Dominica between March and July and during that period each mother lays eggs around four or five times. They do this in nine day intervals. At the end of this time period, the leatherback turtles head north to Iceland, feeding on jellyfish along the way. DomSetCo and the Nature Enhancement Team puts transmitters on some turtles so that they can monitor their travel routes. They have watched mother turtles swim out thirty miles and then come back to the beach after nine days to lay more eggs. The mother leatherbacks do not come back every year because they have to build up fat and calcium. It takes between two and five years for them to return. Adult male leatherbacks have no reason to come ashore and primarily stay out at sea.
This has been a great year for sea turtles at Rosalie with hatchlings being released almost every evening. In the two days that I visited Rosalie Bay Resort, which were a couple of weeks apart, 34 turtles were released on the first day and 60 the next. They do not place the turtles into the ocean but rather give them a stretch of beach to crawl so that the location of their birth and their journey to the sea will be imprinted upon their memory and then around 25 years later those who have survived will return. One in a thousand will live to become adult sea turtles.
I watched a Simon stretched the entire length of his arm into a nest to remove the egg remains and rescue any trapped turtles. He said with a smile, “Did you know that when young turtles are hatched it is unknown whether they are male or female. Because turtles are reptiles, it is believed that the temperature of the sand can determine the gender of the turtles, hotter sand revealing more females and cooler sand revealing more males. Look, here is a lively one! Hopefully this one will return back to Dominica and we will learn if it was a male or female.”
We watched as these baby turtles took their journey to the sea. It was a remarkable thing to see them take their first steps down the beach and their first flipper strokes into the ocean. Even more remarkable to consider is that somehow these turtles will remember this experience. I know that for me, I will never forget the turtles and the people of Rosalie Bay. I keep thinking to myself that somehow I am now part of a greater story and that one day, 25 years from now, some of these same turtles will return and someone else will be looking out from this black sand beach, watching as giant sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach where they were born. This is the stuff that produces the stories of legend and fantasy. Come and experience Dominica for yourself.
NET grew out of the original “Rosalie Sea Turtle Initiative” (RoSTI), which was founded by Rosalie Bay resort owners Beverly Deikel and Patris Oscar. Judy shared that several universities have come out to study the leatherback turtles at Rosalie Bay. Students from the University of South Florida interested in studying or interning here can prepare by viewing Rosalie Bay’s website, Facebook page and reading their project reports and history online at http://seamap.env.duke.edu/seamap2.5/widecast/references/dm_105.pdf Students can also coordinate with Beverly and Oscar or Jerry John Comellas to organize a trip. Simon said that BBC TV was recently out at Rosalie Bay filming a documentary for children called “Our Ocean, Our Future.”
Rosalie Bay Resort was the first to launch a sea turtle conservation program in Dominica and their example has encouraged other turtle protection programs around the island. In 2012, Travel+Leisure Magazine awarded Rosalie Bay with the “Global Vision Award for Conservation.” The resort makes turtle conservation a part of the sustainable tourism experience for all of their guests and even provides wake up calls for those who want to be notified when turtles come ashore at night. (Rosalie Bay, 2015)
Rosalie Bay. (2015). Sea turtle nesting and hatching at Rosalie Bay. (Website and marketing by Madigan Pratt & Associates.) Retrieved 2016, from RosalieBay.com: http://rosaliebay.com/activities/turtles.html