Jeff and I were very lucky to get to go on a trip to Klein Bonaire with Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (bonaireturtles.org). Staff and volunteers go to this tiny protected island near Bonaire every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to monitor nests. We didn’t get our hopes up for seeing any turtles because some days there are no nests that have hatched recently. If nothing else, we figured it would be a nice walk on a beautiful beach and a good way to learn more about sea turtles.
Were we ever in for a surprise! Literally as Sue, a staff member at Sea Turtle Conservation, was explaining how to differentiate between hatchling tracks and hermit crab tracks, we came across what looked like trails of hatchling tracks. She next found the dinner plate sized hole that indicates a hatched nest. A longtime volunteer stared digging and soon found egg shells! Success! Next, we were in for another surprise as they saw a hatchling poking out of the sand in the bottom of the nest.
As the tiny turtles struggled to get to the water, we watched out for seagulls and frigate birds who were hovering nearby, waiting to pick off a tiny hatchling for an easy meal.
Luckily, with some redirection needed as they headed the wrong way, eventually all six hatchlings made it into the water and out into the blue where they stand a much better chance of blending in.
If they can make it to the water, then out into the blue, they stand much more of a chance. Their rather pathetic defense strategy is to mimic a leaf floating on the surface.
We spent time walking the full distance of the 2 km beach they monitor for nests. They have marked areas that tracks of nesting females were spotted earlier in the season, so they have a good idea of where to check for nests that are likely to have hatched recently.
The major clue that there is a hatched nest are the hatchling tracks on the sand. However, spotting these isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds because hermit crab tracks look remarkably similar, but somewhat more uneven from the shell and with more random paths that don’t lead to the water. The nests are also tricky to find because crabs dig down into them, making them easily mistaken for just crab holes. This also creates a nice surprise when digging into them and accidentally finding a crab! Luckily we just watched the digging and didn’t have to fend off any angry crabs like the longtime volunteers did.
We were in luck a second time when Sue spotted another nest under a bush. Because there were thick roots going across the nest, there were many hatchlings that were stuck and would not have gotten out if not rescued. Jeff reviewed how to differentiate between hawksbill (four sections on the side) and loggerheads (five sections on the side). It turns out this was a loggerhead nest, so now we had discovered hatchlings of both species of turtles that nest on Klein Bonaire. Pretty awesome!
It tuns out there were 19 hatchlings in the nest! We collected them in a cloth bucket to escort them safely to the water.
It was pretty amazing to see them all quickly scramble to get into the water when I tipped the bucket.
One little turtle just couldn’t make it on its own, so Jeff swam it out to the blue and it seemed to get going from there.
In addition to hatchlings, the nests had some unhatched eggs. These were checked because if there is a slightly underdeveloped turtle, sometimes these can be kept with the yolk for a couple days and still make it. Sadly, all of these were underdeveloped and didn’t have a chance of saving.
We searched the full stretch of beaches forward and back, but we only found one more nest. This one didn’t have any hatchlings to save, but the shells, all dead hatchlings, and unhatched eggs were recorded.
All in all, it was a very successful day that far exceeded our expectations! As we walked along the beach, we even spotted many adult green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles grazing on the sea grass near the shore. Proof that turtles are making it to adulthood! Hopefully we were able to do a little to help even just one turtle make it past the many dangers hatchlings face in the big, open ocean.