Text: Hanneke Van Lavieren en Michael Hiwat (WWF)

Photos: WWF

The 2019 sea turtle nesting season is on its way again in Suriname (February – July 2019) providing a unique opportunity to see these endangered species in their natural environment, while supporting local tourism.

When flying over the coast of Suriname it’s hard to imagine that thousands of sea turtles are swimming underneath that murky brown water. The fact that so many turtles lay their eggs on the beaches here is even more surprising considering that the Guianas (Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana) have a naturally extremely dynamic coastline with constantly shifting beaches and changes in beach sizes. 

This region is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles worldwide: the green, olive ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. In Suriname we mainly see the first three species. The total length of the Guianas coastline is 1,145 km currently containing five of the most important nesting beaches for these three species, in the entire world. It’s easy to understand therefore that protection of these beaches will contribute significantly to the conservation of these species worldwide.

Sea turtles are highly migratory due to their food types and scarcity of suitable nesting areas in the tropics. Green Turtles nesting in Suriname come from North Eastern Brazil and Leatherbacks come all the way from Canada. 

Despite international protection, many sea turtle populations around the world are being driven to critically low levels by coastal development, incidental capture in fish nets, off-shore oil and gas development, climate change, egg poaching and demand for illegal trade. Most of these threats also impact the turtle populations of the Guianas. Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as ‘Vulnerable or Endangered’. 

After digging a hole 30 to 50 cm deep with its rear flippers the Olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) lays approx 100 eggs in the nest, Ostional beach, Costa Rica.

Sea Turtle Facts

  • Sea turtles are reptiles that can reach an age of 100 years
  • One individual female nests between 3-8 times per season
  • Sea turtles accidentally caught in fishing nets have less than 70 % chance of surviving
  • Depending on which species, sea turtles eat jellyfish, seaweed, crabs, shrimp, sponges, snails, algae and mollusks
  • Unselective fishing gears catch up to 300,000 sea turtles accidentally worldwide each year
  • Sea turtles return to the same nesting grounds at which they were born
  • Sea turtles lay between 60 – 150 eggs per nest 
  • Approximately 1 in 1000 hatchlings make it to adulthood
  • Green turtles lay eggs when they are between 20 to 50 years old
  • Leatherbacks are the largest species reaching up to 2 meters in length, weighing up to 500 kg
  • Leatherbacks can travel as far as 10,000 miles between feeding end nesting grounds

Responsible Sea Turtle Tourism

The Guianas contain one of the largest remaining coastal wilderness areas in the tropics. Large undeveloped extensions of shoreline remain here, often with undisturbed wetland or mangrove forest leading right up to the sea’s edge. It is quite common to find jaguar tracks on the beaches. Because of their remoteness the nesting beaches in Suriname are not exposed to artificial lights that can distract these turtles easily. This wildness is largely a blessing for turtles, because human interference is limited. 

A visit to the turtle nesting beaches of Suriname provides a more adventurous alternative to your typical Caribbean, sun, beach, cocktail and snorkel vacation. The two main turtle nesting beaches in Suriname are found in the remote Galibi Nature Reserve, North-east near French Guiana (approx. 10 km of beach), and in Braamspunt near the capital of Paramaribo (approx. 2 km of beach). Both beach areas can only be reached by boat. Sea turtle tours can be booked with professionally trained tour guides. 

Turtle nesting beaches can be visited during the whole nesting season, but the middle of the season gives you the best chance to see them when numbers of nesting green turtles are high and leatherbacks start coming. Suriname provides a unique opportunity not only to see turtles in their natural environment but also, if you’re lucky, to see leatherbacks during daylight in the early morning or late in the afternoon if the tide is right (May-June). Leatherbacks unlike green turtles are not much affected by daylight. 

When visiting turtle nesting beaches, tourists are required to follow a set of important rules. These rules aim to prevent that the turtles are disturbed while in their natural habitat and in the process of laying eggs. 

Protection

While the beaches are remote and away from human settlements, they are still affected by human activities such as egg poaching and accidental capture by fish nets. Since the late 1980s, WWF Guianas manages a long-term nesting beach monitoring program and builds enforcement capacity by supporting beach patrolling done by the relevant government agencies. WWF tries to change consumer habits to reduce turtle egg consumption. It also works with the fishery sector to reduce accidental by-catch of sea turtles. Another focus is on education (e.g. school children) and responsible sea turtle tourism providing training of tour guides and raising awareness on responsible turtle watching. Although there are some nice success stories, there is still more work to be done. Sea turtle protection therefore continues to be a top priority. 

For more information please contact: WWF Guianas at: info@wwf.sr