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From Zero to 72 – Turtugarubas Successful Sea Turtle Project

In the sea turtle breeding season of 2000, there were zero nests on Aruba’s extensive sandy beaches. By July 2009, the count had increased to 72 nests, thanks to the efforts of “sea turtle parents” Edith and Richard van der Wal and numerous volunteers in Aruba.

Each summer from May through August, giant female sea turtles migrate from feeding areas to the regions of their birth throughout the Caribbean. Four species (the leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles) have their home base in Aruba. During the course of a season, a single female lays multiple nests, usually three to eight.

The turtles, weighing several hundreds pounds, come ashore in the dark, dig a hole using their rear flippers, and lay approximately 100 eggs at a time in these “nests.” The task of excavating a nest may take the turtle over an hour to accomplish. She then deposits her pliable ping-pong ball sized eggs into the chamber, covers them with sand and returns to the sea, leaving the eggs to develop, hatch, and survive on their own.

After roughly a two-month period, a cluster of tiny hatchlings emerges from the sand and scrambles to the sea, following the light of the moon reflecting off the ocean. Unfortunately, their sea-finding ability can be disrupted by artificial lights from buildings and streets. Confused, the hatchlings wander inland and are taken by predators, hit by vehicles or die from heat exhaustion in the next day’s sunlight. That’s one of the reasons that only one in a thousand hatchlings survives to adulthood.

Medical doctor Richard van der Wal and his wife Edith, a schoolteacher, were fascinated by the beautiful but vulnerable sea creatures and decided in 2000 to bring back and protect the sea turtles that call Aruba their home. Their enthusiasm inspired many volunteers and Turtugaruba was established, a local foundation that intensively cooperates with the international Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network.

In wintertime Richard and Edith participate in WIDECAST’s seminars, this year in Brisbane, Australia, but during the nesting season, they daily survey the beaches in the early morning hours and around sunset in search of any new nests and to monitor the registered nests until turtle nesting season ends. Tourists notice eye-catching red and white enclosures on the beaches with a warning sign at the side to explain the purpose.
Aruba is world famous because of her long and beautiful beaches and during summer nesting season, those sands are crowded with tourists. It took some time to persuade hotel managers of the need for placing the enclosures.

These days, hotels, in particular the low rise hotels, give their full cooperation and allow their beaches to be occupied by an increasing amount of the red and white fences. But their cooperation works both ways; most tourists are first amazed by the obstacles on the beach, then their interest grows. Finally, if they are lucky to experience a part of the wondrous event of the hatchlings crawling to the sea or the mother creating her nest, they return home with a memorable experience.

It takes hatchlings two to three days to dig out of the nest. They usually dig and emerge as a group, leaving a small hole in the sand, the indication that the nest is empty. The day after the hatchlings have left the nest, the Van der Wals dig out the nest to see if there are any hatchlings left or stuck in the sand and monitor the amount of egg shells,  undeveloped yolk eggs and developed eggs that didn’t make it. They always perform this action at the same time at 6 p.m., attracting residents and visitors alike and providing information about the sea turtles’ life circle, creating awareness.

  • Sea turtles return to the beach where they hatched in order to nest.
  • Sea turtles use the earth’s magnetic field to guide them on long journeys at sea.
  • Sea turtles do not nest every year, but rather every two to five years.
  • The Leatherback sea turtles of Aruba lay about 115 eggs a clutch.
  • The Leatherback female will nest six to eight times a season.
  • It is estimated that only 1 in 1000 hatchlings survives to maturity.
  • All species of sea turtles are endangered and need our protection.

Turtugaruba features a 24 hour Turtle Hotline, (+297) 592-9393, where all turtle activity can be reported. It is possible for humans to share the beaches and oceans with sea turtles. We all share the responsibility for making the beaches we enjoy a safe haven for creatures that rely on them.

Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works as an award-winning free-lance photojournalist on Curacao. She thanks the management of Divi All Inclusive Resort for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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