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June 2008

We are dedicating this month’s website to turtles, since we spent a lot of time observing them this month.   We often see turtles surfacing to get some air while we are at anchor or underway.   It isn’t unusual for us to see turtles when we snorkel, but most are very shy and will rapidly swim away as you get near.  Their natural defenses are strong and they are wary of predators.  In most Caribbean islands, it is not illegal to catch and eat turtles, as long as they are not caught during the five-month reproduction period (March – July).   It is difficult to enforce this regulation, and many islanders eat turtle anytime of the year once it is caught.

hawksbill turtleEarly in the month we visited the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary on Bequia Island .   Hawksbill and Green Turtles are brought to the Sanctuary after they hatch.  The turtles are raised in numerous salt water tanks segregated by age until they reach five years old.  The turtles are then introduced to their natural environment when they have a greater chance of survival.  Hawksbill turtles don’t start to reproduce until they reach the age of 20.   In most years, the Sanctuary has received 20 baby turtles by early June.  Unfortunately, they had not received any new Hawksbill turtles when we visited this year.  They are hoping that this is an indication of a later than normal nesting season, rather than an indication of fewer surviving Hawksbill turtles.

 

 

Hawksbill turtles

 

Our next turtle encounter was in the Tobago Cays Marine Park.  We anchored near Baradel Island and as we relaxed in the boat cockpit, we watched turtles surface for air all around our boat.  We also enjoyed the excitement of all age groups as they spotted a turtle and pointed it out to others on their boats.  As we snorkeled from our boat to Baradel Island, we swam with 7 – 8 different turtles along the way.  These turtles have a lot of human interaction, so they allow you to follow them along at a leisurely pace, but they will quickly dart off if they sense that you are getting close enough to touch. 

Leatherback turtle

leatherback turtleThe turtle highlight of the month was a visit to Lavera Beach on the northeast tip of Grenada to observe turtle nesting.  Lavera Beach is the second largest nesting area for the leatherback turtle in the Caribbean.  More than 800 leatherback turtles laid eggs on this beach during the 2007 nesting season and the pace this year suggests that more than 900 may visit during the 2008 nesting season.  The moon was one day shy of full and the beach was brightly light as scattered clouds cleared about 9:00 pm.  As our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw a large dark object emerge from the ocean onto the beach.  This leatherback turtle was about five feet long and three feet wide.  The knowledgeable volunteer for the Ocean Spirits organization directed our group to watch from a distance as the female turtle transits the beach and finds a spot to dig her nest.  Only dim red lights are permitted on the beach and no flash photos are allowed, since the turtles are attracted to light.  Once the turtle finds a suitable spot for her nest, her large front and rear flippers move in a sweeping motion to clear away the dry sand until wet sand is found.   When the wet sand is located, the large back flippers are each rotated in circular motion to dig a hole with a 12-inch diameter which is two feet deep directly behind the turtle.  Her large back flippers are cup-shaped and scoop up sand like a large human hand.  When the turtle is satisfied with her nest she will lay her eggs.  Leatherback turtles will lay eggs three to four times during the nesting season.  The first nest of the season may include over 100 eggs, while subsequent nests for the same turtle will include fewer eggs.   Eggs are white with brown spots.  Larger eggs contain a full yolk (hatching to a small turtle), while smaller eggs are without yolks and will not hatch, but provide moisture and filler to the nest.  The egg laying step is quick, requiring only a few minutes.  The female turtle then uses her strong large flippers to cover the nest with sand and return the area to its natural state so predators will not suspect a nest.

leatherback turtle diggingThe first turtle we observed dug a nest and appeared to be ready to lay eggs when she moved away from the prepared nest and began to prepare a second nest in a different location.  After 10 minutes of work in the new area, the turtle abandoned the beach and returned to the ocean without laying any eggs on this visit.  The second turtle we observed emerging from the ocean was met by unsupervised local islanders as she reached the beach.  The turtle sensed danger and returned to the ocean without laying any eggs.  The third turtle we observed began to dig her nest over an existing nest.  Since she started to destroy unhatched eggs as she dug, the volunteers disturbed her during the digging process hoping she would move to another location to dig her nest.  The turtle returned to the ocean rather than look for another location to lay her eggs.  The fourth turtle we observed dug her nest and laid her eggs.  The volunteers recorded the tag number on the turtle (many of these turtles have been tagged in previous years), measured the size of the turtle and recorded the location of the nest.  The volunteer checked the nest and discovered that there was clay in the bottom of the nest which would inhibit the hatching process.  After the turtle laid her eggs and before she covered her nest, a volunteer retrieved all the eggs laid (around 80), placed them in a bucket, and dug a new nest the same size and depth in a location where there was no clay. The eggs were placed in this human-dug nest and covered with sand.

Leatherback turtle digs her nest

We were fascinated to learn about leatherback turtles.  Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in the world measuring six feet long and weigh an average of 1200 pounds.  Their name is derived from the tough skin that covers their backs rather than a bony shell.  Leatherback turtles have been found in all the oceans of the world and can survive in cold and warm waters.  Leatherbacks travel great distances each year.  A tagged leatherback was recently tracked more than 13,000 miles (over half way around the world) in a period of 647 days.   At least once in their lifetime, leatherback turtles will return to the beach where they hatched.  What type of GPS system do they have that directs them to the same location many years later?

 It takes about 60 – 70 days for the turtle eggs to hatch.  The ambient temperature of the nest determines the sex of the turtles.  Since the nesting season was nearing its end, we were lucky enough to also observe the hatching process.   A volunteer identified two small holes the size of a small nail head in the sand.  He used his red light to illuminate the area.  The small holes grew larger and other small holes began to appear.  The small turtle nose holes were the first features we could identify.  Gradually, we could see a mouth emerge and as movement continued the front flippers were visible.  Once the front flippers were free from sand, the turtle continued to use the front flippers to push and pull his body out of the sand.  When the turtle’s entire body was on top of the sand, he quickly moved toward the ocean using his front and back flippers. The hatchlings made a distinctive pattern on the sand as they make their way to the ocean. 

leatherback hatchling

 

We watched more than 20 hatchlings push their way up through the sand.  Remember that the nest hole is usually two feet deep, and the volunteers estimate that after hatching, these turtles have been digging through the sand for two days to reach the top.  Mother Nature’s programming was amazing to observe as the hatchlings automatically traveled the 25 feet to the water.  A few of the turtles lengthened their journey by turning in several circles to find their way.  Ann selected one hatchling to “adopt” and used her red light to attract the hatchling and guide it to the water.  She shined the red light in front of the turtle to direct him to the water.  As the hatchling reached the surf, he was washed back onshore from the first wave.  On his second attempt, the waves took him into the surf and he disappeared.  Ann prayed that her little turtle would survive and someday return to this beach.

 

 

Ann directs a turtle hatchling to the ocean

Ok, that’s enough about turtles for this month!

The moonhole

 

In the late 1960’s Tom Johnson, a retired American businessman, discovered a natural stone arch formation on the southwestern tip of Bequia.  This arch was called a Moonhole since the full moon can be seen through the hole at specific times of the year.  Johnson bought more than 35 acres of property surrounding the arch and built a house from the rocks and other natural products directly below the stone arch.  There were no windows or doors in the house.  Walls and roofs were built from concrete and stone.  Furniture was “built into” the structure using concrete and stone to conform to the natural lines of the topography.   Johnson allowed his friends to build similar “natural” structures on the 35 acres and today there are more than 20 vacation dwellings.   Water is available from cisterns and water tanks using natural gravity rather than water pumps to make the water available.  The houses use solar power for electricity rather than generators.  While in Bequia, we toured some of the Moonhole structures.  The structures put a new definition into outdoor living and outdoor rooms.  The views are beautiful, and the imagination and creativity that inspired the project are amazing.  It’s not for everyone, but it makes for an unusual vacation home. 

The mooonhole

moonhole structuresmoonhole living room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moonhole homes

Moonhole living room

John's international volleyball game

volleyball at salt whistleJohn organized volleyball games with several cruisers in Salt Whistle Bay Mayreau.  The games were an international competition with players from Brazil, France, Sweden, Australia, and the United States.

In Grenada, we visited Seven Sisters Falls with our friends Chuck and Barb on Tusen Takk.   We rode a local bus to the tour site and met our guide Rasta guide David.  We hiked through beautiful cool rain forests with lush tropical flowers and plants to reach the falls.  You can hike to falls 1, 2, 7, and 6.  However, once you reach waterfall number 6, the only way to see falls 5 – 3 is to jump and swim from one waterfall to the next.  Our guide is essential, since he tells us how to land (on our back, in a sitting position, straight down like a pencil, in a shallow dive, and every kid’s favorite the cannonball) and where to enter the water in the small pools.  The largest drop is 42 feet and it took Ann many long minutes to get enough courage to jump from the fall into the pool below.  It was an exhilarating day spent with good friends & we returned back to our boats with beautiful tropical flowers from the rain forest.

 

As July begins, we prepare to travel south to Venezuela , our first trip to the South American continent.