Searching For Turtles In Barbados

“You here to see the turtles?” the fisherwoman asked, with a broad smile.

I nodded. Armed with a bag of fish heads and other assorted scraps, my family and I ventured onto the jetty at Oistins, one of the largest fish markets in Barbados.

Located near the southern tip of the island, the town of Oistins was (probably) named after a man called Austin, a landowner who was described by a historian as “a wild, mad, drunken fellow whose lewd and extravagant carriage made him infamous in the island”. (Not much has changed, then!)

It was the scene of a major battle between Royalists and Roundhead supporters in 1651. The Royalists were duly defeated and the terms of their surrender were outlined in the Treaty of Oistins. This document was significant because, in guaranteeing that “no taxes, customs, imports or excise shall be laid, nor levy made on any of the inhabitants of this island without their consent in a General Assembly”, it thus established the principle of no taxation without representation. (A century later, this idea would become popular in a large colony further to the north! See more here.)

However, such history was completely lost on my children. We were there in search something much more exciting.

What I like to call the gentle giants of the sea.

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If I can tempt you off your sun loungers and into the water, there is a stunning variety of marine life on offer in the sea around Barbados: bright angelfish in many different colours; young silver ballyhoo, with their elongated lower jaw that resembles a thin sword; corals and sea plants in vibrant red and green hues. Turn over a rock in the shallows and you might find a “sea cat”, our version of calamari. At night the lobsters and crabs roam free.

But there is one creature that swims above the fray, observing all of activity on the sea floor, yet remaining aloof.

Gliding majestically through the water with the merest flick of her front fins, the sea turtle is my favourite marine creature in Barbados. (In the wider Caribbean, she would face strong competition from dolphins and stingrays, but neither of these are common to Barbados.)

Worldwide there are seven species of sea turtle, but in the Caribbean, four types are most common. The green turtle, named for its green skin around the neck and shoulders, is the one you are most likely to see roaming around the shallow waters, feeding on grass and plants and growing up to 1.5 metres in length (5 feet). The hawksbill has a small head and a long, curved beak and a distinctive shell colouring that was highly prized until being banned in the 1970s. Loggerhead turtles are slightly smaller than the other two, but are recognisable by their big heads.

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But the giant of the sea turtles is the mighty leatherback, so-called because its back is covered not with a shell but a tough, leathery skin. The leatherback turtle is the fourth-largest reptile in the world (after three species of crocodile) with adults averaging around 2 metres (6.5 feet) in length (though the Caribbean version is a bit smaller). Its front flippers can grow to a massive 2.7 metres (9 feet)!

I love them. Perhaps it’s because of how graceful they are in the water, despite having two “arms” and two “legs” like us humans. Or maybe because, when I was growing up, they were not as plentiful as they are now.

The threats the sea turtle faces are mostly man-made.

Whilst in the last century they were hunted, almost to extinction, for their meat, shell and eggs, now they are protected by international treaty and local laws. But humans are still a danger, through “bycatch” (in nets and long lines), pollution (including plastic) and seafront development.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that turtles have a somewhat fragile reproductive cycle.

A female turtle comes ashore and lays her eggs in a nest on the beach. Although the nest may contain hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs, it is estimated that only one in a thousand will reach adulthood. Nests get disrupted, hatchlings get eaten or go the wrong way, while young turtles are vulnerable to many other marine creatures. A full-size adult turtle has few predators in the wild, but it can take 20 years or more for sea turtles to reach adulthood and reproduce!

One stray net, or one plastic bag mistaken for a jelly fish and the cycle is broken.

So the increase in turtle populations around Barbados is a success story. You can see them near the shore on the south and west coasts. You may come across them while snorkelling or diving on reefs and shipwrecks. Catamaran operators incorporate a swim with turtles into their cruises. There is even a well-known turtle named Scar, so-called because of the injuries she sustained in an unfortunate incident with a boat’s propeller.

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A friend told me that turtles congregate at Oistins in the evenings, feeding on the scraps that fisherman throw overboard on their return to the docks. So we walked out to the end of the jetty and I threw a few fish heads into the water and waited.

Nothing. So I threw some more. Still nothing.

After 15 minutes the fish scraps were gone, but the turtles were a no-show.

By this time the children lost interest and were instead watching some fishermen clean a load of sea eggs, cracking the shells to extract the bright orange roe. The ban on harvesting sea eggs, which had been in effect for 12 years, was relaxed for one month only and these fishermen were making the most of the short window in which to sell this rare delicacy.

The children then shifted their attention to two men who were fishing off the end of the jetty, catching small fish that were attracted to the discarded sea eggs entrails. Eventually my son plucked up the courage to ask if he could have a go. One of the fishermen lent him a short line and, after losing his bait a few times he managed to catch a fish!

Just as we were about to leave we saw two dark shadows coming towards the jetty. The turtles had finally arrived: two large hawksbills, from the look of them. They didn’t come too near to the surface, because the tasty fish parts that I had thrown over were resting on the sea floor. But the water was so clear that we could easily see them circling back and forth. Every so often one would poke it head up briefly to take a breath. The children were enthralled. In truth, we all were!

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But, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

This is a working jetty and if crowds of visitors start congregating there every evening, it might impact the fishing activities. But if you can tear yourself away from happy hour, head to Oistins at around four o’clock in the afternoon, grab a bag of fish heads, venture out on the jetty and see if you can catch a glimpse of these gentle giants of the sea.

For more information on turtles in Barbados, including where and when they nest and what to do if you see one laying eggs, please visit the website of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project.

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