Latin America & Caribbean

The island where endangered Hawksbill turtles thrive

Hawksbill turtle swimming in the sea Image copyright Kathryn Levasseur

The private Caribbean island of Jumby Bay may be home to some of the world's most affluent and influential people.

But its most revered residents of all are the ones that shun the five-star facilities and never ever pick up a tab.

The exclusive isle - off the north coast of Antigua and Barbuda - is the site of the world's longest running research programme for critically endangered hawksbill turtles.

And they have been here far longer than their human counterparts.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the study, funded entirely by Jumby Bay's well-heeled homeowners who include the likes of Lord Sainsbury, the former chair of the eponymous British supermarket chain, and author Ken Follett.

It has collated more data than any other project about the intriguing creatures which were previously considered too skittish to study, and is one of the only places in the world where their numbers are increasing.

Familiar faces

The last three decades have seen almost 450 hawksbills tagged for monitoring purposes and the number of those nesting there increase three-fold.

Every single turtle laying eggs on the island's Pasture Beach is identified thanks to meticulous hourly patrols by researchers and volunteers every night for the duration of the five-and-a-half-month annual nesting season.

Image copyright Kathryn Levasseur
Image caption Satellite transmitters will soon be deployed to find out how far hawksbills travel

Dr Seth Stapleton, from the University of Minnesota who is overseeing the work, said 2014 had been a record year with nearly 90 hawksbills spotted.

"When the project started there were about 30 individuals nesting per season. What's even more remarkable is that we are continuing to see some of the same turtles that were first tagged in the late 1980s returning to nest here. They were originally tagged when they were probably 15 to 20 years old, and a few are still reproducing decades later."

Long hunted for their beautiful brown and gold shells - used to make everything from sunglasses to jewellery - the population of hawksbills worldwide has declined by 80% in the last 200 years.

They have been listed as critically endangered since 1996.

Although the trade is now banned, they still face horrendous odds with only one in 1,000 hatchlings making it to adulthood thanks to omnipresent marine predators.

'Nesting trance'

Exacerbating matters further is hawksbills' late maturation; they do not usually begin to reproduce until they are at least 15 years old.

Dr Stapleton said the Jumby Bay study had been integral in providing fundamental information about hawksbills.

"Many details we now take for granted we learned there - for example, that they don't nest every year; they nest four or five times in one year, laying around 150 eggs each time and then skip a year or two," he explained.

Image copyright Kathryn Levasseur
Image caption Females are vulnerable to predators while they are nesting

"But there's still so much we don't know, such as how long they live. My ballpark guess would be 50 to 60."

Because turtles are tagged when in their so-called 'nesting trance' - a daze-like state during the egg-laying process when they are oblivious to their surroundings and unable to move quickly - most of the data gathered is about adult females.

Researchers are now taking genetic tissue from the hatchlings to compile information about the males, too.

Plans for the upcoming year also include deploying three satellite transmitters to track hawksbills' movements by GPS.

"This will enable us to better assess where they travel after nesting," Dr Stapleton added.

Mother's determination

Hawksbills play a key environmental role by eating sponges which helps keep coral reefs healthy.

Ashton Williams, of Antigua's Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), said sadly a small number of turtles were still poached for their meat on the mainland.

"We were following tracks recently at Rendezvous Bay when the marks suddenly stopped. We could see where a turtle had been flipped over and dragged away," he said.

"Thankfully the younger generation aren't that interested in turtle meat but some of the older folk still have a taste for it. There's also a myth that the eggs are an aphrodisiac."

Image copyright Alex Andre Rhodes
Image caption Volunteers have been following turtles' tracks in the sand to locate the nesting site

Mr Williams has been working to protect Antigua's marine life for the last 35 years.

"What I love most about turtles is their determination. The female leaves her environment and puts herself in so much danger all for the survival of her offspring," he said.

"When she goes into her nesting trance she's totally vulnerable to predators. To go through all that just to be killed by a man, it really hurts."

Happily for Jumby Bay's reptilian population, the private isle is one of the world's densest hawksbill nesting sites with one every two to three metres.

Donna Cook, the resort's spokeswoman, said the scheme would not be possible without the generosity of private homeowners.

"It's an amazing project," she added. "The island is one of the few places on earth where turtles are completely safe."

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