Sea Turtles of Isla De La Plata

Sea turtles are one of the main attractions of the Isla De La Plata tour. Hundreds of tourists look forward to arriving at Drake Bay to watch turtles gather around the boat giving them one of the most amazing spectacles of their lives. Some rush to submerge their GoPros in the water in hope of catching an underwater glimpse of this ancient creature of the sea, while others prefer to take pictures them from the top of the vessel to get a wider perspective.

However, it was not always like this. Only 5 years ago, sea turtles were rarely seen at Drake Bay, Isla De La Plata. So what was caused this increase in sea turtle numbers in such a short time?

For year, captains from Isla De La Plata vessels would rush straight to the island and barely slow down until they reached Drake Bay. If they were asked by tourists or guides to slow down because of potential collisions with sea turtles, they would respond with “sorry, we need to arrive as soon as possible”. Captains did not much care about the sea turtles, as they were not tourist attractions and slowing down was considered a waste of their time. Luckily for the turtles, this was about to change in a drastic way.

 

Machalilla National Park hired a new manager, who ordered the park rangers to be alert of speeding vessels near Isla De La Plata and to enforce speed limits that had long been in place. The fining of a single vessel is all it took to begin to see a change in vessels navigating these waters.

At first, captains were a little reluctant to abide by the enforced regulations, but with time and the increasing numbers of sea turtles catching the tourists’ attention, they themselves started to sympathize with this wonderful animal.

Today, sea turtles can be easily be found in big aggregations around Isla De La Plata. The population seems to be thriving and the turtles have become a major feature in Isla La Plata tours. Sea turtles have not only stolen our hearts, but also those of the boat captains, who once did not care about them at all. Now when a captain is asked to hurry to the island they respond with: “no, the turtles need us to slow down to ensure their safety”.

Las Tortugas Marinas En La Isla De La Plata

Las tortugas marinas son una de las atracciones principales del tour a la Isla de la Plata, y cada año cientos de turistas esperan al momento de verlas rodear el bote y darles uno de los más increíbles espectáculos de sus vidas cuando llegan a Bahía Drake. Algunos se apresuran a sumergir sus Gopros en el agua con la esperanza de vislumbrar bajo el agua a estas criaturas ancestrales del mar, mientras otros prefieren tomarles fotografías desde la parte superior del bote para obtener una amplia imagen de su presencia.

Sin embargo, no siemprefue así. Hace solo 5 años atrás, pocas eran las tortugas que se podían observar en la Isla, y el tour a la isla no era promovido con la idea de observar tortugas. ¿Entonces, que cambio en tan poco tiempo? Hace tan solo 5 años, los capitanes de las embarcaciones que iban a la Isla iban tan apurados por ganarle a los demás botes y terminar el tour rápido que apenas disminuían la velocidad hasta llegar a Bahía Drake. Si algún turista o guía les pedían que bajen la velocidad para no chocarse contra tortugas marinas, ellos se molestaban y simplemente decían: “¡que tortugas ni que tortugas!, debemos llegar rápido a la isla”. A ellos no les importaban las tortugas marinas: ellas no eran atracciones turísticas y solo les hacían perder el tiempo al tener que bajar la velocidad. Afortunadamente, esto estaba a punto de cambiar…

Al Parque Nacional Machalilla llego un nuevo jefe de área, quien ordeno a todos los guardaparques que estén alerta de botes que no acaten la ley de bajar la velocidad cerca de la isla de la Plata, y de aplicar medidas estrictas a las embarcaciones que no cumplieran con esta regulación (que ya existía, pero que nadie obedecia). Tan solo basto una multa y demanda a una de las embarcaciones para que todo cambiara….y para recuperar a nuestra población de tortugas marinas en la Isla de la Plata.

Al principio, los capitanes estaban renuentes a acatar esta disposición, pero con tiempo y el incremento de observación de tortugas en la Isla de la Plata que atraían a los turistas, ellos mismos empezaron a simpatizar con estos hermosos animales, e incluso empezaron a alimentarlas con lechuga y frutas, para de alguna manera atraer a las pocas tortugas que aun había en ese entonces en la Isla, y que al mismo tiempo estas entretengan al turista.

En la actualidad, las tortugas marinas pueden ser encontradas fácilmente en grandes agregaciones en Bahia Drake. La población esta totalmente recuperada y se ha convertido en una importante parte del tour a la Isla de la Plata! Estos hermosos reptiles no solo se han robado nuestros corazones, sino también los corazones de los capitanes de los botes de turismo, a quienes antes no les importaban. Ellos ahora verdaderamente las aprecian mucho, hasta el punto que, cuando les dicen que se apuren para llegar rápido a la isla, ellos mismos responden: “No, las tortugas necesitan que bajemos la velocidad para estar a salvo”.

Hawksbill turtle hatchling. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

FACT OF THE WEEK: Hawksbill turtles are nesting on Maui

MORE ON THIS: In Hawai‘i, Hawksbill turtles mostly nest on Hawai‘i Island, but Maui is home to some of the nesting beaches for ten of these turtles.  Beginning around age 20, a female will return to the area where she was born between May and October every 3 to 9 years to lay her eggs.  Hawksbills will nest at night and will lay 2-5 sets of eggs, or clutches, in the same season. Each clutch will be laid approximately 16-23 days apart.  To lay eggs, the turtle will haul out onto a beach to find a suitable area, dig a deep pit using her flippers, and then fill the pit with her eggs.  A single clutch averages 180 eggs.  Once she is done laying her eggs, she will use her flippers to fill the hole in with sand before returning to the sea.

After approximately 60 days, the eggs will hatch and tiny turtles will begin racing towards the sea.  This is one of the most dangerous times in their life and many don’t make it, except for on Maui where Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund closely monitors each nest to ensure each hatchling crawls to the ocean safely.  A variety of larger animals such as crabs or birds will prey on the small turtles as they make their way to the water.  Hawksbill turtles are listed as endangered throughout the world, including in Hawai‘i, largely in part because of humans.  They have been exploited for many years for tortoise shell, which is thought to make beautiful décor.  Other threats include habitat loss from coastal development, marine debris, being caught as fishing by-catch and light pollution.

Adult Hawksbill Turtle. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

Adult Hawksbill Turtle. Photo courtesy of Cheryl King, Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

What is being done to help these turtles?  Organizations such as Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, NOAA, and US Fish and Wildlife Service have built turtle fences to prevent turtles from crossing roads, and created annual nesting and hatching patrols.  They are also working with local home owners, businesses and resorts to reduce coastal lighting that may prevent turtles from nesting on beaches and/or confuse hatching turtles and cause them to head inland instead of out towards the sea.  With these efforts, hawksbill turtle populations will hopefully be on the rise.

Sea turtles are protected under state law and the US endangered species act. It is illegal to harass, kill or capture a sea turtle. If you ever spot a hawksbill on the beach, take a photo of one while swimming, or would like to be a volunteer to help with nesting and hatching patrols, please contact Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund at (808)280-8124 or wild@aloha.net

FURTHER READING:

  1. Hawai‘i Wildlife Watching Guide: Sea turtles. 2010. Pacific Whale Foundation. Available online: http://www.pacificwhale.org/sites/pacificwhale.org/files/Sea-Turtles-Guide.pdf
  2. Hawksbill Sea Turtle. 2014. Florida: US Fish and Wildlife Service. Available online: http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/seaturtles/turtle%20factsheets/hawksbill-sea-turtle.htm
  3. Hawaiian Hawksbill Sea Turtles. N.D. NOAA-NMFS and Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. Available online: http://wildhawaii.org/documents/hawaiian_hawksbill_brochure.pdf

Written by Sarah Mousel