Sea turtles in Fuerteventura
As my Facebook friends already know, last weekend I witnessed the birth of more than 80 sea turtles on the beach of Cofete in Fuerteventura. As part of a project to reintroduce the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in the Canary Islands their eggs are brought from the Cape Verde Islands to the Cofete beach in the south of Fuerteventura where they eventually find the right conditions to prosper.
There is some historical evidence that this turtle species once had their breading grounds on the Canary Islands, but because of man-made threats such as Water pollution, industrial fishing, destruction of the natural breeding sites due to construction, tourism and collisions with ships and boats nowadays they are rarely seen in our waters. Some fear that they are even close to become extinct.
Sea turtles feed on jellyfish and seaweed amongst other things. Drifting plastic bags and other objects often get confused by them with food and they die because they can’t digest these materials. Another fatal threat are floating cords or the plastic rings that hold cans together. They get trapped in them and while trying to get rid of them their limbs get constricted which leads to mutilations or they simply drown because they can’t swim anymore.
A major threat, as for many marine animals, are as well the trawls used by industrial fishing vessels which are often several miles long. These huge nets catch everything which crosses their path, not just turtles drown in them for no reason. But as well carelessly thrown away fishing hooks and fishing lines of sport fishermen are often of deadly fate for the sea turtles.
Another frequent cause of death are injuries caused by collisions with ships, boats and other vessels or cuts caused by their propellers. Unfortunately too often we do find dead turtles on the beach with destroyed shells and severed limbs.
And why from the Cape Verde Islands to Fuerteventura?
The Centre for protection of the species in Ervatao, on the island of Boa Vista, has studied the abundant turtle population there for now more than ten years and in these studies the scientist have found that the turtles not always choose the best nesting sites to deposit their eggs which in some cases results in the fact that more than 80% of the eggs do not hatch. The eggs from those nests are collected and within less than 24 hours they are flown to Gran Canaria and then, with a helicopter, to the Cofete beach in Fuerteventura where volunteers already have prepared the new nests.
The beach of Cofete is inside the Jandia Nature Reserve and its enormous dimensions, the heavy surf, strong winds and its isolated location led to the decision to choose this place for the project of the re-introduction of the loggerhead sea turtle in the Canary Islands. Furthermore the access to the area is easily controlled as only a single dirt track leeds to the beach. Like this the access can be restricted in order to protect the turtles when they come back one day for breeding.
Four memorable days I have spent there in my tent, together with other volunteers who came to help with this proyect. We did not get much sleep since the baby turtles hatch a night, and even we were supposed to guard the nests in shifts, everybody was too exited to go to sleep. The eggs are buried about 40 cm deep in the sand where the temperature is more stable than at the surface and where they are hidden from predators. The baby turtles hatch underground and they don’t come straight to the surface once they managed to get out of their shell. The first ones wait for their siblings to hatch and once a good number of them has hatched the ones beneath are pushing the ones on top and so it is not rare to see more then 30 baby turtles at once working their way out of the sand – Safety in numbers. As soon as they are out of the sand they start to race down the beach towards the water trying to avoid the usually lurking predators. With this project, however, the little turtles are collected to be measured and marked as soon as they are collected. The following day they are brought to the Turtle Care Facility “Sodade” which is in the port of Moro Jable and can be visited the whole year round. They remain there for approximately one year before they get released. This increases theire chance of survival as the recently hatched turtle is still very vulnerable not only to predators but also to diseases. On Saturday evening I had the chance to witness such a release and could watch the young turtles racing down the beach and see them disappear in the huge waves crashing at the shore. I would love to know where they are today. If they make their way they will be back to Fuerteventura to lay their eggs in about 12 – 14 years. This is how long it takes till they become sexually mature. Until then they most likely won’t come back to the shore as they do spent their entire life on the open sea where they can be traveling thousands of miles as far as the biologists know by today. If only they could tell us stories…
At this point I would like to say thank you to all those who made this experience possible. So many nice and dedicated people I have met this weekend that it is impossible to mention all of them. Anyway a very special thanks goes to Ana from the turtle care facility in Moro Jable who was the head of the project on site. Thanks to her expertise and experience I could learn a lot about these wonderful animals. As well I would like to mention Thorsten Böhnke from Tigersnail Film. He is about to make a documentary about the life of the loggerhead sea turtle for which he is traveling around the globe. News and information of this and other of his projects you find on his website www.tigersnail.com. Good luck for this adventure!
For more information on the project of the reintroduction of the loggerhead sea turtle in Fuerteventura and opportunities for voluntary participation in the Canaries or on the Cape Verde Islands please have a look at the following web sites:
- Fuerteventura Biosfera (Spanish)
- Sea turtles in Fuerteventura (PDF in English)
- Canarias Medio Ambiente / Tortugas Marinas de Cabo Verde (Spanish)
A short video where you can see the birth of the turtles on the beach of Cofete you can see on the website of IGNIS Press.
And what can you do if you find an injured turtle?
As I learned this weekend turtles are relatively robust animals and they can be without food or water for several days depending on the state they are in when you find them of course. This fact greatly facilitates their rescue in case if you ever should find an injured animal on the beach or in the water. The only thing is to put them in a shady place where they can wait for the rescue to come. In Spain you can phone 112 and the Emergency Centre will take care of advising the right organization which then will come to pick up the turtle. If you are traveling with your boat you can safely carry the animal over several days on board and pass it on arrival at the port to the emergency services. But again, the turtle has to have a shady place. And please, do not pick up turtles just for fun! Only touch them if you are sure that the animal can not survive without help. Like with everything else in life: Act with common sense and respect life and nature. We are not alone on this planet and it is our responsibility to protect this treasure. It does not belong to us, it is only borrowed.