Watch Sea Turtles Nest at These Beautiful Beaches
Sea turtles are majestic animals. They're also incredibly important. These gentle beauties protect ecosystems by eating seagrass, keeping coral reefs balanced and providing nutrients to sand dunes — and, in case you're wondering, these are all ecosystems that we need for our survival.
After undergoing a worldwide journey for about half a century, they go back to the beach where they hatched to leave their own nests behind. If you plan accordingly, you could witness this miracle of nature first-hand.
Wondering where to go? These are the best beaches for responsible sea turtle watching.
Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
While sea turtles nest in many beaches around the world, not all of them manage tourism correctly. To make sure that we're only recommending places where you can participate without causing disruptions, we spoke to David Godfrey, the executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy.
The first place that comes to mind when he thinks of responsible turtle-watching tourism is Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park. Godfrey calls it, "the most important green turtle nesting site in the western hemisphere." Leatherbacks, hawksbills and loggerheads also come to lay eggs here. Sea Turtle Conservancy has worked with the government, the indigenous community and lodges for decades to ensure the safety of the animals.
Trained spotters go out to the beach in search of the turtles. Once they come ashore, the spotters radio guides, who wait until the turtles are about to lay their eggs. When that process begins, "it's very difficult to disturb them," Godfrey says. "They're almost in a trance." It's then that guides bring groups of tourists, one by one, to observe the turtle, who remains blissfully unaware of our presence.
Tortuguero itself is a remote wonderland for intrepid travelers. No paved roads exist that take you into the park. Instead, you have to get in via boat or a small plane. Godfrey describes it as "low-impact, nature-based tourism." Accommodation is rustic, with locally owned eco-lodges built sustainably within the jungle. Local restaurants and bars are found around the lodges, but nature still dominates over humans on this coast.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most extraordinary natural experiences you can have in Costa Rica.
Nevis, Saint Kitts and Nevis
The dual island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis is a must-visit Caribbean destination. But if your focus is to see turtles and disconnect from the noise of modernity, Nevis is where you'll want to go.
As Devon Liburd, the CEO of Nevis Tourism Authority tells Far & Wide, there are no traffic lights on the island, where he proclaims there is "never a rush." Perhaps, this is what sea turtles love about it, with hawksbills, leatherbacks and greens coming to visit its shores.
Pinneys Beach is the most popular spot to see nesting. The public beach is next to the Four Seasons Nevis, a hotel that both Liburd and Godfrey highlight as having a comprehensive and responsible turtle experience package.
Liburd believes that the resort's July Sea Turtle Summercamp is one of the best things to do on the island. The camp is done in partnership with Sea Turtle Conservancy and the local Nevis Turtle Group to offer kids and grownups activities like tracking the animals, catching and tagging them (an important step to conservation and research) and educational talks.
What's best, the camp is completely free for children from Nevis. Godfrey also points out that the Four Seasons Nevis reached out to the organization almost 20 years ago to ask "what they could do better for sea turtles and how they could play a role in protecting [them]." So, the resort jumped into responsible tourism way before it was a trend.
Another beach in Nevis where you can look for sea turtles is the beautiful Lover's Beach, located in the north of the island.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
You don't have to travel far to see turtles at the beach. According to Godfrey, one of the very best places to do this is in Florida.
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is about a 1.5-hour drive from Orlando. If you come to Disney at the right season, make it a point to do a day trip here for a wonderful wildlife encounter.
The refuge is named after Archie Carr, known for starting the turtle conservation movement. Godfrey claims that it's "the most important nesting site for sea turtles in the United States. And one of the most important in the world."
At the interactive visitors center, you'll find videos and exhibitions about the different species of sea turtles. During nesting season, the center — with the Sea Turtle Conservancy — offers guided sea turtle walks. From late May to late September, "you can go out with a guide and watch sea turtles nesting," Godfrey says.
Other Great Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches
Besides these three places, there are plenty of other spots to go on a turtle-nesting or hatching safari. Incredible Barbados is one of them.
George Hammerton, director of Hammerton Barbados, talks about seeing baby turtles hatch. In his view, "there are few more touching experiences to be had in Barbados than catching this heartwarming moment.” (Though we'll explain why you'll want to be even more cautious with hatching experiences.)
Gibbs Beach is the island's premier spot. And if you spot a sea turtle, or want information about them, you can always contact the local Barbados Sea Turtle Project.
Another destination to keep in mind is the Turtle Islands, divided between the Philippines and Malaysia. This protected area is made up of three main islands that can only be visited with a guided tour. As a nature reserve, it provides a sanctuary for nesting sea turtles.
Is Tourism Bad for Sea Turtles?
We all love to travel. But no one can deny that tourism can be harmful, even destructive. As Godfrey points out, however, tourism has actually helped sea turtle conservation efforts. In Tortuguero, for instance, the idea that people would pay money to see these beautiful animals is what convinced local communities to stop eating them. Before this, the practice almost wiped turtles out in this Costa Rican area. "Tourism saved the largest nesting colony of turtles in the world," Godfrey states.
That said, there are some red flags to look for to make sure you're not harming the turtles. The first one is lighting. Yes, we know, that's a bit unexpected. Lights "disorient the nesting turtles coming ashore. But most importantly, they disorient the hatchlings, which then go the wrong way. And they go into roads and parking lots, and get run over. [It's] not like maybe that happens every once in a while. No, it happens thousands of times a year."
Lights from resorts as well as the flashlights used in tours should be orange or amber, as close to red as possible. Godfrey also suggests asking yourself about the process. "Do they let people just walk out on the beach with flashlights, looking for turtles, or is it a very organized process?"
Of course, touching — unless you're accompanying a scientific expedition to tag the turtles — is never allowed. One more thing, you should never be in front of the turtle as it's nesting. If you stay behind, it won't even notice you're there.
And if you want to interact with sea turtles virtually while you wait to see them in person, there's the thrilling Tour de Turtle. This fun race follows the trajectory of individual turtles to see which one travels the farthest.
Seeing Baby Sea Turtles Hatch: Better Left to Chance
Baby turtles are incredibly cute. And the possibility of seeing them hatch from their egg and wobble their way to the water is simply irresistible.
We've focused more on nesting than on hatching because Godfrey explains that "with the hatchlings, the best thing is to simply get lucky enough to observe a nest that happens to be emerging." It's difficult to know exactly when that will happen, and they usually come out at night when the cover of darkness protects them from predators in the land and sea.
If you're one of the chosen few that happens to be in the right place at the right time, thank your lucky stars — and then make sure you're using only red lights and staying behind the hatchlings.
Some very irresponsible beaches and resorts charge tourists for the chance to release hatchlings. This, according to both Godfrey and common sense, is a terrible idea. As it is, only one in a thousand baby sea turtles makes it into adulthood. Many, don't even make it out to the sea.
Hatchlings have two survival strategies: hatching at night and entering the water in groups. Both of these actions, as we've stated, protect them from predators. Hatchling releasing experiences usually happen during the day. Turtles are released one at a time, so tourists can see their own special one make it to the sea.
When you do this, as Godfrey put it, "you're basically just feeding the fish."
What's It Like to See Sea Turtles in the Wild?
Godfrey has seen sea turtles nest more times than he can count. So, we'll let him describe what the experience is like:
"You're on a beach at night (preferably with a small group of people), and you're around this turtle. You can hear the waves, and maybe there's moonlight or stars. It's dark. There's the dune, and here's this turtle nesting. You can hear it breathing, and it's digging in the sand.
"And in a way that's not an exaggeration at all, you're witnessing an act in an environment that existed 100 million years ago. You are transported back to the Paleolithic time. It's a dinosaur that happened to have survived all that time. So, you are witnessing ancient history, still unfolding in front of you. It almost gives me chills when I'm watching it because there's not a lot in the modern world that gives you a glimpse back that far. And it's just magical.
"Then, [the turtle] leaves, and it crawls back and goes into the ocean. It disappears. You kind of imagine yourself if you went into the water in that darkness and just took off and started swimming. It's eerie and scary. Not in a million years would you do that. But this animal, it's almost mystical that it lives its life that way. And it's fearless. It goes right back into that environment and swims away and survives.
"There's something about that that always touches me."