Best Beaches to Watch Beautiful Sea Turtles Nesting
Sea turtles are majestic animals that are a sight to behold. They are smart, strong and much bigger than you'd think, with some species reaching up to 9 feet in length!
One of the coolest things about sea turtles is that they have a natural GPS inside their brain. After living it up for decades, this allows them to go back to the very same beach where they hatched to leave their own nests behind.
Want to see this natural miracle for yourself? These are the best beaches for responsible sea turtle watching.
1. 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 he recommends is Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park, which he calls "the most important green turtle nesting site in the western hemisphere." Leatherbacks, hawksbills and loggerheads also 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 and guides patrol the beaches, waiting for the moment 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 small groups of tourists are allowed to come and observe the turtle.
Tortuguero 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.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most extraordinary natural experiences you can have in Costa Rica.
2. Nevis, Saint Kitts and Nevis
The dual island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis is a must-visit Caribbean destination.
Devon Liburd, the CEO of Nevis Tourism Authority tells Far & Wide, that in Nevis there are no traffic lights, and 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.
Another beach in Nevis where you can look for sea turtles is the beautiful Lover's Beach, located in the north of the island.
3. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
You don't have to travel internationally to see turtles at the beach. Instead, head to Florida.
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is about a 1.5-hour drive from Orlando. If you come to Disney in 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 remarks.
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, believes "there are few more touching experiences to be had in Barbados than catching the heartwarming moment [of seeing baby sea turtles hatch].” (Though we'll explain why you'll want to be cautious with hatching experiences.)
Gibbs Beach is the island's premier nesting spot. And if you spot a sea turtle, or want information about them, you can always contact the local Barbados Sea Turtle Project.
For a far-flung adventure, consider 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. However, as Godfrey points out, tourism has actually helped sea turtle conservation efforts. In Tortuguero, for instance, "tourism saved the largest nesting colony of turtles in the world," Godfrey states.
That said, there are some red flags to look for when looking for nesting experiences. The first one is lighting. Godfrey declares that lights "disorient the nesting turtles coming ashore. But most importantly, they disorient the hatchlings, which then go the wrong way and get run over. [It's] not like 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.
Seeing Baby Sea Turtles Hatch: Better Left to Chance
Baby sea turtles are incredibly cute. And the possibility of seeing them hatch from their egg and wobble their way to the water is simply irresistible.
But Godfrey explains that "with the hatchlings, the best thing is to simply get lucky enough to observe a nest that happens to be emerging."
Some very irresponsible beaches and resorts charge tourists for the chance to release hatchlings. This 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 release experiences usually happen during the day and turtles are released one at a time by individuals.
When you do this, as Godfrey put it, "you're basically just feeding the fish." Yikes.
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."