Twilight. We’re having dinner, and staring into the sea when the black shadow of a stingray passes through the water in front of the hotel where we’re eating. There’s something sinister about the stingray’s passage: like watching the cape of Count Dracula. Several people get up from their tables to peer at it.
Then we go back to our food – and that’s when I get the text. This informs us that turtle hatchlings are about to be released, just down the coast. We tell the waiter, who kindly allows us to split our dinner. (Perhaps the hotel, Cobblers Cove, with a turtle-nesting site of its own, is accustomed to this kind of eccentricity.) Determined to come back soon for pudding, we finish our main course and dash off.
Some time later, we’re stumbling in darkness on a stretch of deserted sand. It’s our last night on the island, and we’ve been waiting for this moment since we arrived.
Let’s go back a bit … to the evening we met Carla Daniel. The director of public awareness and education at the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP) is on a bench beside KFC at the edge of Bridgetown, preparing us for a night-walk.
She spreads a leaflet on the table. “This is the hawksbill turtle,” she says. Once, there were masses of hawksbills on Barbados. Early sailors from Europe had to walk over turtles to reach land. But numbers declined fast, what with the trade in tortoiseshell and turtle meat. And in the last five generations, they’re down 90%. Hawksbill turtles return to nest on the beach where they were born and, for many, that means returning to a beach that has changed dramatically, full of new hotels and restaurants. Barbados is developing fast – and trying to protect wildlife at the same time.
“Turtles lay batches of about 150 eggs 50cm below the surface,” says Carla. When hatchlings appear, they face a mortal challenge just to get to the ocean: they go the wrong way, confused by artificial light, and get run over on the coastal road; they fall into holes they can’t climb out of, and die of thirst; crabs intercept their journey and take chunks out of them; or rats, which like to turn hatchlings over and feast on their soft undersides.
Some do make it to the sea … only to become a tasty snack for passing fish. But a few escape this last challenge, and paddle with their teeny-tiny flippers to distant fields of floating Sargassum seaweed that forms a key part of their diet. Here, they might also munch on particles of plastic that block up their digestive tracks and kill them.
But still some of them survive – about one in every 1,000 hatchlings. And after more than two decades, sexually mature, they travel back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs.
Carla and her volunteers provide a 24-hour sea turtle hotline. At night, they form groups patrolling the shoreline looking for turtle activity, making sure the nesting turtles are safe, counting eggs and shepherding babies to the relative safety of the sea. Thanks to the BSTP, turtle numbers are rising again.
Our walk starts at 8.30pm. By midnight, we’ve seen nothing. Exhausted, we make our way back to the car. Our turtle mission is a washout. We pop into a petrol station to buy some water. Carla rushes in. There’s been a sighting! Two turtles on the beach. “Follow me,” she says. We drive fast, take a sharp left then turn our headlights off and crawl down a track towards the beach. Beneath a coconut tree, we see the great dome of a female hawksbill turning circles as she digs sand with her vast hind flippers. A few yards away, another is doing the same.
You probably won’t see this if you visit Barbados in high season because hawksbill turtles prefer to nest between mid-May and late October. Peak season for turtles is low-season for tourists. But, of course, there are many other reasons to visit Barbados in low season.
The beaches are half-empty and there’s a calmer vibe, whether you’re at the tropical Hunte’s Gardens, walking wild Cattlewash beach, touring the Unesco world heritage site of old Bridgetown, or partying at Oistins, the Friday night fish-fry.
Then there’s Crop Over, the harvest festival that brings together locals and tourists with lively events in June, July and August. Last year, Rihanna made an internet-breaking appearance in full-carnival dress.
Fast forward to our final day and that dash from dinner in search of hatchlings. In the darkness, we meet Lorenzo and Peter, BSTP volunteers. They point to a bucket containing 64 tiny turtles. Peter had a call in the early hours to say they were emerging at the most hazardous time of day.
The hatchlings scrabble inside the bucket like clockwork toys. But Peter says they spent most of the day sleeping.
When it happens, the release is over fast. Peter turns over the bucket and the creatures shuffle towards the shoreline. Some go the wrong way, to the coastal road, others wander around in circles. I’m terrified that I’ll stand on one. Peter uses his red light to guide them. And within 10 minutes, most are safely carried off by the waves. Except for one. A bit confused, this one. My daughter calls him Archie. With a bit of care, and gentle nudging, he finally makes it to the water – only to be knocked back again by a wave. Then another. Peter gets into the water with his torch. Another wave comes, and finally Archie is carried off.
The volunteers pack up, to continue their all-night patrols. We say goodbye, then return to Cobblers Cove for our pudding.
Way to go
Cobblers Cove has doubles from £278 B&B, including watersports and boat trips to swim with turtles. Bougainvillea Beach Resort has doubles from £124 a nigh. British Airways flies to Barbados from Gatwick from £496 return. For more information on turtle rescue, go to barbadosseaturtles.org
More places to be a turtle volunteer
Go on a night patrol on the sandy shores of Sri Lanka with the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, which has been monitoring sea turtle activity and conserving local nesting sites since 1988. Their work has been more challenging since the effects of the tsunami in 2004 and they welcome volunteers to help out with their most common species, the green sea turtle. Hatching season November to May
Cirali is a small resort 90 minutes away from Antalya with 3.5km of unspoilt beach surrounded by mountains and orange groves. More like a remote and undiscovered gem in Thailand, the resort is low-key with very little development. You can stay in the Hotel Azur, where 20 wooden cabins are set in gardens of citrus trees and hibiscus. At night, if you’re lucky, you will get a chance to spot baby sea turtles taking their first steps from their nests to the sea, with a guide from the Ulupinar Conservation Co-op – a local organisation that helps to protect the turtle nests. Hatching season May to September
Koh Phra Thong island, in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s west coast, is an unspoilt paradise with 16km of empty, golden beaches. For the past 20 years it has also been home to the Phra Thong turtle conservation project, which protects three different species of marine turtles including the world’s largest, the 700kg leatherback. Responsible Travel organises tailor-made stays on the island where you can help and contribute to an international study into turtle behaviour and nesting patterns. Hatching season November to February
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