There and Back Again: One Sea Turtle’s Incredible Journey

July 25, 2012

Although conservationists have long known that turtles return to their natal beaches to lay eggs, direct evidence of these pilgrimages is scant. With sea turtles more imperiled than ever, conservationists can’t help but delight in success stories like this one.

Twelve years ago, a Nicaraguan fisherman donated a young hawskbill turtle to WCS’s Nicaragua Sea Turtle Conservation Program, inspired by a new incentive program designed to discourage fishermen from killing turtles. After measuring and marking it with a metal flipper tag and unique identification number, WCS released the turtle at her capture site on Dancing Reef in the Pearl Cays, Nicaragua, unable to know where she had hatched or how long she would survive.

Then, just this summer, turtle researchers working on the eastern Caribbean island of Marie-Galante (part of Guadeloupe) identified this very turtle by her WCS tag. When they found her, she was nesting more than 1,500 miles from her original capture and release site in Nicaragua. WCS conservationists who tagged her in 2000 had no idea that she had originally hatched so far away.

That this turtle traveled so far to revisit her natal site stands out in more ways than one. It’s remarkable enough that conservationists in Guadeloupe encountered her and confirmed her identity with WCS Nicaragua; it’s even more unbelievable that she survived the long and perilous journey.

It’s estimated that only one hatchling of every 1,000 turtle eggs reaches maturity. The lucky few cope with degraded habitats and countless risks: natural predators, fishing nets, and people seeking turtle meat and shells all endanger these magnificent sea creatures along their journeys.

Dr. Cathi Campbell, Associate Conservation Scientist, explains her excitement over this coincidental sighting, “When we have our hands on these animals, we never know if we’ll see them again or learn anything else from them beyond what we get in the hour or so we spend measuring and tagging them. When something like this happens, we get really excited because we learn so much from it and are able to share a story that we hope inspires people to care about and conserve sea turtles. And we’re all hoping that she survives at least the next few years to return again to Guadeloupe to lay more eggs and help the recovery of endangered hawksbill turtles across the Caribbean."

WCS would like to thank our colleagues at Kap’Natirel, especially Océane Beaufort, who found H4825 nesting; Eric Delcroix (Guadeloupe Sea Turtle Recovery Plan Coordinator, National Hunting and Wildlife Agency) for his assistance with contacting our program; and the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida for their assistance in communication between the sea turtle programs. The Guadeloupe turtle program website may be visited at www.tortuesmarinesguadeloupe.org.

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