From Joint Task Force - Guantanamo Bay
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – The beginning of a sea turtle's life is not an easy one. First it must tear out of its shell, in pure darkness, and crawl through 16 to 20 inches worth of sand to reach the surface and finally breathe fresh air. It must also crawl to the ocean with predators watching its every move – and to top it off, the parents are nowhere in sight.
September through November is the peak of the sea turtle nesting season as adult female sea turtles return from the ocean and nest their eggs.
For the nesting season at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, female hawksbill turtles and green turtles return to the same semi-sandy beaches from which they hatched, to lay their own eggs, also known as a clutch. The clutch size of a green turtle varies from 75 to 200 eggs while a hawksbill lays approximately 140 eggs per nest.
Sea turtles normally nest between four to seven times a season and it takes approximately 45 to 60 days for sea turtle eggs to develop and hatch. When it is time to return to the ocean, which normally occurs at night, a hatchling will tear out of its egg shell, crawl to the sand surface and make its way to the water.
Despite how many sea turtle tracks are seen on the beaches here, most species of sea turtles-to include the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle-are currently endangered due to predators, degradation of nesting and foraging habitat, pollution, and hatchling disorientation.
The numbers of sea turtles are continuing to decline as a result of egg poaching and hunting, as well as drowning in fishing nets. Guantanamo doesn't partake in these sorts of acts. However, hatchling disorientation has occurred on base.
When a turtle hatchling reaches the surface, its basic instinct is to move in the brightest direction. This would normally be towards the water where the moon shines and reflects off the water. This has become more difficult for hatchlings, however, due to artificial lighting installed at beaches including Cable and Windmill Beach. Instead of following the natural light to the water, they become disoriented and head towards the brighter artificial light, resulting in death from exhaustion, dehydration and heat exposure.
A study done by the Naval Station Natural Resources Office in 2007 showed that thousands of hatchlings were dying each year from hatchling disorientation and Guantanamo was contributing to this statistic.
Since then, Jose Montalvo, Naval Station Natural Resources Manager, has made it a priority to decrease the number of hatchling deaths during the peak of nesting season. This has been done by stressing the importance of turning off lights at the cabana areas, having floodlights angled away from the shorelines and replacing high-intensity lighting with low-wattage bulbs.
"We have also started collecting data to keep track of the sea turtle population," Montalvo said, "to see if [the hawksbill and green turtles] are increasing or decreasing."
To collect this data, Montalvo, along with local high school students, are patrolling the beaches and counting the number of tracks. The patrol group can also determine which species are coming here to nest depending on the tracks themselves.