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High time for sea turtle conservation and eco-tourism

A hatchling green sea turtle is released into the ocean by a resort guest at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa.
A hatchling green sea turtle is released into the ocean by a resort guest at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa.
CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa

For the discriminating vacationer out there seeking to add something a little different to your travel checklist, consider sea turtle conservation. That’s right. Sea turtle conservation is becoming one of the most popular programs at resorts along the US’s east coast, various places in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. This eco-minded activity is catching on so well in upscale resorts and high-end boutique vacation destinations, it can reasonably be called trendy. But the trend is definitely a noble one that has benefits for tourist and turtle alike. And right now is a good time to get on board. In a conservation kind of way, it’s sea turtle season!

Hatchling leatherback sea turtles make their way safely from an onsite nursery to the ocean with the help of resort staff and guests.
The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort

Every spring, starting around March, sea turtles heft their shelled might onto sandy beaches – often the same beautiful white crescents upon which tourists like to relax and take long romantic walks. For the turtles, it’s time to dig nests and lay eggs. This is one of the best times of year to see a full-grown sea turtle up close and personal. This is also a vulnerable time for them as the pregnant mothers and their eggs become exposed to land-based predators of many kinds, including shore birds, iguanas and raccoons, among others. All sea turtles bury their eggs in sandy pits approximately two feet deep, which serve to incubate and protect the eggs. But many of those pits are excavated and quickly emptied by those hungry predators. A few months later, between mid-summer and late fall, their struggle becomes even more perilous as the hatchlings dig themselves free of the sand and hurry towards the ocean. Alas, many of those hatchlings will not complete the short but vital journey to the protective waters. And even if they do, many of them will not survive to adulthood to repeat the process and give birth to the next generation. On top of the natural obstacles sea turtles face every year, there are numerous unnatural ones, like habitat loss via coastal development, pollution, feral dogs, and possibly the worst of all: poachers! This is where conservation comes into play.

For the tourist, if merely seeing a sea turtle while on a boat cruise, snorkel adventure or scuba dive is a thrill, then getting directly involved in their protection and success of their lifecycle is a memorable adventure for the rest of someone’s life. For many decades, sea turtle conservation has relied on grassroots style volunteerism, which, while helpful for the turtles and exciting for many eco-minded travelers, has not always been accessible or even very popular among resort tourists. Today, however, some of the most beautiful and lavish beach resorts are helping to change that. In the last several years, many coastal resorts have not only made sea turtle conservation accessible to guests who may never even have known about it before, their efforts are also making it a fun and educational activity for visitors of all ages. It’s truly an opportunity to exercise the inner biologist in everyone. From resort-based kid’s programs to conservation-themed cocktail parties, safeguarding sea turtles isn’t merely becoming popular, it’s becoming, well, kind of sexy!

In the spring during nesting season, from early March to about mid-June, some resorts offer the chance for tourists to assist in spotting the 200+ pound maternal sea turtles crawling up onshore to dig their nests. Spotters also get to help create protective barriers and in some cases even help resort staff relocate the vulnerable ping-pong ball-sized eggs to more protected locations within the resort property until it’s time for the eggs to hatch. In late summer and early fall, during hatching season, guests are invited to help the silver dollar-sized hatchlings into the ocean, often by personally hand-delivering the newborns onto the sand just above the warm waves. Most of these activities occur just after sunset, the optimal time of day for turtle nesting and hatching. These evening programs afford an interesting and unforgettable alternative to the other more conventional nighttime resort events.

Many high-end resorts now harbor their own nature centers and wildlife conservation programs or partner with other institutions that include sea turtle conservation as just one of their onsite ecological programs with which tourists can get involved. Those nature centers frequently employ teams of biologists who care for sea turtles year-round, as well as run eco-education packages for kids and lead nature tours for guests of all ages. The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico, for instance, has an onsite nature center and environmental outreach program that serves to protect native wildlife above and below sea level and reaches out to its many yearly visitors as well as the local population.

Like conservation for other marine creatures such as whales, dolphins, manatees and sharks, sea turtle conservation has a long way to go, but it’s already come a long way and it’s making giant strides with efforts like the ones made by proactive resorts that are wisely investing in the future of sea turtles, raising public awareness for ocean conservation, and raising the bar for interactive resort-based conservation. Eco-tourism is definitely getting a boost.

[Not too long ago I published an article about resort-based sea turtle conservation that profiled the efforts made by a single resort, Live Aqua in Cancun, Mexico, which you can read here. Below is a list of other resorts that are fully on board with this noble cause, providing sanctuary for sea turtles and amazing experiences for guests. The below information and the photos used for this article were provided by Semra Iljazi of Quinn & Co., New York, NY.]

St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
For the nature enthusiast and conservation-minded resort guest, the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico, might just be the cream of the crop. This is an inspiring destination located at the foot of El Yunque National Rainforest. In addition to its almost 500 acres of protected rainforest, the resort has a pristine beach where guests are invited to “guardian” the leatherback sea turtles and their nesting activities on the property’s shore. Guests taking part in this experience can alert the staff to be called (at any time of day) to protect the vulnerable turtles as they hatch on Bahia Beach. The resort’s efforts towards eco-tourism are impressive to say the least. As a result they are recognized as the Caribbean’s first and only Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Sanctuary resort. The property teems with sustainable luxuries spearheaded by the on-site marine biologist at the property’s Nature Center.

Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa
In response to the influx of interest from nature-seeking guests, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa invites travelers to bear witness to the sea turtle nesting ritual that takes place on their sandy shores from March to November. Partnering with the Department of Natural Resources, guests can watch resident hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtles lay their eggs, or witness the hatching of these amazing creatures.

CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa
Conservation efforts have paid off through the 12 years of CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta’s “Sea Turtle Rescue” protection program, part of the resort’s “Secretos de la Familia” culture immersion. The oceanfront resort receives about 30% of the turtles that nest in Puerto Vallarta and invites guests to take part in the rescue effort by combing the beach for turtle eggs. When the eggs are ready to hatch, guests may choose a baby turtle to name, wish it luck and send it on its way back to its natural habitat in the ocean. In 2013 alone, 508 nests were collected with 36,708 sea turtles released back into the sea.

The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa
Located within the Port Royal Plantation on the Atlantic Ocean, the newly renovated Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa hosts a nightly Turtle Talk and Walk for guests in partnership with the Coastal Discovery Museum. All resort outdoor venues have a strict lights-out policy in order to make sure sea turtle activities go on naturally and unhindered. Additionally, all outdoor associates wear Loggerhead Apparel shirts designed by a Greenville, SC company, which donates 10 percent of its sales (not just of its profits) to loggerhead conservation. This very family-friendly property boasts a Westin Kids Club, where young guests learn about sea turtle nesting and hatching activities that take place right on the resort beach, including the importance of protecting the turtle nests. Kids are given opportunity to watch the just-hatched turtles make their way from the resort beach to the ocean. Children are also invited to participate in making stick and rope barriers around the nests to keep them safe.

W Fort Lauderdale
This March – October, W Fort Lauderdale isn’t dimming the lights just to set the mood. In order to protect sea turtles crawling ashore at night to make nests, the ocean front hotel will darken their atmosphere, and offer guests an option to donate $1 to the Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP) on top of every cocktail. Partygoers can feel like they are a part of the cause when they donate $1 and receive an “amber” glow bracelet and a postcard explaining the program.

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