Brad Nahill

Tackling Plastic Pollution in Sea Turtle Habitat

Since the launch of SEE Turtles in 2008, we have educated students, travelers, and the general public about how plastic impacts sea turtles and other ocean wildlife. We organize beach cleanups during our trips, work with a number of sponsors who produce recycled plastic products or plastic alternatives, and advocate for plastic policies through our social media. We have also supported a number of efforts to clean plastic up and create new revenue streams from this waste (see below for details).

SEE Turtles is now ready to take on a larger role in the fight to stop plastic pollution in the ocean. Our new Sea Turtles and Plastic campaign will work with turtle conservation organizations, ocean plastic cleanup and recycling organizations, and business sponsors to get plastic out of sea turtle habitat and to create new markets for recycled ocean plastic. We will also step up our advocacy efforts, including taking over management of Travelers Against Plastic and starting a new Sea Turtles and Plastic newsletter that will include tips for reducing plastic waste.

How We Will Help Reduce Plastic In the Ocean

Through our new campaign, we will raise funds for partner organizations to launch plastic reduction programs such as:

  • Green Phenix (Curacao): This award-winning innovative social enterprise is helping reduce plastic waste and provide employment on this Dutch Caribbean island. The organization has purchased machinery to recycle plastic waste collected locally into valuable products like face shields and plastic beams and bricks to be used in construction. Green Phenix also organizes beach cleanups around the island to help keep plastic out of sea turtle habitat and provides job training and employment for more than 20 local residents. Curacao is an important area for sea turtles, both juvenile green turtles living in their waters, and green and hawksbill turtles nesting on their beaches.

    How your donation will help reduce plastic pollution:

    • We will fund 50 new beach cleanups around the island over the next year, which we estimate will collect approximately 1,650 lbs of recyclable ocean plastic and more than 7,000 lbs of other waste.

    • Currently their recycling machines can only process single stream materials (those that are separated) but they require additional equipment to be able to turn the waste collected in beach cleanups into new products. These funds will help them purchase an oven and new moulds which will be used to make new products.

    • The new products that Green Phenix makes with this equipment will be sold, with the funds helping to pay for additional beach cleanups, help the organization become self-sustaining, and provide new job opportunities for local residents.

    Learn more about Green Phenix here.

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  • Research Center for Environmental Management and Development (CIMAD) (Colombia): This nonprofit organization combines conservation with the needs of local communities to protect biodiversity in Colombia. This project aims to tackle sea turtle nesting beach pollution at Pangui community in the Choco Pacific region of Colombia by transforming plastic into handicrafts made by local women. The goal is to reduce habitat degradation due to plastic accumulation along sea turtle nesting grounds while providing a source of economic income to poor families through the sale of recycled manufactured items.

How your donation will help reduce plastic pollution:

  • This project will train women in 5 families in the in the rural community of Pangui to recycle plastic bags into handbags, belts, hats, and other products.

  • Sales from these products will help earn income in a rural community without many alternatives, an estimated $1,000 or more per family per year.

  • This program will help keep plastic off of nesting beaches for turtles laying eggs and for juvenile hawksbills living in the waters of this area.

Learn more about CIMAD here (in Spanish).

  • We will also use our social media network, enewsletters, and Travelers Against Plastic to advocate for plastic reduction efforts including policies, corporate pressure, and other outlets. In addition, we will work with businesses to create new products from ocean plastic that will help to fund additional plastic projects.

SEE Turtles Plastic Efforts To Date:

  • We provided funding for a Latin American Sea Turtles program in Costa Rica that supported women-led cooperatives to recycle plastic bags into reusable handbags. We provided financial support and sold the bags in our online store and at events.

  • In partnership with Turtle Island Restoration Network, we provided funding for the Environment Society of Oman to clean derelict fishing gear (also known as “ghost gear”) washed up on the beaches Masirah Island, one of the most important beaches in the world for loggerhead turtle nesting. The effort removed approximately 90 tons of waste, primarily fishing gear.

  • We support efforts to upcycle plastic waste from sea turtle habitats by selling these products in our online store. We’re the first and only US seller of dog leashes made from ghost fishing gear made in Pakistan through our partners at the Olive Ridley Project. We also sell recycled plastic necklaces made by the Sea Monkey Project. See below or click here to purchase those items from our online store.

  • Our educational presentations for schools and the public include the threat of plastic pollution and ways people can help reduce this threat. We also have a lesson for schools on sea turtles and plastic as part of our school program and many student groups have conducted recycling fundraisers as part of our Baby Turtle Fundraising Contest. We also hosted a webinar on sea turtles and plastic that you can watch here.

  • SEE Turtles was the first Gold Sponsor of Travelers Against Plastic. We’re now co-managing the campaign with Crooked Trails to reduce plastic use in the travel industry.

  • Our sea turtle conservation trips reduce plastic by encouraging travelers to bring reusable plastic bottles and offering clean filtered water, as well as organizing beach cleanups on sea turtle nesting beaches.

How you can support efforts to get plastic out of the ocean and turtle nesting beaches:

Turtle Travels Part 3: El Jobo, Costa Rica

Heading back to Costa Rica the next day, we traversed the entire diagonal of the country, from the south Caribbean to the northern Pacific side, stopping for a night to soak in the lush (though not exactly jungle) hot springs near Arenal Volcano. This was my first visit to the northern part of the Guanacaste province, a rare thing since I have spent about 2 years of my life here and 15 or so visits to the country.

El Jobo is a small community along the coast, near the border with Nicaragua. Here we were visiting Equipo Tora Carey (ETC), a community organization that is working to study and protect the incredible wildlife of this area. The area around El Jobo is pretty unique for sea turtles, with three species either nesting or living in these waters (or both), (hawksbills, olive ridleys, and both Indo Pacific green turtles and black turtles, a sub-species of green turtles). SEE Turtles has supported the work of ETC since 2019, providing $5,000 in grants which has helped to save an estimated 1,000 hatchlings.

Randall Mora of ETC tagging a green turtle with a volunteer. Photo: Equipo Tora Carey

Randall Mora of ETC tagging a green turtle with a volunteer. Photo: Equipo Tora Carey

We met Mathilde, one of the organization’s coordinators, at her home, which doubles as a BnB, hosting visiting volunteers. During our visit, we enjoyed several delicious meals at the home of Kembly Mora, one of ETC’s leaders, and sampled the many activities that travelers can participate in this area. We joined Kembly’s husband Ricardo to search for and catch rays, as part of a research study, spotting a hawksbill along the way. We visited three of the area’s nesting beaches with Randall Mora and though we did not spot any turtles that evening (it was outside of the peak nesting times), we did get to see the impact of the Dreams Las Mareas Resort, one of the country’s largest. This resort in the past had taken steps to reduce some of its impact on the nesting but no longer does, hosting loud parties with bright lights on the beach, to the detriment of the turtles, which have fewer nests here than in the past.

The highlight of the visit was to Bahia Matapalito (a marine management area adjacent to Santa Rosa National Park), a 30 minute boat ride across the Gulf of Santa Elena, to participate in ETC’s in-water program, where turtles are caught in the water to study and release. Along the way, we spotted a mating pair of olive ridleys in the water. Mathilde also educated us about the importance of this bay for humpback whales, where two distinct populations come to mate and calve.[MH1] 

Once across the Gulf, we stopped to drop the nets, which are used to catch the turtles without risking drowning them. It didn’t take long to snare the first turtle, an Indo Pacific green turtle with a gorgeous shell. After that, two more turtles, one black and one Indo Pacific were caught in a remarkably short time. We snorkeled a bit around the small bay in search of other turtles including hawksbills but were not successful. Once we collected the data of these turtles, we returned them to the water and headed back across the bay, right into the oncoming rain.

That evening, when the skies cleared, we headed up the hill above Mathilde’s place, where several new cabins are being constructed that will house our and other future groups. The view from the top was spectacular, seeing across both sides of the Punta Descartes peninsula[MH2]  over both the Santa Elena Gulf and Salinas Bay. This spot is ideal for the parrot research ETC is conducting, counting these chatty and colorful birds as they migrate from the mainland back to their nearby island nesting colony.

Yellow Naped Amazon Parrots. Photo: Equipo Tora Carey

Yellow Naped Amazon Parrots. Photo: Equipo Tora Carey

Our two-week journey along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, down to Panama, and back up to the Pacific wrapped up with a visit to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, a beautiful and active one an hour drive from El Jobo. We stayed at the Blue River Resort, which has a variety of fun activities for families and guests, including several hot springs pools, a mud bath and natural sauna, and beautifully landscaped gardens. It was the perfect way to end a hectic but fun and productive trip.

Stay tuned for our newest conservation trip to El Jobo, Costa Rica Turtles, Whales, & Rays coming soon!

Plastic Is Killing Sea Turtles

Photo: Neil Osborne

Photo: Neil Osborne

If there is a poster species for the worldwide epidemic of plastic pollution, it’s sea turtles. The mothers swim through islands of plastic on their migrations and crawl through plastic to find their spots to nest on beaches. Nests are impacted by toxic microplastic particles and hatchlings crawl back through macroplastic on their way to the water. They confuse plastic bags and balloons for their favorite food, jellyfish. Straws get stuck in their noses and plastic spoons stuck in their throat. Even a few tiny pieces of plastic can end a small turtle’s life. They get caught in six pack rings and ghost fishing gear. It’s inescapable.

SEE Turtles is launching a new campaign to reduce plastic in sea turtle habitats in ways that support conservation efforts by partner organizations. We are excited to be partnering with Travelers Against Plastic (TAP) to manage this campaign that works with dozens of tour operators around the world. Through TAP and our social media platforms, we will advocate for eliminating single use plastic, both on a global scale and through individual actions. We will also partner with eco-friendly companies to produce and promote products made from ocean plastic.

Travelers Against Plastic is a leader in the effort to eliminate plastic waste in the travel industry. A study by TAP and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) showed that 60 percent of adventure travel operators, companies who specialize in visiting remote locations and whose livelihoods depend on a clean environment, still use single use plastic bottles on their tours. This translates to nearly 7 million bottles from this industry alone, most of which end up in landfills since many developing countries don’t offer recycling programs. TAP and SEE Turtles are now teaming up to help travel businesses educate their clients about this problem and offering solutions to reduce the need for disposable plastic while traveling.  

As an organization working to protect endangered sea turtles, SEE Turtles was proud to be TAP’s first Gold Sponsor a few years ago. We put an emphasis on reducing as much as possible the use of plastic on our trips by providing clean filtered water for all travelers and encourage them to bring reusable water bottles, as well as doing beach cleanups on turtle nesting beaches around Latin America.

There are many ways that travelers and tourism businesses can help sea turtles by reducing plastic use and cleaning up plastic when they see it:

Banner photo: Ben Hicks

A version of this post was previously published on the Travelers Against Plastic blog.

Turtle Travels Part 2: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Heading across the Costa Rica and Panama border at Sixaola, I was stunned at the change since I was last here 20 years ago. This  border area has changed more drastically than any other I’ve visited in the country. The rickety old bridge has been replaced with a bigger (and safer one) and both border towns have grown dramatically. The pandemic has made the border crossing more complicated but once across, we quickly found a ride to meet our Sea Turtle Conservancy colleagues for the short boat ride to Soropta, a leatherback nesting beach along the northern Caribbean coast. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is known for excellent facilities and Soropta was no exception. The rooms, while rustic, had great touches including personal fans and chargers powered by solar panels, along with snacks.

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Raul and Xavier showed us around the facilities and updated us on the current leatherback nesting season, which was one of the highest recorded at this beach; more than 1,200 nests! SEE Turtles has supported this work since 2013 through our Billion Baby Turtles program, providing $39,000 in grants, which has helped STC save an estimated 75,000 hatchlings at this beach over the past 9 years. We then walked out to the nesting beach and walked to the rivermouth, where we spotted a beautiful 3 toed sloth enjoying the view. On the way back, we discovered a recently hatched nest with a number of hatchlings making their way to the water (see our recent post about this journey to the ocean).

That evening, we headed out with Raul and Xavier to look for nesting leatherbacks. We quickly found one of the big mommas and got to work collecting data. Sea Turtle Conservancy does not use hatcheries, so we left this one where it laid and hoped that it would be given the chance to hatch like the one we saw that afternoon. We had just one night at Soropta but it was enough to decide to start offering trips there next year to explore this gorgeous area.

The next morning, we took a boat ride to Bocas Town, the main town in this area. On the way, we passed by Isla Pajaro (Bird Island), a small but important island home to many birds including the famous blue-footed boobies and the red-billed tropic bird (the only place in the country this bird can be found). From there we met with Cristina Ordoñez, Investigation Coordinator of the STC, who has helped the organization grow its Panama program for several years. As a true hero of ocean conservation, we gave Cristina a blue marble to thank her for great work (pictured below).

Cristina took us on a tour of the hawksbill nesting beaches that we have supported for the past three years. These beaches are managed by Anne and Peter Meylan with the STC, who are two of the most respected and accomplished turtle conservationists alive. With the support of the Berman Memorial Fund, SEE Turtles has provided just under $20,000 for their work with hawksbills in this region. The recovery of hawksbills in the Bocas del Toro area is a conservation success story; this local work, coupled with the ending of the legal tortoiseshell trade in the mid-90’s, has resulted in a nearly sixfold increase in hawksbill nesting to roughly 1,200 nests per year since 2004 in the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park.


The two main hawksbill nesting areas are on the Zapatilla Cayes, two small islands not far from Bastimentos, within the park boundaries. These spectacular islands are home to a wide variety of coral and fish species and are a popular snorkeling spot for local and international visitors.  We dropped off the STC research assistants who were catching a ride with us to spend several weeks on these isolated islands (we were not at all jealous). We then headed back to Bocas Town where we spent a lovely evening in the quiet town (most of the weekend tourists had left by that point) including a local bar with this sign that resonated with yours truly (a Deadhead sea turtle conservationist). 

Zapatilla Cayes

Zapatilla Cayes

View from Bocas Town

View from Bocas Town

Stay tuned for our new Panama Leatherbacks and Hawksbills trip, which will have its first departure in 2022!

Photos by Brad Nahill & Lulu Muse

Photo Essay: Journey of a Leatherback Hatchling

In June 2021, SEE Turtles president Brad Nahill visited leatherback nesting beaches in Costa Rica and Panama. This photo essay captures photos from Estacion Las Tortugas and the Latin American Sea Turtles Pacuare Research Station and the Sea Turtle Conservancy Soropta Field Station in northeastern Panama.

Leatherback turtles are one of nature’s most fascinating animals. The largest turtles and one of the largest reptiles on earth, they can reach more than 6 feet long and 800 lbs. They nest from March to June along the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Location: Soropta Beach, Panama (a Sea Turtle Conservancy project).

Photos: Lulu Muse (using red light, which was edited out, no flash photos taken).

Leatherback hatchlings take around 53 days to hatch from their eggs. Once they do, they will emerge from the nest in a group (called a “boil”) and then head to the water. At the Las Tortugas Research Station, these turtles are watched for safekeeping in a hatchery. Once they hatch, a sample of hatchlings are weighed and measured and then released to the ocean.

Location: Las Tortugas Research Station (Costa Rica)

Photos: Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles

Leo from Latin American Sea Turtles shares with us information about their Pacuare Beach nesting project and hatchery in Costa Rica.

Once a hatchling emerges from the nest, it will make its way to the water, using light, sound, and slope of the beach to find its way. This can be a treacherous journey for hatchlings, navigating through beach vegetation, debris, and holes while avoiding predators like birds and crabs.

Location: Soropta Beach, Panama (Sea Turtle Conservancy)

Photos: Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles

Once a hatchling reaches the water, it has a couple of days of food left from the egg yolk so it can swim without stopping. In the water, the hatchlings need to avoid predators like fish and birds. Where they go from this point is still a mystery, called the “lost years” as researchers are just beginning to be able to track hatchling movements with transmitters.

Location: Soropta Beach, Panama (Sea Turtle Conservancy)

Photos: Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles

Xavier of the Sea Turtle Conservancy excavates a previously hatched nest to examine how many hatchlings survived.

Billion Baby Turtles Update - July 2021

Billion Baby Turtles continues to grow and the project now helps to fund more than 30 different nesting beach conservation programs around the world. Here is an update from some of our current partners.

So far in 2021, we have provided $115,000 in grants to 22 sea turtle conservation organizations around the world and are on pace to provide a record amount of funding this year. Thanks so much to all of the individuals, businesses, students, foundations, and others who have helped this program grow every year since our start!

Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador (ProCosta)

SEE Turtles has partnered with ProCosta and the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) since launching Billion Baby Turtles in 2011, supporting the work at Jiquilisco Bay, one of the most important nesting areas for Eastern Pacific hawksbills in the region. This past season at Jiquilisco Bay, there were 299 hawksbill nests, of which only two were illegally collected. This tremendous effort resulted in more than 18,000 hatchlings reaching the ocean while benefitting 187 local families involved in the conservation work. The great news is that this population continues to grow; of the 85 turtles that ProCosta observed, nearly half (40 turtles) were untagged, meaning that they are likely new nesting turtles.

Hawksbill hatchling from El Salvador (Photo: ProCosta)

Hawksbill hatchling from El Salvador (Photo: ProCosta)

This is the tenth year that Billion Baby Turtles has supported this effort; our financial support has helped to save an estimated 111,000 hatchlings since 2011, providing more than US $50,000 in funding. This season, our support helped to save an estimated 10,000 hatchlings.

Learn more about ProCosta here (Facebook).


Paria Gulf, Venezuela (ProVita)

Billion Baby Turtles started supporting this project in 2020 as part of our Sea Turtle Emergency Fund, which helped projects impacted by the pandemic. During the past season, the project had 94 hawksbill nests which produced more than 2,500 hatchlings. Scarcity of fuel and funding reduced the patrolling that was done but with our support, they were able to maintain the rate of illegal collection of nests under 5%.

Hawksbill turtle from Venezuela (Photo: Clemente Balladares)

Hawksbill turtle from Venezuela (Photo: Clemente Balladares)

According to project director Clemente Balladares, Billion Baby Turtles funding helped the project to survive the fuel scarcity and the first difficult months of the pandemic and now the project is paying the best salaries of any turtle project in the country. Billion Baby Turtles started providing funding for this work in 2020 which we estimate to save approximately 15,000 hatchlings (8,000 hatchlings in 2021) with US $7,000 in grants.

Los Brasiles, Nicaragua (Sos Nicaragua)

Sos Nicaragua is a social enterprise that focuses on conservation and sustainable tourism and has worked at Los Brasiles since 2019 to protect three sea turtle species. The main species they protect at this beach is the olive ridley, of which they had 102 nests, producing nearly 9,000 hatchlings. They also in 2020 had one hawksbill and one green turtle nest, releasing 69 and 37 hatchlings respectively from those nests. Illegal collection continues to be a major issue in this area and with limited funds, Sos Nicaragua was only able to monitor one-third of the beach. They registered 109 nests collected illegally, making it clear that the 100+ nests they protected would otherwise likely have been collected as well.

Olive ridley hatchling from Nicaragua (photo: Sos Nicaragua)

Olive ridley hatchling from Nicaragua (photo: Sos Nicaragua)

This program uses incentive payments for local residents to bring eggs to their hatchery to be guarded until they hatch. Billion Baby Turtles funds provided more than US $1,200 for these payments in 2020, which benefitted 21 local families in four communities, which was valuable income during the pandemic when little other work was available. Billion Baby Turtles has supported this organization since 2017, providing a total of roughly US $9,000, which has helped to save approximately 17,000 hatchlings.

Learn more about Sos Nicaragua here.


Playa Larga, Panama (Sea Turtle Conservancy)

This beach, located in the Bastimentos National Marine Park, is part of one of the most important areas for hawksbill nesting in the world. The Sea Turtle Conservancy, under the management of Drs. Anne & Peter Meylan, has worked with the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous community since 2003 to study and protect hawksbills nesting on this beach and nearby beaches. In 2020, there were a total of 121 hawksbill nests identified inside and near the park. Due to increased illegal collecting due to the pandemic, one quarter (31) of the nests were taken. Of the remaining nests, an estimated 10,018 hatchlings survived.

Billion Baby Turtles has supported this work since 2019, providing nearly US $20,000 in grants, helping to save an estimated 67,000 hawksbill hatchlings.

Learn more about this work here.

Project staff Arcelio with a nesting hawksbill (Photo: Peter & Anne Meylan)

Project staff Arcelio with a nesting hawksbill (Photo: Peter & Anne Meylan)

A Tour Of Turtle Projects in Costa Rica & Panama: Part I

Las Tortugas & Pacuare Leatherback Projects 

The journey to Costa Rica, other than most people wearing masks, was indistinguishable from pre-pandemic days. Long lines, full flights, annoyed travelers all abounded as I made my way to Costa Rica. Our plan was to get to as many turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica (and Panama) as we could pack into two weeks, joining our leatherback trip, visiting partners that we support through our Billion Baby Turtles program and checking out sites for new conservation trips.

We started off with dinner at my favorite restaurant in the country, Tin Jo, a pan-Asian restaurant that has been providing a diverse menu for more than 20 years. Joining my companion and I was Luna, a Brazilian student who was heading to Tortuguero National Park to be a research assistant with the Sea Turtle Conservancy for the next six months. Luna was a runner-up of our first Sea Turtle Inclusivity Fund scholarships, winning money to help cover her travel expenses. We learned about her experiences working with sea turtles in her native Brazil and her excitement for working on one of the world’s most famous nesting beaches.

The next morning, our group of travelers met to head out to the Caribbean coast for our Costa Rica Leatherback Turtle conservation trip. Our group was a diverse set of folks ranging from college students to retirees and all were excited to see their first leatherback turtles. On the way, we stopped at Jardin Pierella, an extraordinary oasis of wildlife in the Sarapiqui region. There we saw many species of birds, including the great green macaw, a wildlife success story that had fewer than 50 breeding pairs when I first worked in Costa Rica in 2000 but is now recovering. We also saw aracari’s (a type of toucan), poison dart frogs, sloths, and blue morpho butterflies. On the way out, as a heavy rain fell, we spotted a two-toed sloth making its way quickly (for a sloth) along a power line (which can be dangerous to wildlife).

Aracari (photo by @lulumuse)

Aracari (photo by @lulumuse)

Red-eyed tree frog (photo by @lulumuse)

Red-eyed tree frog (photo by @lulumuse)

 From there, we met a boat to take us the final leg of our trip to the Las Tortugas Station on the northern Caribbean coast. Our group did not have to wait long before seeing their first leatherbacks after we arrived. As we moved our bags from the boat to the rooms, we were alerted by project staff that some hatchlings had emerged. We quickly made our way to the beach to help measure a sampling of the baby leatherbacks and then release them to the water. After a break and dinner, the group readied to head out to the beach dressed in dark clothes to walk the nesting beach looking for leatherbacks.

Leatherback hatchling

Leatherback hatchling

 Our group split into two to divide up the beach and on our way to the further section, we came across our first adult leatherback. “Oh my god,” exclaimed one traveler upon seeing the giant (though small for the species) turtle digging its nest. This one was 140 centimeters (about 4 ½ feet) long, one of the smallest turtles recorded at Las Tortugas this season (though that length does not include their long heads). Several group members helped with the research, holding its back flipper to better access the eggs, writing down the data, measuring the turtle, and bringing the eggs to the hatchery for safekeeping.

A second leatherback followed later that evening, a great start for the first two nights at this point in the season (which starts in March and peaks in April/May.) On the way back to the station, we found a hawksbill nest, which the station biologist Tamara expertly found, even though I had been skeptical the turtle had laid her clutch. All of the nests were safely transported by project researchers to the hatchery for safekeeping.

Nesting leatherback turtle (photo by @lulumuse)

Nesting leatherback turtle (photo by @lulumuse)

 The next day, the group’s first full day at the station, just happened to be World Oceans Day and the official start of Sea Turtle Week! As the coordinating group for the week, it was great fun to be in the field with the turtles during the third year we worked on it. The week was a tremendous success with more than 170 participating organizations and 10 million people reached through social media, both records by a large margin.

We celebrated with a great presentation on turtles by the project biologist Tamara, followed by some nest excavations where the old nests are dug up to look for stragglers and collect data on the eggs that did not hatch. Also, puppies! One of the station’s dogs had puppies whose eyes were just beginning to open. The group also took a walk in the nearby forest, seeing two species of monkeys (howlers and spider monkeys), and saw a three-toed sloth in a tree by the station. That evening, as the group was about to head out to patrol, we were alerted of a turtle nesting right in front of the station, perfect for one of our group who was not able to complete the longer patrols. Las Tortugas is truly a heaven for animals.

The next morning, our group participated in a beach clean-up, helping to clear the beach of both natural debris (which can prevent hatchlings from reaching the water) and trash that washes up from around the world. Plastic waste can be a threat to sea turtles in many ways and by helping keep the beach clean, we improve the chances of survival for the hatchlings.


 That afternoon, my companion and I left on a boat to visit another leatherback beach further north along the Caribbean coast, the Pacuare Station run by Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). Their president Didiher Chacon, my former boss and mentor and a leading turtle conservationist in the country, and I discussed our shared work on the tortoiseshell trade and possibilities to support new nesting beaches in the country. Later we met the staff, including the philosopher poet Leo, a fascinating and inspirational activist who has worked across the region on conservation and social issues (see video below).

We headed out for a patrol that evening on this pretty unique stretch of beach. Unlike many other nesting beaches, Pacuare is not in a protected area and the nests are actively illegally collected by some local residents. To keep peace with the community, since LAST does not have law enforcement power, there is an unwritten agreement with egg collectors that whoever arrives to the turtle first gets the eggs. The rate of nests illegally collected varies from year to year but this year it has been more than 50%. The pandemic only worsened the situation for the turtles, with fewer people out patrolling and more people in need of food and income.

 Our run of luck continued with a nesting turtle shortly into the patrol. This was another smaller leatherback, one relatively fast in comparison for its speed during the nesting process. We were treated to both slaps from the turtles long front flippers as we tried to measure her as well as some bits of sand in the eyes and mouth as she camouflaged her nest. After taking her eggs to the hatchery, we crashed for the night to prepare for a long day of travel the next day.

This morning we headed down the canal that runs parallel to the Caribbean coast from Tortuguero to Moin. A beautiful ride included the wonderful scent of Ylang Ylang (where Chanel No. 5 comes from) as well as birds, monkeys, and more. We pulled into Moin and met our colleagues from Latin American Sea Turtles and visited their hatchery across from the giant new port that brings in goods to the country. LAST has patrolled this long stretch of beach going north since 2015, which was previously open to illegal egg collecting. Due to their hard work, this beach now releases more than 10,000 hatchlings per year.

From there we headed south for a couple of days of rest in Puerto Viejo, along the southern Caribbean coast. Though this area has become much more upscale than 20 years ago when I worked on Playa Negra to the north, the area retains its laid-back Caribbean vibe. One of my jobs 20 years ago was to scout the local artisan stands on the lookout for tortoiseshell products, which I fortunately never found. So it was with a bit of déjà vu that we visited the beachfront stands testing a new app that we are developing that will recognize these products from photos. Other than one product that we were told was real tortoiseshell (though we believed it was not real), the area remains tortoiseshell-free to our delight.

 Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!

What Is It Like To Work With Sea Turtles?

After I graduated from college with a degree in environmental economics, I knew that I needed some real-world experience. I’ve long had a fascination with Latin America so I searched for conservation projects in that region where I could volunteer my time and learn. I had no special connection to sea turtles or background in biology but most of what I found available was volunteer programs working on nesting beaches. These turtle projects need a lot of help to cover long stretches of beach every night, along with working in hatcheries, educational programs, beach cleanups, and research.  

So that’s what I chose but back then, I had no idea this decision would guide my career for the next twenty years. Those first nights on dark beaches working with giant leatherbacks taught me many lessons, such as interacting with local residents, braving weather and exhaustion to complete the work, and working in teams for a shared goal. It has now been a long time since I walked the beach every night but those lessons stay with me and were the reason I wanted to bring together people from across this field to share their experiences and lessons they learned.

Brad being sufficiently impressed by a leatherback nesting in Trinidad

Brad being sufficiently impressed by a leatherback nesting in Trinidad

Working with these extraordinary marine reptiles is much more than walking miles every night on a nesting beach. Our new book, Sea Turtle Research and Conservation, provides real world examples of a variety of facets of this field. We look at managing tourism in places like Costa Rica, Grenada, and Sri Lanka, how one group in Curacao is turning plastic waste from a threat to sea turtles into a way to protect them, and what it’s like to work in a community that initially is not in favor of protecting sea turtles.  

We cover some of the most challenging aspects of sea turtle research and conservation. One chapter looks at ways that conservationists are working with fishermen to find ways that keep turtles out of nets while not costing fishermen their livelihoods. Another chapter has great examples of how advocates are addressing the trade in sea turtles and their parts in Colombia, Africa, and globally. Finally, we have practical advice for practitioners and students in this field on how to raise funds for this work and combining new technologies with old fashioned observation.

This book is one way I am giving back to all those mentors who helped me learn, grow, and thrive in this field. I hope that my current and future colleagues find these experiences useful in their work, now and in the future.

Pick up a copy of Sea Turtle Research and Conservation: Lessons From The Field from Elsevier Press here.

The Few, The Proud, The Black and Brown in Marine Science

With a Google search you will see that the marine field is lacking diversity. The first page presents a similar view that you will find in the marine science field; it’s full of white faces. In order to see the Black and Brown faces of marine scientists you must search through many pages or specifically search black or brown marine scientists. We are just like male adult sea turtles, often forgotten about until we make our presence. Female sea turtles get a lot of attention since they are more easily accessible for studies as they return ashore to nest. Whereas male sea turtles never return to land unless they are sick or injured. Continue reading below as I show similarities between Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) marine scientists and sea turtles, in our journey to survive to meaningful careers for us scientists and adulthood and reproducing for sea turtles.

1 in 1,000 is the estimated number of sea turtle hatchlings that will survive to adulthood. I don’t know the numbers of Black and Brown scientists that do not make it to their dream career, but I have heard countless stories of those who stopped before they reached the finish line. Like sea turtles, there are several reasons why Black and Brown scientists do not make it to “adulthood” in this field, reasons like: artificial lights, beach debris and depressions, and predators.

Artificial lights can be disorienting to freshly emerged hatchlings, instead of heading toward the sea by moonlight they travel further inland towards the lights from condos, restaurants, and other sources of unnatural lights. In the same way minorities in marine science are drawn to institutions and other programs with the promise of success and job placement; instead we get lackluster programs that use us as diversity photo opps, plastering us on posters and the website without caring whether we succeed or not and if our needs are being met. These institutions and advisors boast about their diverse programs and an abundant of opportunities only to leave you trapped in a limited resource program that is two people removed from being diverse and you’re the new face of the “diversity” of the program, with the hopes that your presence will bring more diverse talents.

Beach debris and depressions like tires tracks, sand castles holes, and footprints are obstacles that hinder sea turtles success in reaching the ocean, in the same way minority scientists have obstacles of our own that hinder us from successfully entering and staying in the marine field like: low pay and pay to work initiatives and unintentional gatekeeping by seemingly word of mouth funding opportunities.

There are already a limited number of marine positions available, and many times these positions go to individuals that already have experiences. Many times, these opportunities to gain the experience are low paying, no pay at all, or you must pay to gain the experience. Now couple in the life experiences that many Black and Brown Individuals have, like being first generation students, coming from lower economic status families, having to care for younger siblings or grandparents. They do not have the financial resources and opportunities that their non BIPOC counterparts have to take a low or nonpaying opportunity to gain experience in their field. Paying to work is out of the question altogether for many of these scientists, quitting a summer job to probably pay more than you would have made that summer is highly frowned upon by family and many times unfeasible.

While there are many sub-par opportunities like this out here, there are plenty of other well-funded opportunities that are available to all who have hopes of being marine scientist. Some of these opportunities are truly great and can really spearhead a career in marine sciences; the only problem is that many of these opportunities are unintentionally gatekept. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has plenty of great funding opportunities available for students like: The Office of Ocean Exploration and Research Explorer-in-Training Program, The Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Marine and Estuarine Science, and The John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship amongst other scholarships and internships. Even though they have these great opportunities year after year, they are awarded to cohorts that lack diversity.


The reason is that though the information is available it is not widely made known. The university I attended in undergrad, and where I currently attend as a graduate student has partnered with NOAA numerous times throughout the years and have had many students who received funding and or fellowships from NOAA. I’ve even worked with NOAA employees on many different occasions over my professional career. But it was not until this year when I returned to my university that I learned about these great opportunities available form current students who were selected as fellows for the program, and a seminar that was put on by a NOAA Sea Grant employee.

Predators pluck off hatchlings either by them digging into the nest or predating on hatchlings as they are making their way to the sea. Minority students are predated by advisors who promise funding, attractive opportunities, and resources for those who are coming with funding. Some of these predators will befriend you and welcome you into the lab not truly caring if you succeed or not. They’ll use the funding you came with to fund their work and other advisors will happily fund you and get you into their lab, but they turn out to be horrible advisors many times condemning you for work they either never showed you the correct way to do it. Or you had to figure it on your own because they make you seem like you’re a burden when you ask for help. 

These same advisors will hold it over your head that they gave you a position, so you owe them. Many minority scientists never publish or share their work out of fear of retribution from these predators. So even though it’s something you have always been passionate about, it’s better for you to cut ties and go in a different direction for your sanity than to continue dealing with the lack of support, behavior of these advisors. Other advisors are cordial and show support and glorify you to your face, but behind closed doors to colleagues and other students they bash you and make statements like they are surprised you made it this far with your lack of skills or question if the work you have published is actually yours and not the work of one your white classmates. These predatory advisors seem to seek out minority students because many of us are first generation students or know that we are less likely to report their behavior out of fear of backlash or they know from experience that they usually get a slap on the wrist if any discipline at all. The student is then either forced to find a new program or drop out of school completely due to the repercussions of sounding the alarm.

Now having survived the obstacles as students we enter in the career field knowing is not all rainbows and butterflies. Just like adult sea turtles we still must deal with environmental hazards. For sea turtles that’s boat strikes, fishing gear, and other human-caused hazards and naturally occurring threats. Us BIPOCs enter the field only to be entangled and battered by hostile or exhausting work environments, having to continue to fight and prove our worth collectively and as individuals.

As an African American male I have had my share of difficult work environments, but still I have the advantage of being a male over my fellow scientists that identify as women. The marine field, especially the fisheries field, can be a Good ol’ Boys Club with sexist comments and beliefs that women can’t do the same job or don’t belong on a boat full of men for various reasons that are majorly made up by men. I know for fact that every women marine scientist, especially the BIPOCs, deserve to be in this field without the continued harassment and having to prove that they can physically and mentally handle the job as well as prove their knowledge on their study species.

We may all be people of color, but we do not know each other, and we do not speak for everyone in our race. Just like each Kemp’s ridley sea turtle has different characteristics and needs from leatherbacks, I have a different needs and experiences from the black individual across from me. It is tiring for us to be seen as the all-knowing individual on everything for our race.


Being a BIPOC in a field that is lacking in diversity is draining. Sometimes that drainage extends to conferences and events where you think you will finally have the chance to meet and interact with others in your field who are also BIPOCs. A needed interaction where you can talk about the good and bad  of your field and offer encouragement to your fellow BIPOC counterparts,  only to expend even more energy explaining to non-POC counterparts about being an ally from the sideline and letting BIPOCs have that moment of solitude and a safe space for discussion.

Lastly it's exhausting to be one of the few individuals who looks like you in your field. It's a constant feeling  and telling yourself you can't afford to make a mistake or quit because you’re an example for all the other  Black people to follow you. Even if you are at your limit you hold on to that glimmer of hope that things will get better, because you don’t want to let anyone down and make Black people look bad.

While we as minority scientists continue to face many challenges throughout our career, we continue to show our resilience. Just like sea turtles, we started from the bottom and dug our way out, navigated over rough terrain, through obstacles, and escaped predators so that we can THRIVE!! After all that we have been through we give our All in the field, office, and lab. We foster relationships with younger minority scientists. We have transformed from the sea turtle hatchling that must overcome obstacles to the Biologist that are now ensuring hatchlings (the next generation of BIPOC scientists) have an even playing field, increasing their survival and further diversifying this field. Black and Brown Marine Scientists, we may be few but we are outchea (out here).

Learn more and participate in Black In Marine Science week here.

Alex Troutman is a co-founder of BlackInMarineScience Week and a graduate student at Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @n8ture_al

Saving Baby Turtles Around The World

While the world hunkers down to reduce the spread of COVID-19, sea turtle researchers and patrollers are still out working through the night to protect sea turtles. This pandemic is hitting everyone and many turtle projects depend on volunteers and travelers to support their work.

Our Billion Baby Turtles Fund is now one of the largest private sources of funding for turtle nesting beaches and we are proud to partner with some of the most effective wildlife conservation organizations in the world. These funds are having an impact on the beaches and in the water and none of this would be possible without the support of our generous donors, sponsors, travelers, and other supporters.

Here are some updates from our partners around the world:

Turtle Love Project (Costa Rica)

Photo: Turtle Love Project

Photo: Turtle Love Project

Turtle Love Project is a new program in Costa Rica working to protect a previously unpatrolled stretch of beach south of Tortuguero National Park. We provided seed funding for this program through support from the J. Berman Memorial Fund. Starting their work in June 2019, they began nesting patrols, environmental education programs, and community outreach.

Their results from their first year include:

  • Protecting more than 700 green turtle nests, 12 hawksbill nests, and 14 leatherback nests;

  • The percentage of nests poached was reduced from more than 90 percent to under 20 percent:

  • Nearly 60,000 hatchlings were released to the sea; and

  • Their educational programs reached more than 1,700 local residents and their volunteer program helped three local families.

Tortugas de Osa (Costa Rica)

Photo: Tortugas de Osa

Photo: Tortugas de Osa

Another new project in Costa Rica (this one on the Osa Peninsula) funded through the J. Berman Fund, Tortugas de Osa works with local residents to patrol nesting beaches including Carate, Rio Oro, and La Leona. This project works closely with the local community, including former gold miners who were looking for alternative livelihoods. This nesting area is one of the biggest areas for solitary olive ridley nesting (as opposed to the arribada beaches) in the region.

In their first season, the Tortugas de Osa team was able to:

  • Protect more than 3,700 nests, including 52 who were moved to the hatchery, 279 that were relocated, and nearly 2,900 protected in-situ; and

  • Nests affected by predators (primarily stray dogs) was only 7 percent of all the nests laid on the three beaches.

 Grupo Ecologista Quelonios (Mexico)

Photo: Grupo Ecologista Quelonios

Photo: Grupo Ecologista Quelonios

This organization founded by Mexican citizens in 1992 has been working to protect one of the most important nesting areas for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle in the Western Hemisphere. Located on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Yucatan Peninsula, this project has had extraordinary success in growing their nesting numbers since starting nearly 30 years ago. (Facebook page link here.)

Their success includes:

  • Nesting numbers have increased nearly 300% since 2011, going from 500 nests to more than 1,400 in 2019.

  • In the 2019 nesting season, they released more than 140,000 hatchlings to the sea with zero nests depredated by humans or animals.

 Fauna & Flora International – Nicaragua

Photo: Nick Bubb / FFI

Photo: Nick Bubb / FFI

SEE Turtles has collaborated with FFI Nicaragua since 2013 to protect one of the most important nesting areas for the Eastern Pacific hawksbill at Padre Ramos Estuary, one of the most endangered populations of sea turtles in the world. FFI works closely with the local community to support residents who collect the eggs and bring them to a hatchery for protection. This helps support both the local economy and the conservation of these turtles. 

Highlights of their most recent season include:

  • 139 hawksbill nests protected with more than 9,500 hatchlings released;

  • Nearly 99% of nests were protected, a turnaround from 100% of nests poached before the project began; and

  • Forty former poachers now employed by the program benefitted from this project’s innovative payment program, which also provides support for community projects.

Our Billion Baby Turtles program had its best year ever in 2019 with the help of these partners and others. In total, we helped save more than 1 million endangered hatchlings by supporting work at 27 important nesting beaches around the world last year, bringing our total to nearly 3 million hatchlings saved to date.

Learn More:

5 Sea Turtle Success Stories of the 2010’s

Colola Beach, Mexico, Black Turtle Capital of the World

After nearly twenty years of effort, the sea turtles nesting at Colola Beach on Mexico’s Pacific coast, were nearly gone. From tens of thousands of nests in the 50’s and 60’s, their numbers dropped to just 533 in 1999. The black sea turtle (a sub-species of the green turtle, Chelonia mydas agassizi), can be found in the Pacific Ocean along the America’s, and Colola is home to more than 80 percent of their nesting. Some researchers believed they were beyond help.

But a funny thing happened after the turn of the century. Children from the local indigenous Nahua community who were recruited by the University of Michoacan in the early years were growing up to be full-time research staff. People stopped eating turtles and their eggs and exporting them out of the community. Nesting numbers started rising. The twenty years of effort started to pay off as the hatchlings that were saved in the 80’s began to return as adults. Throughout the decade, the number of nests rose to between 3,000 and 8,000 per year (160,000 – 560,000 hatchlings each season).

By 2010, a recovery was evident. Over the decade, nesting at the beach went from nearly 10,000 nests and 650,000 hatchlings in 2010, to more than 45,000 nests and 2 million hatchlings in 2019. That represents a more than 8,000% increase over 20 years, which makes Colola one of the world’s most successful sea turtle conservation efforts. The community and university for these efforts won the Champions Award from the International Sea Turtle Society in 2018. Our Billion Baby Turtles program has supported this program with funding since 2013. (Photo above from Colola by Juan Ma Gonzalez).

Learn more:

Eastern Pacific Hawksbills

The Pacific coast of the America’s for decades was a black hole for information on hawksbill sea turtles. Generally they live in coral reefs (this region does not have many reefs), few nesting beaches were known, and they were not frequently spotted, so many people believed there were too few in the region to invest the energy to protect them. But previously unknown (to the sea turtle community) nesting beaches in Nicaragua and El Salvador were found, and efforts to protect these beaches were launched in the late 2000’s.

The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO), a network of researchers, non-profits, and local communities, was created to support research and conservation efforts from Mexico to Peru. Researchers discovered that hawksbills in this region live in mangroves, upending long-held beliefs about hawksbills. Now ten nesting beaches and fifteen foraging areas are being protected, representing more than 90 percent of known nesting for this population. There are now believed to be at least 1,000 adult hawksbills in the region. Two major beaches, one each in El Salvador and Nicaragua, are fully protected by conservation organizations (ProCosta in El Salvador and Fauna & Flora International in Nicaragua).

Photo: Eastern Pacific hawksbill from Padre Ramos, Nicaragua (Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles)

Photo: Eastern Pacific hawksbill from Padre Ramos, Nicaragua (Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles)

The efforts of this growing community of residents, researchers, and others are paying off. According to Michael Liles of ProCosta, “We have flipped the script of the fate of hawksbills in Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador--the most important nesting site in the eastern Pacific--going from 0% of hawksbills nests protected in 2007 to over 95% protected in 2018." For these efforts, ICAPO received the Champions Award in 2016 from the International Sea Turtle Society. Our Billion Baby Turtles and conservation travel programs have supported these efforts since 2011.

Learn more:

Florida’s Stunning Sea Turtle Comeback

Dozens of organizations and government agencies have been working on Florida’s coast to protect sea turtles for decades. While the leatherback, loggerhead, and green turtles nesting on this state’s beaches don’t have the levels of pressure from people eating eggs and turtles as in many other places, they face a variety of challenges. Coastal development, including beach lighting, furniture, pollution, and coastal armoring, is evident throughout the state. Large numbers of tourists can impact nesting beaches, generate a lot of trash, and bring their boats and vehicles.

With these challenges and others, the recovery of the green and loggerhead nesting in Florida has been dramatic. 2019 was a banner year for the state’s beaches, with more than 50,000 loggerhead nests and 40,000 green turtles nesting on index beaches that are tracked by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The 2019 green turtle totals were a record and loggerhead nesting set a record in 2016 with more than 60,000 nests. Compared to the 2000’s, where green turtle peak nesting ranged from about 5,000 to 10,000 nests, the 2010’s were an extraordinary decade, with four years each passing 25,000 nests. Loggerhead nesting, which had dipped to 30,000 to 40,000 nests per season in the 2000’s after ranging from 40,000 – 60,000 in the previous decade, rebounded to similar numbers in the earlier decade.

Learn more:

Ending the Tortoiseshell Trade in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia, is an extraordinary mixture of cultures with a fascinating history. From a Spanish colony founded in 1533, it has become a major tourist destination, home to the largest fortification in the Spanish colonies (San Felipe Castle) and a well-preserved historical area known as the “Walled City.” More than 3 million travelers visited this city in 2018, making it one of the country’s top destinations. Unfortunately for sea turtles, products made from hawksbill shells (aka tortoiseshell) has been a popular souvenir and the city has developed a reputation of being a hub for this illegal trade.

The tortoiseshell trade has devastated populations of hawksbill turtles around the world. An estimated 9 million shells were exported to Japan from 1844 to 1992, according to a recent study by Monterey Bay Aquarium. Hawksbills are now considered critically endangered with estimates of adult females worldwide ranging from 15,000 t0 25,000. In Cartagena, research by Fundacion Tortugas del Mar, a Colombian conservation organization, showed that from 2008 to 2013, around twenty stores and vendors sold an average of 2,500 products per year. The city was identified as the second largest hotspot for this trade in the 2017 report Endangered Souvenirs, published by our Too Rare To Wear campaign.

Tortoiseshell for sale in Cartagena (Fundacion Tortugas del Mar)

Tortoiseshell for sale in Cartagena (Fundacion Tortugas del Mar)

Fortunately for the hawksbills, the hard work of organizations led by Fundacion Tortugas del Mar, along with WWF Colombia and others, in partnership with city officials and law enforcement agencies have reduced the trade in the city by an estimated 80 percent. Frequent police patrols have reduced the number of tortoiseshell products found from an average of 2,000 per year to around 200 or fewer products the past two years, according to research by the Fundacion. This success comes from a combination of collaboration between conservation organizations and local authorities, outreach and education, and recruiting souvenir shops to be certified turtle-free by the Fundacion. Too Rare To Wear has worked with Fundacion Tortugas del Mar on this effort since 2016.

Learn more:

Recovery of Hawksbills in the Atlantic and Caribbean

As mentioned above, the tortoiseshell trade has decimated hawksbill populations around the world, and the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico populations were among the hardest hit. According to data from the most recent hawksbill Red List assessment by the IUCN, approximately 660,000 shells were exported to Japan from 1950 to 1992 (though the recent research by Monterey Bay Aquarium shows that may be significantly underestimated). With this trade, nesting beaches from Mexico all the way to Colombia and throughout the Caribbean islands dropped dramatically.

The tide for hawksbills started to turn in the early 90’s, when Japan finally ended its legal tortoiseshell trade for good through the CITES trade. This did not end this trade (see previous section) but did represent a turning point in efforts to protect this species. Now, nearly thirty years later, we are starting see the results as a generation of turtles that avoided the trade matures, though local challenges like hunting of hawksbills and illegal collection of eggs persist.

Two nesting beaches in the region are particular bright spots, one in Panama and one in Mexico and have grown dramatically due to the hard work of researchers and local communities to reduce illegal collection of eggs and adult turtles. In Panama, according to research carried out by Annie and Peter Meylen in conjunction with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, nesting in the Zapatilla Cays area in the Bocas del Toro archipelago has grown nearly 500 percent since 2006, to more than 1,000 nests in 2018 and have surpassed 100,000 hatchlings produced the past two seasons.

On Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, two groups have been working to protect hawksbill since the early 90’s, Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan and Grupo Ecologista Quelonios. In the early 2010’s, Quelonios averaged between 400 to 500 nests (45,000 to 55,000 hatchlings) but through the decade those numbers grew to more than 1,000 nests each year in 2017 and 2018 (more than 100,000 hatchlings per season). Pronatura has also seen a major increase in hawksbill nesting at several beaches, with Holbox surpassing 1,000 nests in a season for the first time and two other beaches showing significant growth (Celestun and El Cuyo). Our Billion Baby Turtles program has provided financial support for both of these projects, Sea Turtle Conservancy in 2019, Quelonios since 2018, and Pronatura since 2017.

Learn more:

These success stories show that communities working with conservationists, researchers, and government agencies can significantly reduce threats that turtles face and bring endangered species back from the brink. Many threats to sea turtles persist and new ones are emerging, but with collective efforts, the recovery of sea turtles around the world can continue. A big thanks to everyone out there who contributed towards these success stories!

Turtles, Turtles Everywhere

I’ve been working with sea turtle conservation partners for the past decade to provide support to important nesting beaches around the world. I’ve worked personally on four different nesting beaches in Costa Rica and have visited dozens of others. I’ve never seen anything like the sheer avalanche of sea turtles and hatchlings that Colola Beach in the Mexican state of Michoacan, which is known as “The black sea turtle capital of the world.”

I just wrapped up bringing two groups of a total of 25 people to volunteer on this extraordinary beach. The numbers are overwhelming; 46,000 nests last year with more than 2 million hatchlings alone. Over the ten days that I spent at this beach with these groups, there were more than 3,200 nests and roughly 20,000 hatchlings. The beach is one long undulation of holes made by the nesting turtles.

Walk along the beach during the day and you’ll see them nesting close to shore. Look down and you might come across some straggler hatchlings from a natural nest. Head to the hatchery at dusk and you’ll find little heads popping out of several nests. Wait an hour and you’ll have a dozen nests hatching at the same time, where hundreds of baby turtles are released to the water at the same time. Walk a couple hundred feet onto the nesting beach around 9 pm and most nights during this time of year, you’ll find five or ten females right there in front of the hatchery nesting. One night, while watching a female nest, a natural nest hatched about two feet away, dozens of little hatchlings scrambling around my feet in a matter of minutes. Get up at dawn and you’ll usually see at least a couple of late-night nesting turtles returning to the ocean.


The situation wasn’t always this way at Colola. After decades of harvesting of the adults and eggs for export, this population crashed. What once numbered in the tens of thousands, this population had just an estimated 500 females in the late 90’s. But the fruit of efforts starting in the late 70’s and early 80’s by biologist Kim Clifton and researchers from the University of Michoacan started paying off. With each year the number of nests climbed steadily, from a low of 533 in 1999 to now more than 40,000 per year, a stunning recovery.

Researchers including Carlos Delgado, who started working at Colola 30 years ago, began working with the local Nahua community, an indigenous group that lives along this stretch of coast. They hired adults to help monitor the beach and paid kids to bring nests to the hatchery to be protected, many of whom now work on the project as adults. Once the hatchlings had time to grow, their numbers rebounded and this is now one of the biggest sea turtle success stories in the world.

These two trips were organized as an opportunity for our past travelers to have a special experience on a beach that our Billion Baby Turtles program has been supporting since 2014. A total of 25 people from the US and Canada spent five nights each at the research station to see and work with the black sea turtles. And turtles did they see!


The turtle routine started in the early evening; as the sun set, the hatchlings would start emerging from nests in the hatchery. Batch by batch, our volunteers brought them to release near the water, leaving them to cover the last ten or twenty feet on their own. Around nine, groups would head out to the beach to study the adult females, collecting information on their length, where they nested, and their tag numbers as well as collecting eggs to bring to the hatchery.

Each day, we headed to nearby beaches as beautiful as any in Mexico. Hanging out under thatch roof shelters, we took turns swimming and snorkeling, swapping stories of visits to other nesting beaches, and enjoying local snacks and beverages. Each group visited a family in the nearby town of Maruata that made ceramic art by hand, digging the mud from around their houses, refining it, shaping it into various shapes (including turtles of course) and then firing them in their kiln for hours to finish them. Another day, we took a nature walk with a local Nahua elder who showed us plants used to cure infections, for upset stomach, healing wounds, and more. We also learned about native trees used for wood and natural dyes. Among the wildlife we saw were iguanas, egrets, ibis, a baby hummingbird, and several colorful butterflies. We also visited the Finger of God rock formation in Maruata, a gorgeous stretch of coastline.

Hummingbird fledgling

Hummingbird fledgling

Finger of God in Maruata

Finger of God in Maruata

Our second group coincided with one of the largest celebrations in Mexico, the “Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe” (Virgin of Guadalupe Day), December 12th. The original story goes back to early colonization in 1531, when a pilgrim named Juan Diego saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told him to go to Mexico City (then Tenoctilan) and tell the bishop at the church. When the didn’t believe him, he returned to the pass and spoke again to the virgin to get proof of her existence. The virgin told him to bring rose petals bound up in his clothes to the church; when he dropped them in front of the bishop, the image of the virgin was left in the imprint of his clothes. This frock can still be seen at the basilica named in her honor in Mexico City.

We were invited to visit the beginning of the festivities in a nearby Nahua town. Loud fireworks went off as we arrived, a creative way to call surrounding locals to the party. A group of girls dressed in traditional dress did a series of dances, one right into the other without breaking a sweat in the intense heat. Hundreds of pounds of corn meal were expertly being converted into tortillas as we watched (pro tip, rub lime juice and salt on tortillas before you eat them).

Our second group had the opportunity to participate in research in the hatchery, helping to dig up nests two days after they hatched. The remaining eggs, shells, and hatchlings (some surviving, some not) are analyzed to determine how well the hatchery was functioning. Once the hatchlings were released, we were done our turtle work for the week.


Due to conflict in other parts of Michoacan state, tourism declined dramatically in this part of Mexico, though the beach area remains safe. The economic impact of these two groups on the community is significant; more than US $12,000 was spent in and around Colola, an area with few economic opportunities. In addition, our Billion Baby Turtles program gave a $10,000 grant given to the project by, which was partially funded by this trip. Our two groups also completed roughly 125 volunteer shifts in the ten days.

Spending two weeks at Colola was a profound experience. Seeing a truly successful conservation project at work is energizing and holds many lessons for projects around the world trying to duplicate their accomplishments.

Learn more:

A New Tool To End the Turtleshell Trade

Hawksbill sea turtles are among the most endangered sea turtle species, considered critically endangered by the IUCN. One of their top threats is being killed to make products out of their shells and they are the primary turtle species that faces this threat. Despite the end of the legal international commercial trade of hawksbill shells through the CITES treaty, the domestic trade in handicrafts remains a major threat to these turtles around the world, especially in Latin America and Asia where enforcement of laws is often non-existent.


The shells are crafted into souvenirs to sell to foreign tourists including jewelry, guitar picks, combs, and other items. A recent study estimated at least 9 million shells were shipped to Japan from the 1840’s to the 1990’s when the legal trade ended, resulting in just an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 adult females worldwide today.

Despite the trade being banned for decades, the tortoiseshell trade continues to threaten the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle around the world. Our Too Rare To Wear program works with the tourism industry and conservation community to help end the trade of tortoiseshell products around the world. One of the challenges with ending this trade is that these products are often hard to distinguish between real tortoiseshell and similar looking products like faux tortoiseshell, horn, bone, or other types of shell. This makes it difficult for travelers, enforcement officials, or online marketplaces to know what they are looking at.

Real (photo: Hal Brindley)

Real (photo: Hal Brindley)

Fake (photo: Brad Nahill)

Fake (photo: Brad Nahill)

Too Rare To Wear is partnering with Alex Robillard, a predoctoral student working at the Smithsonian Data Science Lab, on a ground-breaking new project that will help governments, online retailers, conservation organizations, tour operators, and travelers to identify and report when these products are being sold. This model will use machine learning to distinguish tortoiseshell products from those that are similar or replicas with a high degree of accuracy. We will use a set of photos of both real and similar products to train the model what to look for. Users will be able to upload photos of products taken online or while traveling and receive confirmation if the product is tortoiseshell. The phone app will also record location of the products, which will support research into the trade and provide information to enforcement authorities.

Applications of this model will include:

  • Allowing travelers, tour guides, and others to identify which products to avoid purchasing while traveling;

  • Helping efforts by enforcement officials around the world to identify these products for sale in markets, online, or at borders;

  • Online retailers can use the model to determine when people are illegally offering these products for sale on their platforms;

  • Conservation organizations can quickly and simply collect information on this trade instead of time consuming and inefficient paper surveys.


Too Rare To Wear

The goal of Too Rare To Wear is to reduce demand for turtleshell products through the tourism industry. We do that by educating travelers on how to recognize and avoid these products, by studying and publicizing the current trade, and by partnering with organizations based in hotspots for this trade to do outreach, improve enforcement, and study this trade. The project works with more than 100 tour operators and 50 conservation organizations around the world, published reports on the global tortoiseshell trade, and created a simple guide to recognizing these products that has been translated into five languages.

Kids Working To Save Baby Sea Turtles

One great way that kids can contribute to protecting sea turtles is by raising funds. Our Billion Baby Turtles program supports more than 20 organizations working to protect sea turtles and hatchlings on some of the world’s most important nesting beaches. For every dollar that students raise, we can save at least 10 endangered hatchlings; to date, students around the world have helped to save more than 300,000 baby turtles! Many students raise funds and awareness by promoting alternatives to single use plastic, since plastic bags, straws, and other products are a threat to sea turtles.

There are two ways that students can raise funds anytime of the year, either through class fundraisers or school or on their own. Students can also participate in our annual Baby Turtle Fundraising Contest, which takes place in October and November every year.

Elizabeth & Natalie

Elizabeth & Natalie

Sea Savers

For about a year cousins Elizabeth and Natalie had been helping their families to use less plastic and decrease their waste.  Both girls were saddened to learn about how plastic affects sea creatures and the impact it has on the earth.  They started praying every night that the people who are trying to save the ocean would actually be able to save it.  Their parents started reminded them that by reducing their plastic waste they were people trying to save the ocean.  The girls thought about this and decided that together they could do more to save the ocean.  As such, they decided to form Sea Savers to encourage others to use less plastic, raise money to help sea creatures, and help clean up the ocean.  

To start, they created a website and slideshow to further explain the impact of plastic and simple changes people could make.  To raise money, they ordered Pura Vida bracelets in custom colors to look like the ocean.  They decorated notebooks with pictures of turtles, dolphins, and narwhals, and why it is important to use less plastic.  With these and a few additional items they sold their products to family and friends, had a table at a garage sale, and even a stand at the local Farmer’s Market.  At the end of their first fundraising session they had raised enough to save 5,000 baby turtles and to support two additional organizations that focus on cleaning up the ocean.  

Alex, Emma, and Maeve

Alex, Emma, and Maeve

Alex, Emma, & Maeve
Alexa, Emma, and Maeve are a group of 4th grade girls who live on Long Island in New York. As a fundraiser, they decided to sell friendship beads on the beach in Fire Island to save the turtles. They raised $79.50 in 3 hours, enough to save about 800 baby turtles!

The SteelTurtles crew

The SteelTurtles crew


Students from Kettle Moraine High School in Wales, WI did a ‘Make a Difference’ project. For this project, the students chose to combat plastic waste, specifically with plastic straws. They bought 200 stainless steel straws and sold them at a local event, and sold out! They made over $500 that was donated directly to save 5,000 baby turtles. They were so encouraged by this that they decided to make a business and named it SteelTurtles. SteelTurtles now has the mission to create 0% waste with plastic straws and to protect our oceans.

Trevor and Maddox

Trevor and Maddox

Trevor and Maddox

Trevor and Maddox raised $130.00 for the sea turtles as part of a school empathy project. They planned out how they were going to raise money in school. They made informational flyers to hand out to businesses and residential homes to spread awareness about saving the sea turtles. They also set up a Go Fund Me account to easily collect money and made T-shirts for the boys to wear while handing out flyers. The boys were very happy that they saved 1,300 sea turtles!  




After having read articles and watched videos about the harmful impact of plastic pollution on marine biodiversity, Annabel was motivated to support an organization that would campaign against the use of plastic straws and protect endangered baby sea turtles. She has always been in awe of sea turtles, having seen them on snorkel trips in Costa Rica and Guadeloupe.

Annabel and her friends Brooke and Sami were therefore very excited to learn about SEE Turtles, and together they hosted an ice cream and lemonade stand fundraiser last spring. Inspired to continue this mission, Annabel decided this past summer to channel her love for DIY art projects towards another fundraiser for SEE Turtles, through a stamp magnet making business. She created sets of whimsical stamp magnets on wood discs made with colorful glittered embossing powder. She raised $70 through the sale of over 80 homemade magnets, which she sold to family, friends and neighbors. Annabel hopes to continue to support the organization through other handcraft businesses in the future.

ProCosta: Protecting El Salvador's Unique Hawksbill Turtles

Hunted for their colorful shells, hawksbills are among one of the most endangered sea turtle species. They live in tropical waters around the globe and a decade ago, the world almost lost this turtle in the entire eastern Pacific Ocean. Yet, thanks to committed conservation organizations, including the Salvadoran organization ProCosta, hope exists for their continued survival.

The hawksbill is named for its narrow head and sharp bird-like beak, which helps them feed on their favorite meal — sponges. Of the seven marine turtles, they are on the smaller end, ranging between 100 to 200 pounds and reaching up to three feet. Considered critically endangered by the IUCN, they are estimated to have only about 15,000 – 20,000 breeding females left on the planet, and in the eastern Pacific they number fewer than 700. 

Eastern Pacific Hawksbill - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

Eastern Pacific Hawksbill - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

Their most important nesting beaches are found on the southeast coast of El Salvador in Jiquilisco Bay, a coastal estuary lined with mangrove trees. It’s such an important site that in 2005 it was designated a Ramsar wetland and in 2007 it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Combined with other sites in nearby Nicaragua, they account for 80% of the known nesting for this species in the eastern Pacific.

Before 2007, the scientific community didn’t even know if hawksbills still existed in the Pacific coastal region of the Americas. Then, ProCosta founders (previously a project of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative or ICAPO) found active nests and feeding grounds. The nonprofit project officially launched in 2008 and since then, ProCosta has led hawksbill research and recovery efforts in Jiquilisco Bay and other parts of El Salvador. 

The program has been a success. In a country that is the most densely populated in the region and has few endangered species left, the effort to bring the hawksbill back has captured the country’s imagination. In 2007, more nearly 100% of the nests were being collected to sell on what was then still a legal market. To combat this threat, ProCosta turned to the community. They converted the local egg-collectors into egg protectors, by safely raising eggs in protected hatcheries. The government made eating turtle eggs or meat illegal in 2009.  

ProCosta egg hatchery - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

ProCosta egg hatchery - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

Releasing hatchlings in Jiquilisco - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

Releasing hatchlings in Jiquilisco - photo by Allison Shelley / Wild Earth Allies

Since 2011, over 95% of nests are now protected in Jiquilisco Bay. In 2018, for example, a record-setting 295 nests were protected and 27,855 turtle hatchlings were released into the ocean. With 115 egg-collectors participating in the program, about 170 local families benefited from the work of ProCosta. Most recently, ProCosta outfitted year-old turtles with satellite tags to better understand their movement patterns, the latest in what has been a decade of ground-breaking scientific research at this site.

“It is incredible to think that just 10 years ago hawksbills in the eastern Pacific Ocean were considered virtually absent and beyond hope of recovery,” says Mike Liles, ProCosta President and sea turtle researcher. “Since then, not only is there renewed hope, but together with coastal community members we have made enormous strides to make recovery a reality.”

SEE Turtles has played a part in that success by funding the nesting beach work, as part of our Billion Baby Turtles initiative. The funds support the egg collection program, paying the collectors to bring the nests to a protected hatchery, where they are watched until they hatch and then released to the ocean. This was the first project that SEE Turtles helped to fund, raising $5,500 and saved 11,000 hatchlings that season. As of 2019, we’ve given a total of $45,000, which has helped this organization save roughly 91,000 baby hawksbill sea turtles! We have also run teacher workshops with the organization, helping to train local educators about sea turtles, and have provided funds to get hundreds of local students involved in the efforts.

“With the consistent support of Billion Baby Turtles, we have flipped the script of the fate of hawksbills in Jiquilisco Bay in El Salvador--the most important nesting site in the eastern Pacific--going from 0% of hawksbills nests protected in 2007 to over 95% protected in 2018," says Liles.

The Return of The Black Turtle

Today, we’re flooded with hopeless headlines of disappearing ecosystems and endangered wildlife. Yet, along the remote and rugged coastline of Western Mexico, a population of black sea turtles has recovered from near extinction, thanks to the Black Sea Turtle Recovery Program. In fact, it’s one of the most successful wildlife conservation programs in the world — and SEE Turtles helped.

Considered by most experts as a subspecies of the globally ranging green sea turtle, the black sea turtle occurs only in the eastern tropical Pacific. The black sea turtle population is currently doing well, but that wasn’t always the case. “This turtle was close to extinction in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the intensive harvesting of reproductive adults and nearly all of the eggs laid along the coast,” says biologist Carlos Delgado from the University of Michoacán.


By the 1970’s, it’s estimated that an average of 70,000 eggs per night were taken and harvested during the peak of the nesting, at about 20 pesos per 100 eggs. The number of nesting females went from an estimated 25,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to perhaps as few as 170 by 1988.

To save this turtle, something needed to change.

The Road to Recovery

So, in 1982, the Michoacán University, indigenous communities from Maruata and Colola, and national and international institutions started a project to recover the black turtle population of the Michoacán coastline. “Colola Beach is the most important nesting site for the black turtle in Mexico,” says Delgado. It hosts more than 75 percent of the world population of black turtles.

The first part of the program was to keep people from collecting the eggs. To do that, the University of Michoacan biologists set up hatcheries every nesting season at Colola and Maruata. Members with the project would patrol the beach at night, collect eggs and transplant them to new nests dug in a hatchery. Once the hatchlings emerged, they were collected from the pens and then released from the beach to crawl to the sea.

The next part of the effort was to involve the local community in the conservation process. For instance, for centuries the black sea turtle was an important food source for the Nahua indigenous group on the Michoacan coast. Yet, it was no longer sustainable.  One of the goals of the recovery program was to help the local people find alternative sources of food, such as iguana farming and family gardens. Additionally, the adult turtles and their eggs were an important source of income. So, the project developed an ecotourism program to view the nesting turtles, with profits going back to the local community. The idea was to make living turtles worth more than dead ones.

Shellebrate Success

In 1999, this project had a low of just over 500 nests. But starting in 2,000, nesting numbers began a steady climb upward due to the efforts of the community and researchers, combined with a ban on hunting turtles in Mexico in the 1980’s. The past two seasons have been the best in decades, averaging more than 30,000 nests. The average number of nesting females has increased from a low of about 500 individuals to more than 10,000 as of 2016. Their population is now considered one of the 12 healthiest sea turtle populations in the world.

Nesting black turtle

Nesting black turtle

Black turtle hatchery

Black turtle hatchery

SEE Turtles has played a part in that success by funding the nesting beach work, as part of the Billion Baby Turtles program. The funds go towards paying local residents to patrol important turtle nesting beaches, protecting turtles that come up to nest. In 2013, the first year we worked with Colola, we gave the project a $3,000 grant, which helped save 40,000 hatchlings. As of 2019, we’ve provided a total of $42,000 in funding which has helped to save more than 1.3 million hatchlings at this important beach! We plan to increase our support and benefit the community through offering new trips to participate in this inspiring program.

 “The recuperation of the black turtle has been made possible due to the support of organizations like SEE Turtles who have committed to restore this sub-species to its historic levels,” says Delgado.

Photo credits: Carlos Delgado / University of Michoacan


SEE Turtles Wins 2019 World Travel & Tourism Council's Changemakers Award!

The World Travel & Tourism Council announced SEE Turtles as the winner of the 2019 Changemakers Award at the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards ceremony. The Awards, now in their 15th year, took place at a special ceremony during the WTTC Global Summit in Seville, Spain, to celebrate inspirational, world-changing tourism initiatives from around the globe.

The 2019 WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Award Winners are highly commended and recognized for business practices of the highest standards that balance the needs of ‘people, planet and profits’ within the Travel & Tourism sector. New to 2019, the Changemakers Award is for a Travel & Tourism organization which has made real, positive, and impactful change in a specific area of focus defined by WTTC. This focus will change each year. This year the award shone a spotlight on fighting the illegal wildlife trade through tourism.


“SEE Turtles is thrilled to have our efforts to reduce the illegal trade in sea turtle shells and eggs recognized. Our hope is that this award will help to reduce demand for this trade and expand our campaign with the tourism industry. It is an honor to accept this award on behalf of our partners around the world and we thank our donors, sponsors, travellers, and others who helped us get to this point,” said SEE Turtles President & Co-Founder Brad Nahill.

SEE Turtles is an organization that supports sea turtle conservation throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Since 2008, by support on-the-ground efforts to protect sea turtles throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, SEE Turtles has helped saved more than 1.7 million hatchlings through the Billion Baby Turtles program and educated over 10 million people and creating a coalition 130+ tourism companies and conservation organizations working to end the demand for turtleshell through their Too Rare To Wear campaign.

The Awards are judged by a panel of independent experts, led by Prof. Graham Miller, Executive Dean, Professor of Sustainability in Business, University of Surrey.  The panel included academics, business leaders, NGO and governmental representatives who narrowed down the list of 183 applications to just fifteen finalists. The three-stage judging process included a thorough review of all applications, followed by on-site evaluations of the Finalists and their initiative.

WTTC represents the global private sector of Travel & Tourism. Its Global Summit is the most important event in the sector worldwide each year.

For more information on the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and all the Winners, please visit

Students Saving Sea Turtles

Kids love sea turtles. I’ve given presentations to hundreds of kids around the US and one of my favorite parts of my job is seeing their faces when they see and learn about these animals and ask questions about them. Students are a big part of how we save hatchlings through our annual Billion Baby Turtles School Fundraising Contest. This year, more than 200 students at 9 schools helped to raise more than $3,000 to save over 15,000 endangered turtle hatchlings at important nesting beaches.

2018 BBT contest wrap-up.jpg

2018 was the sixth year we have run this contest and it’s impact has been huge. Roughly 1,900 students at dozens of schools have helped to raise about $25,000, resulting in the saving of an estimated 125,000 baby turtles! For their hard work, students receive prizes from our sponsors, including Endangered Species Chocolate, Nature’s Path/EnviroKidz, EcoTeach, Pura Vida Bracelets, Eartheasy, and others.

Here are a few of the inspiring efforts undertaken by classes this year to help save turtles:

·      Jefferson Elementary (Missouri): The class wrote commercials promoting donating during Sea Turtle Week. The students shared facts about turtles and why they are in danger and they were recorded giving them in front of a green screen. The students also made a sea turtle fund collecting machine, which is a container made from various materials like milk jugs, wall paper from wall paper books, and cardboard that sat in the classrooms. The students would go collect it and bring the money back to class and then deliver postcards for donations. Jefferson has participated in the contest since 2014 and have won prizes every year since then.  

·      Middle School at Parkside: Two art classes with 47 students worked together to hold a bake sale, sell our hatchling postcards, and sell coffee to teachers to raise funds. All together, they raised $350 that will help save 1,750 hatchlings and were runners-up winners in the contest. This effort was part of a lesson called “Bringing Awareness to Endangered Species with Art” where students will display their art (some of the great examples below). This was Parkside’s first year participating in the contest.

·      Jefferson Elementary (California): These students gave up their lunch recess for a week to make which were hung all over the school.  We spent an additional lunch recess reviewing sea turtle facts and how the project helps protect sea turtles.  I had 2-3 students sign up on a calendar to help me sell post cards and stickers every morning before the school day started. We had a little cart that had a simulated sea turtle nest (large bowl filled with sand) and eggs (ping pong balls).  The students would explain that sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach and that the ping pong balls were about the size of the eggs and identified the species of sea turtle on the postcards and give a few facts. The “Sea Turtle Ambassadors” have participated and won every year since 2014.   

Jefferson Elementary (CA) Sea Turtle Ambassadors

Jefferson Elementary (CA) Sea Turtle Ambassadors

Extreme Turtle Sex: The Exhausting Life of the Black Sea Turtle

“The turtles here do what we call ‘extreme sex’,” Carlos Delgado tells me with a wry smile. Responding to my raised eyebrows, he goes on to explain that the fornication happens near the intense wave breaks, often resulting in a rather dramatic coitus interruptus. Adding to the thrill of the danger is the (perhaps not surprising) behavior of the male turtles, who can outnumber the females five or six to one (no need here for Turtle Tinder). Carlos described the carnal embrace as we looked over the coast from a large rock at one end of the beach. I felt a twinge of voyeur’ s guilt as I leaned against a large cross at the top of the rock in my efforts to capture the act with my zoom lens.  

The randy males fiercely compete with each other to join the party, to the point of actively (shamelessly?) working to disengage the large tails of the more successful competitors from their female partners. In their hormone-filled frenzy, males often mount each other (we’re not judging). It is, as our co-founder Dr. Wallace J. Nichols describes it in this article, “a bizzarely orgyastical circus of ancient oceanic sexuality.”

Carlos, a biologist with the University of Michoacan, has been researching the black sea turtle, considered by many experts (though perhaps not Carlos himself) as a sub-species of the green turtle. The work on the beach is led by members of the indigenous Nahua community, who take great pride in their contribution to this success story; the local kids patrol the beaches each evening during nesting season and bring the eggs to a hatchery where they are watched over until hatching roughly two months later.

Despite their lack of grace and propriety (and seemingly poor choice in location), these turtles seem to be pretty effective lovers. The recovery of this population is clearly one of the biggest success stories in the world of sea turtles (and perhaps all of wildlife conservation.) In the 60’s and 70’s, large number of eggs and turtles were consumed here. The conservation effort started at this beach in 1982 by Javier Alvarado Diaz and from a low of roughly 500 nests in 1988, 2017 was their best nesting season to date, with more than 30,000 nests (!) and 1.8 million hatchlings released, a growth of about 3,000 percent. Our Billion Baby Turtles program contributes to the extraordinary effort of the Nahua and University of Michoacan researchers; our funding since 2013 resulting in roughly 900,000 hatchlings being protected. 

The inevitable result of all that sex (photo: Carlos Delgado)

The inevitable result of all that sex (photo: Carlos Delgado)

The work on the beach is supported by work happening where these turtles feed and grow, off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. The Grupo Tortuguero, a network of fishermen, scientists, community members, and others, have been working to study and protect these turtles for more than 20 years. Grupo Tortuguero works closely with RED Travel Mexico to promote alternative sources of income for coastal communities and fund research efforts. Travelers can participate in this research on our Baja Ocean Wildlife Expedition, run by RED in partnership with Grupo Tortuguero.

While on the way to Colola, Carlos, Omar (a geneticist working with Carlos), and I made a quick stop at Ixtapilla, an olive ridley “arribada” beach about 20 minutes north. If the black turtle was talented at reproduction, they can’t hold a candle to the olive ridley, who nest in the tens of thousands over a few days several times a year. I can’t imagine what their mating looks like but I’m sure it’s no prettier than the greens. Even in the middle of the day, in between arribadas, there were a few females finishing their nests and heading back to the sea. The beach was littered with fragments of old eggs, the hatchlings long having made their way to the water (or the stomachs of vultures).

Olive ridley at Ixtapilla

Olive ridley at Ixtapilla

 At the Colola research station, my hosts cooked up the largest red snapper I’ve ever seen, splitting the fish in half, covering it with a mix of tomato sauce and veggies including tomato, onion, and pepper, and grilling it over charcoal (a local specialty called “zarandeado”). It was as delicious as it sounds. Afterwards after dusk, we took a bunch of olive ridley hatchlings out to the beach for release. As they slowly made their way to the water, a young man came running down the beach, headed who knows where. Carlos was unable to stop his Godzilla-like rampage through the baby turtles, resulting in one being firmly planted several inches into the sand (though it seemed to be ok and continued its plod once pulled out of the footprint).

That night, we headed out by quad to look for nesting turtles. We quickly came across a set of tracks heading up the beach and checked to see what phase of nesting the turtle was in. The female was still looking for a spot to nest, so we hopped on the quad to cover the rest of the beach before heading back. The turtle by then had barely started to dig its body pit, deep enough to completely hide the turtle below the level of the surrounding beach.

As if the mating portion of their life cycle wasn’t exhausting enough, Carlos explained that the black turtle has an extremely long nesting process, taking an average of 3 and a half hours from exiting the water, to finding a spot, digging out the pit, digging the nest, depositing the eggs, camouflaging the spot, and heading back to the water (the longest of any sea turtle). They can go way up the beach (up to 150 meters / 500 feet), requiring an extraordinary amount of energy. They do this a couple of times a season, another testament to the unstoppable will of females of all species.

The extraordinary recovery of the black turtle is a source of pride for the residents and researchers that have spent decades working to get to this point. Their efforts recently resulted in winning a Champions Award from the International Sea Turtle Society, where photos from this beach stunned the largest gathering of sea turtle experts from around the world. This story was also covered in a fantastic photo essay by our good friend Neil Osborne in Orion Magazine.

Photo by Neil Ever Osborne for Orion Magazine

Photo by Neil Ever Osborne for Orion Magazine

While this success story provides hope for other sea turtle nesting beaches, more extreme sex is needed to bring the black turtle back to historic levels. From an estimated 25,000 females nesting here before the decline in the 60’s and 70’s, the population is now back to roughly 10,000 nests. Even now after these impressive results, CONANP (the National Commission of Protected Areas) is proposing to cut the size of the sanctuary in half, which Carlos and his colleagues are working to prevent.   

But even though there remains a way to go and challenges persist, the future of the black turtle looks bright, a welcome beacon of hope for these ancient reptiles.  

Learn more:

Ending The Turtleshell Trade in Colombia

“I love hawksbills but I prefer to see them alive in the water,” I said in Spanish to the woman behind the counter of the souvenir shop. Laid out in front of us were more than 50 pieces of jewelry and other products made from the shell of the critically endangered hawksbill.

“No!” was the sharp response, catching our group off-guard. 

Of course, we weren’t exactly regular tourists doing souvenir shopping. Our group was made up of myself, the two leaders of Fundacion Tortugas del Mar, and Dan Berman, a donor who supports both of our organizations.


We were visiting Colombia’s Caribbean coast to see first-hand how the Fundacion has been studying and combating the tortoiseshell trade. Cartagena was identified as the second-largest site for the sales of these products in the region in our Endangered Souvenirs report, after Nicaragua. Data collected by Fundacion Tortugas del Mar over a 5 year period showed that on average more than 2,500 products were being sold per year by 19 vendors and shops, with an estimated value of more than $20,000.

The good news is that sales of these products has dropped dramatically. After years of working with local authorities to confiscate these products from vendors, the trade is slowing down. Too Rare To Wear, with the support of the Berman Fund and other donors, is providing funds and resources for Fundacion Tortugas del Mar to train police, do outreach to vendors, souvenir shops, and tourism businesses to wipe out both the supply and demand for these products.

Hawksbill turtles at one time were quite common in tropical areas around the world. Their shells were plastic before plastic was invented and millions of shells were shipped around the world over the past few hundred years; 2 million shells alone were shipped to Japan between 1950 and 1992, when the legal international trade was finally ended. This has had a devastating effect on the hawksbill, it is now considered critically endangered and their numbers have plummeted to now roughly 15,000 adult females on the entire planet.

The first shop that we visited was in Tolu, a coastal town that is a popular spot for Colombians to vacation. The stand was unassuming, without walls on a stretch of dirt off the main road. The turtleshell products were significant though not a large percentage of the total products being sold. The owner quickly figured out that we were not shopping for souvenirs and her demeanor changed from one of friendliness to confrontational. Her family is Wayuu, an indigenous group that views wild animals like sea turtles more as a resource than a tourist attraction or animal to be appreciated for its intrinsic value.

Karla and Cristian are bringing their programs to towns like Tolu and nearby Coveñas and Rincon del Mar. Their first step is to inventory the amount of products being sold, and then reach to the vendors to explain that these sales are illegal and encourage them to sell other products. Finally, the last step is to work with government authorities like the police to visit these shops and confiscate the products. The loss of the money spent on the products is often enough to encourage the vendors to stop selling them, though it can take a few times. If there are repeat offenders, eventually the authorities may impose fines or jail time, but the hope is to stop these sales without resorting to that.

Later that day, we had a meeting with nine souvenir shop owners in Cartagena, in a beautiful location inside the historic walled city called “Las Bovedas.” These shops often sold turtleshell products, primarily to cruise ship passengers, until the Fundacion started to work with police to confiscate the products. Now, none of these shops sell these products and many are enthusiastic in their support to help stop this trade.

Las Bovedas

Las Bovedas

Meeting with shop owners

Meeting with shop owners

These shops are the first in a new program that Too Rare To Wear and the Fundacion are launching called “Turtle-Free Souvenir Shops.” The shops will receive a sticker that shows their participation and we will work with tour operators to bring traveler to support these shops for their participation. We spent an hour discussing the issue with them, answering questions on how they should respond to tourists asking for turtleshell, and how we plan to support their efforts.

Our next stop was Hotel Punta Faro, a luxury resort on Mucura Island, located within the Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo National Natural Park, that is a big supporter of turtle conservation efforts. The national park, the hotel, and the Sueños de Mar Foundation has a collaborative work agreement that includes environmental education with children, young people, and fisherman of the local community. We were lucky to witness a release of 12 sea turtles that the resort rescued through a program they have where they offer chicken to fishermen who bring them the turtles instead of consuming them. Punta Faro is one of the first hotel partners of Too Rare To Wear and is putting together a display to share with their clients about the turtleshell issue, which will help to reach a key market for these high end products.   

Our last stop in Rincon del Mar showed how much work remains. We were there to run a workshop with local teachers and community leaders about sea turtle education, I made a stop to a well-known souvenir shop in town that is a major seller of turtleshell. The owner calls himself the “Rey de Carey” or “King of Hawksbill” for the amount of products he sells. And he definitely sells a lot. In one visit, we counted more than 100 rings, dishware, necklaces, and other products. 


The impressive work of Fundacion Tortugas del Mar has made great progress in slowing the turtleshell trade in Colombia. While there remains some trade in Cartagena and surrounding areas, by working closely with the tourism industry and local authorities, Karla and Cristian are providing a model for how to successfully save hawksbill sea turtles.