They inhabit all of the world’s oceans, except the Arctic. They can live for 80 years, and play key roles in the ecosystem that is important not only to them and other wildlife, but to humans as well. Sadly, all seven species of sea turtles are on the endangered or critically endangered list.
In the Central American country of El Salvador, many people are trying to change that. EcoExperiencias, a division of Salvadorean Tours, is dedicated to creating sustainable tourism experiences with locally owned businesses, where profits from the tours go directly to supporting rural communities and conservation, including the sea turtles as well as the coastline, rain forests and coffee farms.
Last month I spent two weeks exploring this beautiful country, and had the privilege of experiencing much of it through Salvadorean Tours. The last few days of my time in El Salvador were spent at La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge, on the Pacific Coast very close to the Guatemalan border. The place is quiet, secluded, relaxing and beautiful—and they take sustainability very seriously. It is purposefully small, only six unique and luxurious thatched cottage rooms, built on the “Green Leaf” system: solar energy, biological waste water recycling, environmentally safe cleaning products, ionization pool filtration and recycling of all plastic, paper and glass.
I loved my time there, kayaking the estuary, relaxing by the pool or taking long sunset walks on the beach. But my favorite thing was the baby sea turtle release program.
One of the wildlife projects that La Cocotera sponsors is the Olive Ridley turtles, which nest on the beach in front of the resort. They buy the eggs from locals who would otherwise sell them to be eaten, and instead bury them for hatching, let them grow a little in their tank, and release them in a guest program.
“The locals used to sell the sea turtle eggs for $5 a dozen,” says Rodrigo Moreno of EcoExperiencias. “It was a lack of education, but also—if they don’t sell the eggs, their children starve. When we started the sea turtle liberation program, we educated them so that they started to see nature as an economic asset for them. We replace that income; we pay them $6-7 per hatched sea turtle.”
“We call them tortugeros,” Ricardo said of the local guys who now look after the nesting turtles at night, to make sure they aren’t disturbed. Once the eggs are laid, the tortugeros bring them to certified release sites such as La Cocotera. There, the eggs are allowed to hatch and then the babies are kept for up to three months for guests to release.
With our babies in hand, we walked with Ricardo out to the beach, where he selected the spot where we should release the turtles: about 2-3 meters from the water’s edge.
“That distance is very important,” Ricardo instructed. “That is how they memorize the beach, to come back in 10 years to reproduce themselves.” That amazed me…these tiny baby turtles, in that few-meters crawl to the ocean, basically hard-program an internal GPS system inside themselves, that will allow them to return to this very same spot a decade later, to lay their own eggs.
We carefully laid our turtles down in the sand. One bold guy immediately started scurrying toward the water, while the others seemed more cautious and took their time. Leaving intricate patterns in the sand, the babies made their way past the small waves that pushed them back, and were eventually lost from our sight in the ocean.
Only one in a thousand of these baby turtles will survive to adulthood and reproduce themselves; they are vulnerable to many things including birds and other sea life. But their odds are greatly helped by programs such as these. Without protecting and hatching their eggs, and releasing them back into the ocean, their species would surely not stand a chance.
“When you go on a Salvadorean Tour, you are also helping the people and the ecosystem,” Moreno adds. ”Tourism brings wealth—but where does that wealth go? Just to the big tour companies? No, it needs to be distributed. We found that we can help a lot of people through these programs.”
“El Salvador is still very unknown. Many outsiders even still ask us, How is the war going? With us, you will see the local people, the real face of El Salvador. Through EcoExperiencias, we promote local communities by working with them to lift them out of poverty through sustainable tourism.”
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