Lesley Anne Rose

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one turtle at a time

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

Sea turtles have been swimming the world’s oceans since dinosaurs walked the land. Now all seven species of these ancient and enduring creatures are endangered, some critically. As threats to their survival increase – such as pollution, poaching, fishing, and coastal development – so turtle numbers have decreased by an alarming ninety per cent over the past decade.

The vast distances turtles migrate complicate their conservation at an international level. Leatherbacks, for example, swim the waters of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the British Isles. However, attempts to save them at a local level are increasing, and visitors to the Grenadine islands in the southern Caribbean have several opportunities to witness and participate in their conservation at a grassroots level.

Although they spend vast amounts of time in water, the behaviour of turtles while at sea is the least understood of all marine animals. Capable of great longevity, turtles are in no hurry to reproduce. When, after many years of floating in the sea, a female does come ashore to nest, each egg she lays has a one-in-a-thousand chance of reaching maturity.

Old Hegg  turtle sanctuary on Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine islands, works to increase these odds by helping the hatchlings through their early vulnerable years. Situated on the stunning Park Beach on the north east coast of Bequia, Old Hegg was founded in 1995 by Orton “Brother” King, a retired professional skin diver, whose dedication and passion over the years has saved the lives of countless hawksbill turtles – distinguished by their beak-like mouths.

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

Turtles usually nest at night, laying around a hundred eggs at a time. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers and many more destroyed by eroding sand. Those that do survive take 50 to 70 days to hatch. Baby turtles always emerge at night when there are less predators around and, guided by the light of the moon, they head for the sea.

It is at this critical point that Old Hegg staff step in to carefully collect the hatchlings as they emerge. They will then feed and protect them at the sanctuary for three years before releasing them into sea, by which time their chances of survival are significantly increased. Year round, visitors to Old Hegg can see around two hundred turtles of various sizes and ages at any one time. Visit during the winter and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see big bowls filled with recent hatchlings – so tiny they fit into the palm of your hand.

Even if a turtle reaches maturity, its struggle for survival is far from over. Kido Ecological Research Station, on the north west coast of Carriacou – a Grenadine that forms part of the nation of Grenada – works with schools, local communities, and visitors to conserve turtles of all ages in this region.

From March to September, visitors and Kido volunteers patrol Carriacou’s beaches at night to measure and tag female turtles, conceal and mark their nests, and simply watch these amazing creatures while they are out of the sea.

Kido’s commitment to protecting turtles does not end there. They save countless from the cooking pot by buying them at local markets. After tagging, the saved turtles they are released back into the ocean, with the understanding of local fisherman that if caught again they will be recorded and released.

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

The work of organisations such as Kido and Old Hegg is helping to stabilise turtle populations. Visiting Bequia and Carriacou and getting up close to these ancient creatures, whether they are nesting or resting, is a rewarding and fascinating experience. And each visit, through support and the injection of tourist money, contributes and supports local efforts to create a future for sea turtles, rather than condemning them to follow the dinosaurs into extinction.

A version of this article was first published in Caribbean Beat  in 2006

There are a number of ways to help save sea turtles:

  • Don’t buy products made from turtle shells.
  • Avoid eating dishes containing turtle meat or buying it.
  • When visiting beaches where turtles nest, walk close to the sea to prevent the sand above their nests from compacting and making it hard for new born baby turtles to dig their way out.
  • Turtles mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and try to eat them, don’t throw any into the sea or leave them on the beach.
  • If you come across a turtle while it’s nesting, don’t approach it.  Keep a distance of 15 metres and don’t shine any bright lights at it.  If disturbed or disorientated the female will return to the sea before she has laid and dump all of her eggs into the ocean.
    The seven species of sea turtle are:

  • Loggerhead
  • Green
  • Hawksbill
  • Kemp Ridley
  • Olive Ridley
  • Flatback
  • Leatherback

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Barney’s Beer, Edinburgh

Barney's Beers

Barney’s Beers

Barney’s Beer, Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL
0751 225 3660

Proud to be Edinburgh’s only microbrewery, Barney’s brews a range of classic beers alongside the odd special.

Barney’s started brewing at Summerhall in July 2012 in time to supply the venue’s Royal Dick Bar for the Fringe, but Barney himself began brewing aged 16 as a brewery apprentice. After bagging a first class degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University and packing in a high flying career promoting rum and whisky around the world, Barney decided it was high time he started to brew his own beer.

In doing so, his immaculate microbrewery has injected new life into Edinburgh’s brewing history, not least because he’s chosen to resurrect a brewery at Summerhall where beer has been brewed off and on for three centuries. Barney’s regularly brewed beers feature Good Ordinary Pale Ale, Red Rye and Volcano IPA, while more occasional beers include Capital Porter and Beet Red Beer.  If you fancy a tipple, Barney’s Beer can be sampled in some of Edinburgh finest pubs including the Royal Dick Bar at Summerhall, The Roseleaf, Brass-Monkey and The Reverie, or you can pick up a bottle or two from some of the city’s best off licences such as Provenance Beer & Wine, Great Grog and Henderson Wines.

Barney's Brewery

Barney’s Brewery

Beer and history lovers alike will enjoy a peek behind the brewery doors on a brewery tour, where Barney reveals how he makes his beers and shares his extensive knowledge of  the city’s, and the wider world’s, rich brewing history. Group tours can be booked directly through Barney himself, while individuals can visit Barney’s and discover more about Edinburgh’s brewing heritage on an Edinburgh Beer Tour, which run weekdays from 2pm-4.30pm and cost £20 per person. www.edinburghbeertour.com  tel 07756 960 740.

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The Everglades: Eco-Tourism or Bust

Sign: Big Cypress National Preserve

Sign: Big Cypress National Preserve

I’d made the mistake of not booking accommodation ahead of time. It was 9pm and the Everglades were getting dark fast. Motel after motel turned me away and the prospect of spending the night in my car was becoming increasingly likely.  Finally, in the middle of Everglades City, I stumbled across the Captain’s Table, which miraculously had a room. Minutes later I was swimming in the motel pool beneath a sky crowded with stars, only a wooden boardwalk separated me from the nocturnal noises of the sweaty glades.  I knew I’d found someplace special.

This was my introduction to the enigma of the Everglades: human habitation precariously balanced on the edge of nature. Occasionally the later takes charge, such as the direct hit taken by Everglades City from Hurricane Donna in 1960, which wiped out many of the town’s buildings and its entire infrastructure.  However, as I discovered during my stay, when it comes to long term destruction, human hands are causing far more damage.

Barely twelve hours after my night swim, I was pulling on water shoes and preparing to trek through Big Cypress National Preserve.  The preserve was created in 1974 and is one of the large parks at the southern end of Florida, which links into the area known generically as the ‘Everglades’.  Located between Miami and Naples north of Hwy-41, its 729,000 acres act as a watershed to protect southern Florida’s other large conservation area – Everglades National Park. Hugging the tip of the state, Everglades National Park contains more than 1.5 million acres of complex natural habitats, half of which is water.

Underpinned by oolitic limestone, the Everglades is North America’s largest remaining subtropical wilderness, and as such is often misleadingly referred to as merely a swamp.  In fact, at the heart of the Everglades is a fifty-mile wide, freshwater river fed by Lake Okeechobee, fifty miles to the north.  The term ‘Everglades’ refers to the miles of partially submerged sawgrass – the most visible feature of the habit whose unrelenting flatness stretches to the horizon and beyond, drowning the land with limitless sky.

Before human intervention this whole area, lake to sea, was one unified environment, its vitality controlled by the ebbs and flows of the waters that feed it.  Although vastly reduced, a large expanse of surrounding land is still soaked by this river’s overflow which creates a jigsaw of habitats including mangrove waterways, sawgrass marshland and tree islands, all of which lean, very gently, towards the sea.

'elbows' in Big Cypress

‘elbows’ in Big Cypress

The ‘Glades’ are as vulnerable as they are beautiful and one of the best ways to discover them is on foot – preferably with a guide whose knows the dangers as well as the delights.  Entering from the edge of Hwy-41 near Big Cypress Gallery, I ventured into a cypress swamp. Cypress are Florida’s most flood tolerant trees and this dense area was crammed with all shapes and sizes draped with Spanish moss and decorated with native orchids and bromeliads. Short stubby roots called ‘elbows’ crowd the ground, while above low branches merge together to form a rich green canopy which fragmented the harsh morning sunlight. This fertile habitat teamed with wildlife from muscular gators to fragile insects. Far from silent, the air was filled with the hammering of woodpeckers and the cries of short-tailed hawks. It was February, dry season, and the ground was spongy, if it was summer I’d have been waist deep in water.

Human invasion of this intricate environment followed the completion of Hwy-41 in 1928, as loggers, oil riggers and land speculators all descended onto the Everglades with their own individual brands of economic exploitation.  Wildlife has suffered ever since. Although I’d passed many road signs asking motorists to watch out for panthers, the truth is you’d be extremely lucky to see one. In the late 1800s, as Miami was developing, Florida panthers were considered a threat and hunted to near extinction.  Estimates claim around 30 remain alive in Big Cypress, inbred and dying of chemical poisoning. Another species bearing the brunt of human expansion is the West Indian manatee.  Although not hunted, the manatee is as endangered as the panther – a third of their deaths are related to human causes such as pollution and collisions with boats.

Like most tourists I’d planned to take an airboat ride into the aptly named ‘river of grass’.  It hadn’t occurred to me that these trips are also part of the environmental problem, as many boat operators are more concerned with profit than preservation.  Although most pollution in the Everglades is a result of agricultural and industrial waste, airboats also leak oil and gas into the river.  Their constant use of the same routes leaves scars in the environment, and their attempts to ensure wildlife sightings can be downright alarming – some operators even provide passengers with marshmallows to feed alligators, an illegal strategy in the park as it causes the animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become aggressive. In the hands of responsible operators, such as the National Park rangers, airboats are not a problem, but more environmentally friendly options, such as kayak or canoe tours are readily available.

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

After leaving Big Cypress, I travelled east to Florida City on the southern outskirts of Miami.  Here the landscape changes from green glades to parched farmland and I began to realise that water, or rather the surprising lack of it, is a problem in the region.

For years water has been systematically siphoned away from the Everglades, through an elaborate system of canals, to urban areas.  The sobering truth is that if the Everglades continue losing freshwater, and the sea invades, the small aquatic organisms that anchor the food chain will not survive and the whole complex habitat will die.

And so the one of the great conundrums of travel writing stared me in the face.  In this fragile, complex environment, it’s clear that tourism can play a direct role in its destruction.  But, it can also play an important part in its preservation.  By exposing visitors to the beauty of the Everglades, a larger coalition can be built to save them.  It’s a difficult balance to strike, but every year an increasing number of tourists leave inspired by the area and more sympathetic towards environmental campaigns and government initiatives to save this and other endangered habitats.  A naïve dream perhaps, but one thing is clear, unless we all tread lightly in the Everglades, they won’t remain glades forever.

© Lesley Anne Rose. A version of this article was previously published in Rough Guides’ Rough News.