Putu came to inform us that a local villager had found a nest of turtle eggs and asked if we would like to help with their sea turtle rescue program by taking the eggs to the local animal shelter. Here they would be kept safe until the turtles hatched and would then be released back into the ocean.
Of course we jumped at the opportunity and hastily grabbed the kids and camera before bundling into the back of the mini van waiting to take us to the beach.
A short bumpy ride late we arrived at the black sand beach that sparkled in the sunlight. Our feet made deep footprints on the soft sand as we walked across the vast volcanic landscape to the tune of thunderous waves.
I was already wondering how a tiny turtle, half the size of my hand, could make such an arduous journey to the sea only to be engulfed by giant waves.
We reached the far corner of the beach where the locals guiding us started to climb up a cliff path and into the jungle beyond. I looked down at my flip flopped feet and my thoughts immediately jumped to the snakes that could be slithering among the tall grass.
Here, close to where the sand gave way to the dirt and foliage of the encroaching jungle there was a stick with a piece of cloth tied to the top, waving at us. This signalled the location of the sea turtle eggs, 40 cm below the soot like surface.
It was now time to await the arrival of the box that would be used to carry the sea turtle eggs back to the animal shelter.
Lee and I sat to watch them for a while until we both suddenly felt uneasy at their proximity to the very rough seas. It must have been a moment of parental “spidey senses” as no sooner had we called them, a large wave chased them up the beach as far as we were sitting. A moment earlier and they would have likely been swept off of their feet.
We marvelled at her strength and agility as she gracefully traversed up and down the over grown cliffside path all while carrying 40K on her head!
Back in the villa I noticed there was a children’s book by The Turtle Foundation which I sat down to read with the kids. This explained that sometimes sea turtle rescue can be confused with a process called ‘head starting’ which can actually do more harm than good to a young turtle.
Head starting is when turtles are hatched in captivity and looked after until they are deemed big enough and strong enough to be released into the wild. Although in most cases well intended head starting can result in disease among the turtles, problems with their lungs, stress and trauma to the turtles who are usually solitary animals and an over dependence on humans for food.
Sea turtle rescue release
My discoveries were confirmed when about a week later another nest was found by a local on the same beach but unfortunately wild dogs had got there first. The villager scared the dogs away and was able to save around a third of the hatchlings.
We were invited to the beach again, to release the remaining sea turtles. The set up this time was very different, there were many more guests from Sahaja Sawah as well as staff and locals.
The waves swept in scattering turtles everywhere and more babies were placed on another line behind people already following their sea turtle heading out to sea. Black, tiny turtles on black sand are not easily seen by excited tourists and their clumsy feet!
Animal tourism is becoming more and more popular under the guise of rescue and rehabilitation. While there are lots of good, genuine and caring organisations out there such as the Sahaja Sawah Foundation, there are also many more who exploit animals to make a quick buck from enthusiastic tourists who don’t look deep enough.
Bali, like most places has both. It is so important to do your research and educate yourself and others about the wider picture (as discussed in our blog post on the Hutsadin Elephant Foundation in Thailand).
This time we were taken to the animal shelter itself which backs onto another part of the beach. There were even more tourists this time and the releasing experience was similar to before. I was more aware of the risks this time and shouted to people to stand still as the tide swept around our feet, but it is hard to calm an excited crowd of first time visitors especially in multiple languages!
I learned later that some other organisations in the more tourist populated regions of Bali have hundreds of people lining up to ‘race’ their sea turtle to the sea. I can’t imagine that is a beneficial to the welfare of the sea turtles.
Sea turtles definitely need our help, six of the worlds seven species are endangered. They are vital to our ecological system and with the survival rate of hatchlings being 1-3 in 1000 anything we can do to increase this should definitely be supported.
In a world where climate change, plastic pollution and mass tourism pose even more threats to sea turtles, even the adult ones, sea turtle rescue is important but education is key. It is vital to make sure any money made from turtle release goes back in to supporting the welfare of turtles and that you don’t support an organisation that is exploiting these creatures under the guise of conservation.
Even well intentioned organisations need to be better organised and equipped. Releasing turtles slowly, maybe in groups of 5-8 at a time with a small group of people would create a calmer experience for both the tourist and the turtle. Perhaps organisations could make more money for their non profit needs by creating a fuller experience with a photographer and certificate to say you have safely released a turtle back into the wild?
It is definitely a fine line. Do I believe the sea turtles on the beaches we visited needed our help? Yes. Do I believe that the Sahaja Sawah Foundation and the local animal rescue centre have the turtles best interests at heart? Absolutely. Do I think the experience could be better for the enjoyment of the tourist and the safety of the turtles? There is always room for improvement.
Have you released sea turtles into the wild? What was your experience? Share your thoughts below, we’d love to hear from you.
The Turtle Foundation: https://www.turtle-foundation.org/
Sahaja Sawah: https://sahajasawahresort.com/