One balmy Balinese morning as Lee and I sat on the porch of our villa gazing across the infinity pool and the far reaching rice and corn fields, Putu, one of the staff at the Sahaja Sawah Resort interrupted our reverie, with good reason.

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.

Black sand beaches of Bali

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.

Walking across the black sand beaches of Bali to a sea turtle nest
As the villagers forged on (also in flip flops) there was little room for my fears, rational as they may have been. After a short and thankfully snake-free walk we emerged onto another deserted beach.

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.

Waiting game

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.

Johnson family on a deserted black sand beach in Bali
The kids looked in the rock pools and danced with the spray of the waves as we waited.

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.

playing in the sea spray on a black sand beach in Bali
The incoming tide began to threaten both our safety and the fate of the turtle eggs, then the anticipated box arrived. The villagers swiftly dug down to the eggs with their hands, filled the box with a layer of sand and began to transplant the eggs.
Finding a sea turtle egg nest
Sea turtle eggs need to be placed in exactly the same position that they are found in, in order to hatch. The villagers expertly placed the eggs and invited Lee and I to do the same. We only moved 1 or 2 eggs each, concerned that our clumsy novice hands and the fragility of the eggs did not make a good combination. 96 eggs were found in total of which around 60%, on average, are expected to hatch.
Another sprinkling of sand was layered over the eggs, then one of the ladies picked up the box, placed it on her head and proceeded to walk back along the path we had previously travelled.

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!

Local Bali villager carrying a box of sea turtle eggs on her head
Once at the roadside the sea turtles were moved to another basket and taken by motorbike to the sea turtle rescue facility. We headed back to the resort, elated by our morning adventure and ready for breakfast.

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.

returning sea turtle eggs to the rescue centre
I was eager to understand more and investigated the need for sea turtle rescue in the area. I soon learned there are many hazards facing the already endangered sea turtle.  ATV beach tours often damage the eggs as the vehicles unknowingly drive over the nests. Wild dogs, of which there are many in Bali, dig up the eggs to feast upon. Illegal poachers still take turtle eggs and adults even though catching, possessing or eating the animals was banned in 1999.  In addition rising tides, beach erosion, birds of prey and plastic pollution all pose a threat to the perilous habitat of the sea turtles.

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.

Two children holding baby sea turtles
A line was drawn in the sand and we were encouraged to choose a name for our turtle and place him/her on the start line close to the water’s edge. This started well as the babies made their way to the shallows but soon turned into chaos.

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!

A baby turtle against black sand
We left feeling a little overwhelmed by the situation. Does sea turtle rescue do more harm than good? Do they really need our help?

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).

The next day we were invited again to another release of another sea turtle  nest that had been found some weeks before. Our initial thoughts were to decline the offer but part of me felt compelled to see the process again to see if things were any different and give the kids this rare experience again.

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.

Final thoughts

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:

Sahaja Sawah:


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