Wed | Nov 29, 2023

Hawksbill turtles released to mark Tourism Awareness Week

Published:Wednesday | September 27, 2023 | 12:09 AM

ALREADY A major player in the preservation of marine life in the White River Bay area of St Ann-St Mary, through its annual Swim for the Sanctuary annual fundraiser for the White River Fish Sanctuary, Jamaica Inn started its celebration of Tourism Awareness Week earlier than expected with the safe release of 127 hawksbill turtle hatchlings at the resort last Saturday.

“We really wanted it to coincide with Monday’s start of Tourism Awareness Week but Mother Nature came calling early,” said Kyle Mais, director, Jamaica Inn Foundation, joined by curious students, parents and teachers from three schools – Columbus Preparatory, Mar-Jam Preparatory and Fern Grove Basic.

Enthralled by Jamaica Inn’s ‘Turtle Whisperer’, Water Sports Manager Ovan Coombs, the excited children hung on to his every word as he detailed tracking the turtles’ coming ashore to nest and lay eggs, which he afterwards ‘babysits’ through hatching and safe release at the time of day when their sea predators are in deeper waters trying to evade daytime heating.


After the children watched the turtle hatchlings make a dash for the sea, amid his warnings not to move as they become surrounded by the tiny creatures, Coombs shared his story of how he became known as Jamaica Inn’s ‘Turtle Whisperer’.

“I have been doing this for seven years, monitoring the laying, hatching and release of the hawksbill species of turtles,” said Coombs, recounting that he first became enthused when he started working at Jamaica Inn in 2016 after watching a retired St Mary resident, Melville Tennant, go through the routine of tracking nests and caring for turtle eggs to the point of releasing hatchlings.

After overseeing the hatchlings’ release, Coombs told the children how the hawksbill’s “delicacy”, jellyfish, also leads to the demise of the species, which has an Encylopedia of Life conservation status of being “critically endangered”.

Coombs encouraged the children to properly dispose of clear plastic, which is mistaken for jellyfish by the turtles who die after trying to eat especially plastic bags washed out to sea.

“Clear plastic bags mimic the jellyfish’s movement in the water, so get those clear plastics to a proper dumpster,” he warned, adding that the hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys imbricate, was named for their beaks that they use to help crunch corals, which also rank among their favourite foods.

Sadly, man remains the biggest predator to the hawksbill species, which is said to have a hatchling-survival rate of one in 1,000, especially if they are not assisted to open water after hatching.

“Poachers hunt live turtles as well as their eggs,” Coombs explained, pointing out that locals deem the eggs to have aphrodisiac qualities whereas “the meat is an exotic dish for some nationalities”.

“I have even been offered money, good money, for eggs,” he added.

However, having successfully protected more than 50 nests so far this mating-hatching season, ensuring laying spots are marked and on high ground, away from water, as well as deep enough to cushion misplaced steps, Coombs figures he has released at least 2,500 hatchlings so far, with almost a half from Jamaica Inn’s stretch of beach.