We piled into Kurt’s car. I say car, and I know I have ribbed him about it many times, but his Kawasaki Mule was more of a golf cart. It was the perfect size for Bequia’s little winding concrete roads, but it coped badly with the numerous hills, and it took a little time to get up to his house in Mount Pleasant.
The Mule and Kurt’s House
His mother and her daughter lived in the house above, Kurt had a den next to the huge cistern on the lower floor. Water is such a precious commodity in most Caribbean Islands, particularly the small drier ones, that it is essential to capture every last drop. It is a legal requirement in building regulations to include a suitably sized cistern in every house, fed by pipes from roof gutters. Even so, long drought periods can dry out the tanks, and those vats of water I had seen on the Barracouda have to transport expensive supplies. That day a large thunderstorm brew over Mustique to the east and headed our way, but it missed the island by half a mile and went on to dump its load over St Vincent. Kurt told me that so many times the clouds gather only to dissipate before relieving Bequias shortages.
W End of Bequia
Bequia is cute. A population of barely five thousand, most packed around Admiralty Bay, the houses are a normal size, but it all looks cut down to scale. The roads are narrow, the vehicles move at a slower pace, indeed the whole life of the island seems laid back even by Caribbean terms. It’s a perfect example of how a Caribbean Island should be, but even here the development and water issues are special challenges to this little piece of paradise. As for me, I was scared to go back to Kingstown at the end of the day, as the big city seemed too much for me.
E Side of Bequia
We drove through the centre of the island, a dark forested area, and down past the little bays of the north east side of the island. At the east end the shrubby vegetation all but gives out and you are left with a pockmarked crumbling volcanic rock that falls once more into the bounding ocean. Back a way, Kurt allowed me to drop in on Mr King, who single handedly had reared thousands of turtles from eggs collected from beaches across the Grenadines.
In an open sided wooden shack, he kept a series of concrete tanks, a load of plastic ones and buckets and containers of all sorts of other sizes, packed full of turtles. It was the first time I got close up to hawksbills and greens. He graded the turtles by age and size in the different tanks. In the plastic tanks there were hundreds of little dark green turtles, all scurrying around for some space. He pumped salt water through to keep it fresh, but even so it looked crowded.
Brother King’s Turtles
I went past some bigger tanks, and watched a few larger hawksbills, ready to be released, follow me round the edge expecting to be fed. In another tank four or five hawksbills of a smaller size swam around. They occasionally went up on each other’s backs, bit each other here and there. I could see occasional algal growths on their back. But generally they appeared healthy and vital. Brother King, who had lived in Bequia for many years, had been amongst the many people who had realised that turtles were on the decline. Years back, every Caribbean island had thousands living in amongst the seagrass beds and coral reefs. Hoards of females would come up on every beach each season and lay hundreds of eggs each, and despite the huge natural gorging of lizards, seabirds and sea creatures, a small percentage survived, and a small percentage of millions of eggs is still a lot. Locals fished them by hundreds, ate their eggs and flesh and made the shells into all sorts of useful items, combs, buckles, crockery. A turtle shell is like a plate of stained glass, in ordinary light it appears dull and slightly patterned, but shine light straight through it and a myriad of patterns shoot back at
you, dappled, striped, contoured or patchy, there are a million designs. The jewellery trade became interested in this and the items became prized. The offtake grew and gradually the natural replenishment of the population was curtailed. Even in the 1950’s and 60’s I have heard of local West Indians being able to catch great Green Turtles offshore with ease. Now in many areas they are struggling to find one or two hawksbills.
Not only the trade in turtles or becoming the local food, but also the pace of coastline development has curbed the turtles’ distribution. Female turtles love quiet sandy beaches, but with the tourist trade these are becoming few and far between, the turtles are turned away from beach front lights, and if they do nest there, the hatchlings often become disorientated by any lights and head inland instead of towards the relative safety of the sea.
Efforts are widespread both to increase the protection of turtles and to understand their mysterious lives. Nesting sites are being monitored, egg stealing is a crime, and the trade in shells has ceased under the CITES agreement. More importantly, the life cycle of the turtle is gradually being understood. Until recently, people only interacted with turtles when they came up to lay or when they came across the older turtles in the coastal waters. No-one really knew what happened to the hatchlings or youngsters, no-one knew whether the turtles only laid once a year or more. The myth was the same beach was used by a female year in year out. No-one knew whether the populations of turtles in different parts of the Caribbean were all part of the same family strain, or whether they were discrete. Gradually, international collaboration in science is piecing the story together. Using tagging, we can see where turtles go, the little internationally coordinated metal tags have a contact in Barbados to whom you can write if you see a turtle. The tags are good, but some turtles are adept at rubbing barnacles off their backs and would treat a tag in the same way. Microchips are now put in the necks of some turtles, which cannot be rubbed off and can be picked up by a scanning instrument. Genetic samples are now being taken to see what the similarities in the DNA are between populations in the west and east Caribbean.
Turtles emote great sentiment amongst people and the groundswell of support amongst American and Europeans has been incredible. Many tourists visit the Caribbean and give thousands of dollars to the save the turtle campaigns. Local populations have different priorities, but even where turtle is still seen as a vital food, the need to conserve that supply is appreciated, and conservationists have made a good deal of headway in persuading local populations to help understand these wonderful creatures. They also use them as conduits to get the general public interested in other (and possibly more important) environmental issues such as beach development, underwater habitat conservation, pollution control and fisheries practices.
In amongst all this is Brother King, who has taken it upon himself to save the turtles of the Grenadines, but, as Kurt spelled out to me later, his methods are rather suspect. Firstly should he really be digging up all the nests and moving the eggs? He would say a far higher proportion survive raised in captivity than left to the vagaries of beach life. Second, what affect does having them live so closely together have on the turtles? Most turtles seem to live quite solitary lives, and the behaviour in the tanks, such as the clambering on each other and biting, is sad to see. The densely populated tanks, no matter how much sea water you pump through, allows breeding of disease and the growth of algae, which was only too readily visible.
Kurt was even more worried about what happened once he released the half grown turtles. He would not necessarily release them at the beach they were laid on. Nobody really knew whether there was any tie for the beast to a particular location, and whether some disorientation could occur from being put into water miles from home. And no-one really knew what sort of life they would be able to lead once put into the wide ocean after months of confinement and congregation. And what affect on the wild populations would his release have in that bay? He tended to release around Bequia and down to Savan Island but was planning at the time to go to Petit Bateau in the Tobago Cays to do a release. Kurt was really interested in that. He was the warden of the Tobago Cays Marine Protected Area and would want him arrested if he dabbled in the biology of that area!
For all Kurt’s qualms, and my own, there was a level of conviction and devotion in his work that was commendable in Orton King. At least he was trying to do something, you might say. You might also say, if only that energy could be put into collaboration with the more scientific methods at saving the turtles, the mutual benefits would be so much greater.