How do Sea Turtle programs work?

Turtle Release, Koh Tao, 2007

A Volunteer at the New Heaven Dive School helps to clean and disinfect a wounded juvenile turtle before release- Koh Tao, Thailand 2007.



There are many different types of sea turtle protection and nursery programs around the world working to help bring back declining populations. Although sea turtles are very ancient animals, evolving at the same time as the dinosaurs, currently all 7 species of sea turtles in the world are listed as ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened.’ There was a time when sea turtles were very abundant in the earth’s oceans, with early explorers telling stories of there being ‘so many that you could walk on their backs between islands, and never get your shoes wet.’ Ok, so that probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact is that globally sea turtles are highly threatened, with populations declining up to 98% in some countries such as Malaysia.


With such an important and widely loved species such as sea turtles, there are many people around the world trying to not only protect this animal, but also actively trying to restore populations through different programs. Different communities and management groups will choice to address the problems of their specific location and threats, meaning that what works in some areas may not work in others. Here we provide you with information about some of the programs focusing on different life stages of the sea turtles, and also address some of the problems or criticisms of those programs.



Egg Clutch Protection


Turtle Egg relocation

Members of the Thai Navy relocate a clutch of turtle eggs after determining the chances of survival if left in place would be low due to theft.

In some areas, sea turtles still come to lay eggs every 1-2 years either individually or in groups. Unfortunately, eggs are often stolen by people for food or sale on the black market, or dug up by domesticated dogs and other animals. In these areas, the simplest way to restore sea turtle populations is to protect the eggs until they hatch. Fences, lights, or posted guards have been used to protect the nests of eggs (called a Clutch) for the 60-70 day incubation period. Once the eggs begin to hatch, the fences are removed and the sea turtles can run down to the sea and, if all goes well, live out the rest of their life naturally.
In some cases it is not possible to protect the eggs in place, and groups will dig up the clutch and transfer the eggs to a Styrofoam box for incubation in a protected environment. This is only advised in extreme cases where protection of the eggs in place is not possible, as often it can led to a batch of either all male, or all female turtles. Sea Turtles, like many other reptiles, use temperature to determine the sex of offspring; eggs growing in warmer conditions (the center of the clutch) tend to be female, and eggs in cooler conditions (the sides of the clutch) tend to be male. In artificial conditions all the eggs will be the same temperature, and the sex-ratio dynamics of the populations can be disrupted.



Head-Starting Programs


Sea turtle nursery

A 1 year old Green sea turtle in the nursery ponds at New Heaven, just prior to release, 2012.

Sea Turtles hatch into a very dangerous environment. Awaiting the hatchlings are a wide range of predators such as birds, crabs, lizards, and dogs that will try to eat them before they can get to the sea. But even for those slightly faster or luckier young turtles that reach the sea there is no respite. The coral reefs near the beaches are full of predatory sharks, groupers, octopus, and other animals looking for a meal. Through a very effective but heartless process of natural selection, only the strongest sea turtles survive. Naturally, if about 1,000 eggs hatch, only 1 sea turtle makes it to be 1 year old. But, most turtles that make it to be one year old, generally make it to be 60-80 years old.
Head-starting programs focus on raising hatchlings through their first year, with the idea that by the time they are released they will be large enough to avoid predation and survive to sexual maturity. Instead of 1 in 1,000 turtles surviving, the numbers can be increased to almost 100%. If the turtles are well cared for and fed a nutritious diet, than head-started sea turtles perform and survive as well as their natural counterparts, hopefully yielding rapid population growth.
Head-starting program however are not carried out in all locations due to some criticisms of the technique. Many people think that sea turtles raised in artificial conditions will lack the instinct and intuition to survive as adults. This has been true in many cases where the turtles are raised in big, sterile pools for their first year. But this is not a program with the theory of head-starting, but merely the methods of some unscientific programs. If care is taken to ensure simulated natural conditions and factors than great success can be achieved. We have personally developed some of these techniques, as you can read about in our report on our sea turtles nursery pilot project.


Volunteers sea turtle program

Volunteers look after baby Hawksbill Turtles in a nursery at New Heaven, Koh Tao, 2012.

The other leading criticism of the program is that it is merely adding more juveniles into an environment which their parents have already been shown not to be able to survive in. Turtles are dying because of human related causes including marine debris and pollution, fishing, and habitat destruction. If we want to save turtles we need to focus on these root problems, were sea turtle restoration program focus on the symptoms. Some researchers equate this with ‘putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.’ While we agree that we need to focus on the root problems, we are restrained in our expectations to solving these global problems on any reasonable time scale. Like with AIDs to other incurable diseases, sometimes we can only treat the symptoms while working hard on researching better solutions for the problems.


Sea Turtle programs are becoming more scientifically based and also more effective, but at the end of the day they cannot be entirely successful unless major changes are made in the health of our oceans. Some species of sea turtles, like the Leatherback, have been on the endangered species list since the early 1970’s, with still no major advancements in their preservation nor stabilization of their populations. There are lots of ways that you can help out with these programs, including joining a sea turtle program, donating money, volunteering time, spreading awareness, avoiding eating seafood, or reducing your production of trash that can end up as marine debris. Humans have an amazing capacity to bring chaos to our earth’s ecosystems, but we also have unlimited potential in the ways we can improve our planet. Many people have already joined the effort, we hope you will too.


Sea Turtle Release

Volunteers participate in a sea turtle release in 2013, Chalok Ban Kao, Koh Tao