You could say that turtles were the original tourists to Puerto Rico (and much of the Caribbean). Hawksbill, Leatherback, and Green Sea Turtles are often found on the beaches of mainland Puerto Rico and its outlying islands (generally from February to August), and the locals take great care to protect their reptilian friends. Conservation efforts strive to provide turtles with safe nesting grounds, clear of all sign of human activity (a mere footprint, for example, could prove fatal to hatchlings trying to make it from shore to sea).
There are three turtle species that particularly enjoy visiting Puerto Rico. The Leatherback, the largest of all living turtles, can grow up to seven feet long and can exceed a whopping 2,000 pounds. They require dark, quiet nesting grounds, and tend to favor the beaches of Culebra, particularly the relatively isolated Zoni, Resaca and Brava beaches. Green Sea Turtles are also a common sight in Culebra. The smaller hawksbill turtle averages 100-150 pounds and 25-35 inches in length. Noted for its multi-colored shells (dark brown with streaks of red, orange and black) this turtle has a permanent sanctuary in Mona Island, off the island's west coast. You can also find all three species nesting on mainland beaches. A good place to spot them is along the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a stretch of Atlantic coastline that runs from Luquillo to Fajardo and includes several terrific resorts. Since sea turtles return to the same beach where they were born to nest, repeat visits are commonplace; the problem, of course, is that those same beaches are also popular with human tourists.
Puerto Rico's Department of Natural Resources leads conservation efforts on the island, but as far as I know, there is no coordinated program on the island for those interested in turtle-watching in an eco-friendly and responsible manner. However, there are a few hotels that invite guests to join them for a special outing during nesting season:
- Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa: Beginning in 2013, the Wyndham has partnered with the Department of Natural Resources to lead guests to the lovely stretch of beach on their property, where Hawksbill, Leather, and Green sea turtles lay their eggs or witness the hatching of baby turtles.
- The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort: The 483 acres of nature reserve at the St. Regis include a pristine stretch of beachfront. Guests at the hotel have the chance to "guardian" the Leatherback Turtles nesting here. You can learn more at the hotel's Nature Center, which has an on-site marine biologist. In fact, the conservation efforts here have led the St. Regis to be recognized as the Caribbean’s first and only Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Sanctuary resort.
- Mamacitas: Check with the staff at Mamacitas about volunteer efforts to assist the Department of Natural Resources identify and help nesting turtles (typically April to early June). Volunteers meet at happy landings at 5pm and travel to the beach for a night of turtle watching.
I've helped return a leatherback sea turtle to the ocean, but I've never been able to see one nesting. It must be an incredible sight to watch these gentle behemoths crawl along the shore until she finds a spot she likes and begin digging. When the nest is complete, she begins to lay her eggs, and volunteers can then gather close around her. The eggs are counted and the nesting mother is measured before she returns to the water, after covering up her tracks to the nest.
Turtles have a long history in Puerto Rico, and I urge any of you who are interested in turtle watching to do so in an eco-friendly way that leaves as small a footprint as possible. The best way to do so is to work with the Department of Natural Resources or check in at one of these hotels!