By: Katie Thompson
Cayo Largo is a tourism hot spot off the southern coast of Cuba. The white sand beaches and turquoise waters draw international visitors from primarily Italy and Canada looking for a sand-and-sun vacation. These visitors however typically don’t know that Cayo Largo is also the most important sea turtle nesting site in Cuba.
Cayo Largo receives an average of 2,000 green and loggerhead nests per year on approximately 15 km of beach. Cuba's Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras (CIP) had monitored turtles in Cayo Largo since the 1970's as part of national fisheries management efforts, giving scientists the first understanding of nesting sea turtles in the region. Lining the coast of the key are five all-inclusive hotels operating within walking distance of regular active nesting monitoring and the tourists (in general) have no idea! While there is a rescue center that organizes the public release of hatchlings from nests laid in areas threatened by tourism, there is no ethic to encourage tourism that offers unique views of these creatures. We believe there is real potential in Cayo Largo to study the nesting sea turtles while educating tourists, which is why CubaMar and its Cuban partners started a project in Cayo Largo to do exactly that.
This project initiated when sea turtle scientists from Cuba and the U.S. gathered for the 5th International Workshop on Cuban Sea Turtle Research and Conservation in Cayo Largo in August of 2017. The objective of our workshop was to conceive a plan to restore regular research efforts during the nesting season, organize satellite tracking efforts on the island, and develop a permanent sea turtle rehabilitation program in Cuba to address turtles adversely impacted by incidental bycatch, disease, and turtle strandings.
The consensus at this workshop was to secure funding to support research trips to Cayo Largo, whereby Cuban scientists would patrol beaches and collect nesting and hatchling data. The first of these research expedition happened last November thanks to funding from Lush Cosmetics.
The expedition to Cayo Largo was led by our partner and director of the Guanahacabibes Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Project, Dr. Julia Azanza, to document last year’s sea turtle nesting activity on the key. Dr. Azanza and her group of eight sea turtle scientists walked seven beaches looking for sea turtle tracks and evidence of nests. They documented 1,454 nests in total, which is actually below average for Cayo Largo. Of these nests, 1,247 were green turtle nests and 207 were loggerhead. The scientists analyzed 51 of those nests by digging them up to see how many of the turtles actually hatched and found that the hatching and emergence success rate was 74%, which is lower than seen on other Cuban nesting beaches.* The research team believes the lower success rate is due to the flooding from Tropical Storm Michael that passed over Cuba in October. One interesting find was a nest with many albino embryos.
This research expedition helps us understand a little more about the sea turtle nesting occurring in Cayo Largo. It is only the beginning of our project to study Cuba’s largest sea turtle nesting population and we look further to future research trips and to creating a long-term monitoring and education program. Great job, team!
Thanks to support from Lush Cosmetics and Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation for making this project possible.
*Azanza Ricardo, J., Medina Cruz, Y., Forneiro Martín-Viaña, Y., Nodarse Andreu, G., García Alfonso, E., Calderón Peña, R., Betancourt Ávila, R., Pérez Alarcón, A. y Fernández Alvarez, J.C. 2018. Trabajo con tortugas marinas en Cayo Largo. Informe Final. 4pp.
Pictures from the November 2018 expedition:
Read more about CubaMar's sea turtle work.