Protecting Sea Turtles and Benefiting Indigenous Peoples
– Content contributed by Karin Nunan. Karin Nunan is on the Advisory Board for GOOD-Travel.org and works as a sustainability consultant in Guyana.
Guyana is an eco-tourist’s dream destination where sustainability is not a tagline, it is a way of life. Every time you leave the capital city of Georgetown, you will find yourself immersed in a unique adventure, sometimes wild and rugged, and at other times simply relaxing and serene.Wildlife far outnumber people and 80 percent of the country is covered in pristine rainforests and remote coastline of which Guyana’s nine Indigenous Nations have been the stewards of for a millennia. The coastal area is home to a majority of the nation’s people yet there are vast expanse that are completely undeveloped with the exception of a handful of coastal communities where people, nature and sea turtles have been living side by side for hundreds of years. Intrepid travellers and wildlife lovers who are seeking to experience some of the planet’s last truly wild places will be naturally drawn to Shell Beach Protected Area.
Almond Beach, A Hidden Gem
Almond Beach is the epicenter and is part of the 75-mile stretch of beach and mudflats referred to as Shell Beach. This is the nesting ground for four of the world’s eight endangered species of marine turtles. From March through to August of each year, leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley sea turtles can be found on this two kilometer stretch of coast. Fortunately, all four of these species are protected in Guyana by the Fisheries Act of 2002 and Protected Areas Act of 2011. In addition to the sea turtle species, there is an unheralded variety of biodiversity species in the protected area, including jaguars, sloths, harpy eagles, and red ibis.
The Guyana Protected Areas Commission declared Shell Beach a Protected Area in 2011. Since that time, rangers have been dutifully caring for the conservation and protection of the area’s unique ecosystems in partnership with the Guyana Marine Conservation Society and local indigenous communities.
The journey is an adventure in and of itself
While it can feel near impossible to get to Shell Beach, just a stone’s throw from the Venezuelan border, the journey is as memorable as the beach itself. Once receiving a government-issued permit, one must travel 12 hours in a series of speed boats up the Atlantic coast and then through the nation’s river systems, including the infamous 99 turns (which is as perilous and stomach-turning as it sounds). The journey traverses through pristine mangroves and skirts along the Pomeroon river that is sometimes tidally influenced, which means prior planning and expert boat captains are critical. Once you arrive there, you would easily notice the thousands of small pieces of broken shells covering the spectacular beach, hence its name. If you’re interested in customizing a trip to this unique stretch of land, Wilderness Explorers and Adventure Guianas are two local tour operators that make it possible for travellers to experience amazing wildlife adventures to Shell Beach. You can get in contact with these tour operators right here on our website.
The most rewarding destinations are often the hardest to get to
Once on Shell Beach, the undulating tides, beach erosion and mangrove growth cycles continue to remind residents and travellers alike that nature has always been … and will continue to be … boss. Families who have resided on the beach for generations physically relocate their homes farther into the interior when erosion cycles are high. The only school in the village also risks falling into the sea and will eventually be relocated again.
The leatherback, green, olive ridley and hawksbill are constantly affected by eroding coast that pushes debris onto the turtle nesting sites. The Protected Areas Commission conversation rangers dutifully patrol the beaches at night to collect data on numbers and types of nests while also protecting hatchlings. They have kept log books for decades, and recent satellite tagging programs allow scientists to track where female turtles venture once they lay their eggs and depart the shores.
However, once on Shell Beach, it is not the rugged terrain and adventure that the beach puts up for offer. Quite the opposite. Once there, contacting the world outside of your immediate view is near impossible – there is no cell phone or satellite coverage and the entertainment day-to-day consists of watching the same palm trees blow to the west and the same muddy waves push more ocean onto the sand. For nature lovers, this is one of the best places in Guyana to experience nature undisturbed. At night, the sky opens up to the most beautiful array of stars and the moon lights the way onto the shore. It is that very light that guides sea turtles to find their way to the same spot where they were born decades before and their ancestors decades before that. Once they nest, the green turtles head to the coasts of Brazil and leatherback turtles, the largest of all turtles, go as far away as Nova Scotia – but always makes it back to Shell Beach for their nesting seasons.
Support conservation during your visit
Despite the clamor of the waves, the cacophony of the birds in the wind (there are over 200 species known to frequent Shell Beach) and the rustling of the palm trees, there is a quiet and calm about Shell Beach which is pervasive. While the government protects and conserves the area by requiring permits for travellers that can be hard to obtain, it also means that if you get the rare chance to travel to this beautiful land, you will have an experience like no other. And if you are even luckier, you may get an opportunity to work as a citizen scientist with the local conservation rangers and communities to learn more about those endangered sea turtles swimming along the shores.
There is no doubt that everyone has something to learn from Guyana’s sea turtles, the nation’s real citizen scientists. Waiting for them to come to shore by the light of the moon and watching them nest, you will be taught a unique lesson about patience, perseverance and peacefulness. Even the most seasoned of travelers are left breathless.
When visiting Almond Beach, all travellers should adhere to best practice. Females like their nesting beaches dark and quiet. Therefore, flash pictures, bright flashlights, loud noises, and even light-colored clothing should be avoided. It is important to maintain a respectful distance in the water and near nesting beaches as well. Of course you should never buy turtle shell or feed sea turtles. Feeding them makes them sick and more vulnerable to harm. Visitors are also encouraged to pack out more than they pack in. That is, try to help clear plastic and other litter when you visit even if it’s not yours, as wildlife often confuse plastic for food.
It is no wonder Shell Beach is heralded across Guyana as a true paradise and Guyana’s Sea Turtles as one of the nation’s most important treasures. You won’t want to miss an opportunity to see these beauties in action. So add this to your travel “life list” and start planning your trip today.
Travel Better in Guyana: Guyana is working hard to conserve its vibrant wildlife and ecosystems and protect its culture and heritage. We realise that it is often difficult to understand how you can support these aims and make a difference when you travel. That’s why we’ve set out to help you by creating Visitor Guidelines For Sustainable Travel. All passionate globetrotters, curious culture seekers and bold adventurers are encouraged to do all they can to leave a positive impact on the people and places you visit in Guyana.