BRIDGETOWN, Barbados -- The turtles appeared out of nowhere, cruising along in 20 feet of water. Powerful and graceful, with colorful shells, they were bigger than I expected — some weighing more than 200 pounds.
We were getting in the water with them. A crew member carried some fish to feed them, and we got a warning: Keep your toes and fingers away from the turtles’ jaws.
Sea turtles have been protected in Barbados since 1998, and there is a $25,000 fine and two-year prison sentence for killing sea turtles. However, turtle snorkels in Barbados are very popular. Tourists don snorkels and masks and from a boat, enter the blue-green water off the southern shore of this very British Caribbean island. We did not wear fins because they could injure the turtles.
We found the turtles charismatic, even though they all but ignored us. “Get out of my way, there’s food here somewhere” seems to be their main message in the water. That meant there were frequent near-collisions and close encounters, but the turtles were unfazed. Keeping our hands and feet out of range of the turtles was a bit trickier than it sounds, as the turtles weave in and out of the mosh pit of swimmers jostling for views. We were told to give the turtles their space, not to chase, grab, harass or ride them.
We could touch the turtles if they swam by very close. Our directions were to touch the shell, but not the head, flippers or the tail, especially on the males. The male turtles, it seems, store their penises in their tails.
Barbados is home to four species of sea turtles: hawksbill, green turtles, loggerheads and leatherbacks. We saw green turtles and hawksbills, a few small ones and several large guys.
The hawksbill turtles are the most common in Barbados and the most colorful. The name comes from its narrow head and a large beak like that of a parrot. The turtles may be seen on the beaches or in the water. Barbados has the second-largest hawksbill breeding population in the Caribbean with an estimated 500 nesting females annually. The hawksbill turtles thrive off the island’s coral reefs. Sponges are a favorite food.
Green turtles are also common in Barbados’ waters, although they nested on the island for the first time in 2005. They are the species most frequently found on turtle-feeding trips on the island’s west coast. They dine largely on sea grass as adults and are named for the color of their fat, not their shells.
The turtles’ numbers have dropped because of overfishing. They are closely monitored by the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, which was started in 1987 by the government and the University of the West Indies. Turtles have been tagged to better study their movements.