My team recently went on an investigation trip to the Grenadine island of Bequia. While we were there we explored a number of areas that were relevant to our social and environmental interests. One of these places was the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. We had heard that the living conditions for the turtles at the sanctuary might be questionable. We decided to check it out and develop our own conclusions about the establishment’s legitimacy.
We drove all the way out to the Atlantic side of the island to visit the Turtle Sanctuary. This was an expensive cab right ($100 EC). We sort of already knew what to expect about the conditions of the sanctuary. These suspicions were indeed confirmed. We discovered the sanctuary is a privately owned, for-profit establishment. We, very regrettably, paid $60 EC for the 4 of us to enter. Inside we found a number of shallow concrete pools full of nothing but water and sea turtles.
The turtles are kept in shallow cement pools.
The sanctuary guide told us a story about how the sanctuary came to fruition. The owner’s father, who was in a shipwreck, was rescued by a fisherman who thought that the man was a flailing sea turtle. This inspired the owner’s fascination with the sea turtles and his desire to protect them.
His objective is to protect young turtles from poachers and predators until they are older. This increases their chances of survival. His solution is to keep these turtles in cement pools. These pools are about two feet deep and vary in size from too small to way too small. The two types of sea turtles contained there are Hawksbill and Green Sea turtles.
They collect the turtles from beaches. They set cages around the nests to protect the eggs. When they hatch they collect the hatchlings and raise them in the sanctuary. Typically, the turtles are re-released into the sea when they are about 7 years of age. They are fed with fish and kept in seawater that is pumped directly from the sea.
Sometimes the turtles need antibiotics because they get sick from living in the tanks. They also tend to get injuries from each other. This is because there are too many turtles in a small area. When this happens, the turtles are put in “solitary confinement” so that they can heal. According to the tour guide, about 75 percent of the rescue turtles die in the sanctuary. According to him, this is an improvement from their survival rate in nature which is about 1 in 3000.
Even though the turtles are supposed to be released into the wild at 7 years, there were three turtles in the sanctuary that were much older than that. Their ages were 16, 19, and 21. The 19 year old, a Green turtle was kept because of a deformity in its shell. The 21 and 16 year old turtles were the owner’s personal pets. These mature turtles were massive and they were kept in small tanks the size of watering troughs.
This mature sea turtle, spanning about 2.5 feet in length and 1.5 to 2 feet wide, is kept in a tank akin to a mid-sized watering trough.
For those turtles that survive and are actually released, they drill 2 small holes in the back of their shells. They do not use transmitters to keep track of the turtles. The holes are the only indicators they have for knowing if a turtle found in the sea came from the sanctuary.
The chance of survival for the turtles is indeed improved by the sanctuary. The quality of life, however, is abysmal.
We feel very strongly that future teams should not go to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. It is a tourist business that profits from the imprisonment of these creatures under the pretext of saving them. We believe that this facility is not in the best interest of the turtles it claims to protect. We strongly discourage anyone from visiting the sanctuary “to see for themselves” as we did. This is because you have to pay to get in. This money directly supports the exploitation of these creatures.
There is no doubt that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines needs this sort of conservation effort as these majestic sea animals are critically endangered. Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, however, is neither an effective nor a humane approach to conservation.