Sea turtle

9 Places to See Endangered Sea Turtles in Latin America

Sea turtle

For most travelers, spotting an endangered sea turtle or two turns into the highlight of any trip. Luckily, most species (except for the elusive leatherback) return to the very same beach on which they were hatched in order to lay their own eggs. This predictability makes knowing when and where to see them much easier. But it has also played a role in endangering sea turtles to increased poaching and other human conflicts.


baby-green-sea-turtle


Central America and the Caribbean islands are home to some of the world’s top spots for seeing sea turtles in the wild, and the waters around these areas are home to six of the seven known species. With the right travel strategy, it’s possible to visit these regions at any time of the year and have a high likelihood of encountering at least one species of sea turtle. In some places, there are even opportunities for helping hands-on to protect sea turtle eggs and release baby turtles back into the wild.

But from a conservation perspective, it’s vital that we appreciate sea turtles responsibly. As with most wildlife observation, there are some simple rules it’s important to follow.

  • Never use bright lights or camera flash around nesting sea turtles. In fact, in nesting situations, it’s best to give them a wide berth of 10 feet or more, and to just sit quietly and watch. 
  • Watch your step
  • NEVER drive on beaches where sea turtles are known to nest.

Now, let’s talk about specific places to see endangered Sea Turtles in Latin America.


green-sea-turtle

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a great location to start looking for sea turtles. It has extensive coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and its shores are also host to five different species: leatherback, Atlantic green, hawksbill, Pacific green and Olive Ridley. This diversity makes it possible to find sea turtles on your Costa Rica tour virtually any month of the year.

On the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is a must-see for sea turtle enthusiasts. Here you'll find Atlantic greens (July-September), hawksbills (year-round) and leatherbacks (March and April) nesting.


olive-ridley-sea-turtle

Nicaragua

Located right next door to Costa Rica, Nicaragua also plays host to some serious sea turtle action, both for nesting and feeding. Five different species — Pacific greens, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and Olive Ridley — are known to frequent its waters. Though many Nicaraguans still use them for meat and eggs, NGOs such as Fauna & Flora International and the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative working to stop poaching and protect endangered Sea Turtles.


Because Nicaragua is also bi-coastal, it’s possible to spot sea turtles here year-round. But the arribada of nesting Olive Ridleys is the big attraction. It occurs from late summer to early winter on the Pacific coast, specifically at La Flor in Rivas and Juan Venado Island, which are both protected areas. Sea turtles (especially Loggerheads) live and feed year-round on the Caribbean side, which makes spotting them less frequent but possible at almost any time of year.


hawsbill-sea-turtle

Cuba

Politically speaking, the U.S. trade embargo might not have been the best thing for Cuba. But the silver lining is that the lack of shipping to/from the island has helped to preserve the country’s relatively pristine coral reef system. Now, it’s a great site for seeing sea turtles, with the Atlantic green, hawksbill and loggerhead all nesting on Cuban shores. And the Cuba Marine Research & Conservation Program has gotten a head-start on the travel industry with regards to protecting Cuba’s coastlines.

The best turtle-spotting in Cuba is on Cayo Largo del Sur (an island south of the main island, which is host to all three local species), and Guanahacabibes National Park, the westernmost peninsula (which has green and hawksbill turtles). The national park is part of International Expeditions' people-to-people Cuba cruises. Sea turtle population numbers are actually on the rise in Cuba, with over 900 nests and 14,000 hatchlings recorded in 2013
more than double the previous year.

Nesting for the Atlantic greens happens between June and November, with hatchlings arriving all the way into December. Loggerheads (which are found only in Cayo Largo) usually nest between April and September.


leatherback-sea-turtle

Guatemala

Guatemala has quickly become one of the most popular travel destinations in Central America, largely for its Mayan ruins, indigenous cultures, and volcanoes. But, along the black sand beaches of the Pacific coast, there are also a number of sea turtle conservation projects, with ARCAS and Akazul among the leading NGOs.

Unfortunately, selling turtle eggs is not yet illegal in Guatemala, and trawling for shrimp is also decimating the local populations. Because sea turtles are considered to be a keystone species
meaning they are integrally tied to the health of coastal habitats many Guatemalan locals and foreigners alike have recognized the need to protect them.

Three species and one subspecies of turtles — Olive Ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and Eastern Pacific green — frequently visit the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The coastline is one of the major sites for arribadas of Olive Ridleys, from August to November. Eastern Pacific greens (a.k.a. black turtles) often feed in the estuary and related inland bodies of water in Sipacate National Park.


galapagos-turtle

Elsewhere in the Americas 

Despite most species being endangered, and some of them critically, sea turtles are found all over the world. Here are a few other travel destinations in the Americas that should certainly be mentioned:

Though it is home to only one endemic species, the Galapagos green turtle, snorkeling excursions on IE's Galapagos Islands cruises pretty much guarantee sea turtle sightings. That’s not to mention their land-loving cousins, giant tortoises, of which there are 11 species.

Rosalie Bay Resort is an award-winning hotel in Dominica that has been a driving force for sea turtle conservation on the island. During the nesting season, leatherbacks, hawksbills and green sea turtles lay eggs on their beach.

In the US, top sea turtle sites include Texas’s South Padre Island, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island and Laniakea Beach on Oahu.

 

Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer and teacher who’s been living abroad as an expat since 2005. He’s currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers, and his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad.