Saving The Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Photo of Carlos Magat at CURMA

On November 2, in San Juan, La Union, along the sandy shoreline of the surfing capital of the Philippines, a large female sea turtle emerges from the warm Philippine Sea. She was born here some 15 years ago and has roamed the South China Sea her entire life. At the age of eleven she reached sexual maturity, and although the Olive Ridley sea turtle is considered the most abundant sea turtle specie, she had not found a suitable mate until recently. She was the only member of the clutch of eggs that her mother laid to have survived. Half of her family, all sisters, died while trying to reach the sea. Many were attacked by shore birds, another 25% perished within a few days by crabs and fish. However, since hatchlings use light signals to orient themselves to the sea, many were lured into going the wrong way, towards land, by the bright lights of the hotels and pubs along the shoreline. Most died of exhaustion and dehydration while motorized tricycles claimed a few and stray dogs killed several more. Those that survived the march to the sea and the onslaught of predators, died in their adolescent years by being entangled in abandoned fishing nets, struck by boat propellers, or eaten by large fish, sharks and mammals. Some perished by ingesting discarded plastics, mistaking them for their favorite food—jellyfish.

It is now about 1:00am, the moon is no longer out this time of the year and the normal high surf is reasonably calm tonight. She lumbers awkwardly across the soft sand, leaving a telltale set of tracks behind her. Poachers will use these betraying signs to find her eggs. She trudges along until she senses the right spot, one that will prevent the saltwater of the high tide from reaching her clutch of eggs, a spot where they will receive just the right amount of warmth for incubation. Several humans were here recently and left bottles and plastic trash when they went home.

The sunset over the Philippine Sea where the Olive Ridley sea turtle comes ashore to lay their eggs.

The beach is quiet this time of night save for a few stray dogs that roam the beaches in search of scraps of food that tourists who flock here have left haphazardly behind. Somewhere in the night a rooster is crowing. She digs a conical shaped hole with her hind flippers, tossing sand into the gentle breeze that wafts along the shoreline. She is almost two feet long and weights nearly 90 pounds. It is hard work as she labors for several hours, then drops 116 ping-pong shaped eggs into the hole. When she is finished laying her eggs, she gently covers the clutch with sand and begins her arduous journey back to the sea. If the conditions are right, the eggs will hatch in about 60 days. She will remain just offshore from her clutch for the internesting interval of about one month. Her mate, as with all male sea turtles, will almost never return to the sand of their natal beach once they leave as a hatchling. She will return to this same beach next year to perhaps lay up to three clutches of eggs.

The vast stretch of beach that the newborn hatchlings must cross to reach their new home in the sea.

The waters here are warm and it is filled with stinging jellyfish which are her favorite food. She cannot breathe underwater, nor can any sea turtle, and she must surface for air about every 4-7 hours. She searches for food, gliding gracefully in the sea current, back in her own element, rather than plodding along clumsily on land with flippers made for swimming not walking. As an Olive Ridley sea turtle, she is one of the 7 species of sea turtles found in the world, 5 of which are found in the Philippines: Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Loggerhead, and Olive Ridley, named for its olive color. As she surfaces for air, a member of CURMA (Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions) is now in his fourth hour of searching the beach for the telltale signs of sea turtle nesting. His routine starts every night at midnight and continues until at least 3am during the “ber” months. He has found her nest and slowly begins to extract them from their sandy home.

Noel Tamayo, the mastermind behind the CURMA project in San Juan, the Philippines.

The CURMA beach patroller knows that sea turtle eggs have a small “air” hole at the top of their shells. If they are collected improperly and not replaced into their new nest in the correct orientation, they will perish. He has seen many times, when fisherman and well-doers have brought sea turtle eggs to the CURMA center only to find out that they will not survive since they were not kept in the original orientation. Some of those collected by untrained individuals have already perished when high tide submerged them with saltwater. CURMA will now rebury the eggs that their vigilant volunteer had found during the night, in an enclosure that will prevent poachers and dogs from harming them.

Many stray dogs patrol the beaches where the Olive Ridley sea turtles come ashore. They harrass the egg-laying females, and eat their eggs and hatchlings.

The incubation period is usually about 45 to 51 days, if the natural conditions are right, but may reach up to 70 days if the weather conditions are not ideal. Amazingly, Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs that are incubated at temperatures of 31 to 32°C will produce only females, while eggs that are incubated at 28°C or less will only produce male sea turtles. If the incubation temperatures of the eggs are between 29 to 30°C the result will be a clutch of hatchlings of both male and female. Once the hatchlings begin to emerge from their eggs, a telltale sign is that the sand mound above them begins to depress, then one-by-one the newborn hatchlings dig their way to the surface and begin a mad dash to the sea where they will face the most incredible hazards imaginable. This is where the team at CURMA play one of their biggest roles: volunteers assist the little hatchlings in their difficult journey to the sea. Since 2011 CURMA has released over 16,000 hatchlings, and to date their success rate has been over 85%!

Olive Ridley sea turtle eggs safely enclosed in protected mounds.

The Olive Ridley sea turtle lives primarily the warm tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans including Africa, Arabia, Australia, Brazil, Chili, French Guiana, Guyana, India, Japan, Mexico, Micronesia, New Zealand, Suriname, Philippines, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. One Olive Ridley female was found as far north as the Isle of Anglesey on an Irish beach in the British Isles. They are also found from the Galapagos Island and into the Gulf of California along the Pacific Coast. The Olive Ridley sea turtle is believed to inhabit the coastal waters of over 80 countries.

Carlos Tamayo, explains the mission and work of the dedicated CURMA volunteers.

The name Olive Ridley, no one is quite sure where the name came from other than the olive-green color of the turtle’s carapace, is regarded as the most widely abundant sea turtle in the world. Yet despite their abundance, globally they have declined dramatically, by more than 30% within just one generation! The population alone in the Pacific Ocean region of Mexico was estimated to be no less than 10 million. In 1968 it was reported that over one million Olive Ridley sea turtles were commercially harvested, however that does not account for the numbers that were illegally poached. The breeding colony in Mexico was listed as endangered in the US on July 28, 1978. They are considered endangered in other parts of the world due to their few remaining nesting sites. In the year 2004, the worldwide population of nesting females was reduced to about two million, and further dramatically reduced to about 852,550 by the year 2008.

Carlos Tamayo, showing a group of students a video of the latest hatchlings heading across the beach near CURMA headquarters.

Predominantly carnivorous creatures, Olive Ridley sea turtles, in their early stages of life, prey on invertebrates that they catch in shallow waters. As they mature, they feed on algae, bivalves, crabs, fish eggs, jellyfish, lobsters, sea urchins, shrimp, snails, and worms. The Olive Ridley can be found foraging for invertebrates to depths of about 500 feet (150 meters). Some studies of captive turtles indicate that there is some degree of cannibalistic behavior in this species.

Several enclosed nests that each will soon yield nearly 100 hatchlings.

Although large adults have very few predators, killer whales and sharks are known to prey on them. Female turtles that come on land are somewhat defenseless since they cannot pull their heads into their shells like their cousins the land and freshwater turtles. They are vulnerable to attacks by crocodiles and jaguars which are one of the few animals with strength enough to penetrate the sea turtles leathery covering. but not enough to reach the internal organs. However, typically a jaguar will only eat the neck and flippers of a sea turtle, leaving the remaining carcass for scavengers.

A group of volunteers help erect a new and more permanent enclosure to protect the sea turtle nests from predators.

Humans are still considered the number one threat to the Olive Ridley sea turtle (scientific name: Lepidochelys olivacea) due primarily for development of traditional nesting grounds along coastal waters. Humans are also responsible for the collection of eggs in such large quantities that make their harvest unsustainable. The slaughtering of vulnerable nesting females on beaches as well as legal and illegal harvesting of young and mature adults at sea for sale of both the meat, hide and shell for trinkets play a huge role in sea turtle population decimation.

Above, one of the biggest threats to the Olive Ridley sea turtle and oceanic wildlife in general is discarded plastic material.  Jellyfish are a favorite food of the sea turtle, the garbage above bears a close resemblance, and sea turtles will unwittingly ingest it.

Poor fishing practices also play a huge role in their reduction. It is documented that between 1993 and 2003, more than 100,00 Olive Ridley sea turtles were reported killed by the unchecked trawling and netting operations of Odisha, India fisheries. The meat is not necessarily considered a delicacy but has been exploited for food, bait, fertilizer and oil while other parts have also been utilized for leather and knickknacks. Humans covet the eggs and their collection is practiced wherever humans encounter these amazing creatures. However, despite the illegality of this in most countries, the laws are rarely enforced for various reasons.

Above, a beautiful kingfisher watches the beach near the CURMA headquarters, looking for small fish and tiny crabs that live nearby.

In the Philippines, a sea turtle is called Pawikan while a tortoise is called Pagong. A terrapin is called Bakoko

Pawikans have four flippers and while Pagongs have four legs.

Pawikans typically have a flatter, streamlined shell and Pagongs have larger dome-shaped shells.

Pawikans spend most of their lives in the water, particularly the females of the species and cannot hide inside their shell. Pagongs remain land creatures and can hide inside their shells.

Terrapins (Bakokos) are turtles that seem to be a cross between a sea turtle and a tortoise as they have claws instead of flippers and legs.

Above, the Villas Buenavista hotel just a few minutes walk along the beach from the CURMA headquarters.  Upon check-in, visitors are notified of the sea turtle complex nearby and advised that it is worthwhile place to visit.

Our female sea turtle has worked hard to lay her eggs and the CURMA team have seen to it that her hard work will pay off. Her eggs are now safely nestled in the warm sand and inside an enclosure to protect them until they hatch. She swims slowly along about a quarter mile out to sea. It is now daylight as the CURMA volunteer looks down the beach and sees the trash that visitors to this wonderful place have left behind. He sees the long line of hotels that have already begun development on this once pristine shoreline and the new start-up construction of many more. He knows that this will help the human economy of the area, but it can only add more difficulty to the magnificent Olive Ridley sea turtle.  He hopes that a lasting partnership can be developed to ensure that the economy thrives as does the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle.

On the eve of 2020, December 31, newborn hatchlings from our female began to reach the surface of the sand nest, nearly two-feet deep, they had been in for nearly two months.  One by one they climbed out and scrambled to find their way to the sea as CURMA volunteers gathered them for a group release that would better their chances for survival.   Witnessing this miraculous event was a thrill of a lifetime as we watched them reach the sand mound surface, and then the subsequent release of these remarkable creatures to the ocean where many will probably not survive. 

As we released the baby sea turtles some 50 yards from the incoming tide, a throng of people, alerted by social media, showed up to help them find their way to the sea.  One baby hatchling made it to the surf, only to be swept back to almost where he began his march to the sea.  He clawed valiently toward the surf and as he neared it, the tide swept him back again to where he started.  I was ready to pick him up and hand-carry him to his destination but as he scrambled, instinctively to find his way, a wave came in, and carried him away so that he could begin his lifelong journey.  We all clapped and cheered him.  

The staff and volunteers of CURMA show what can be accomplished with dedication to a cause that can only make the world a better place. They are a non-governmental organization and rely solely on volunteers and private contributions. To contact them, make a donate or just stay up to date with this wonderful organization, please follow them on Facebook or visit their website: http://sifcare.org/curma/

Please watch this video of the release of the Olive Ridley sea turtles on New Years Eve 2019:

If you are ever in the San Juan region of the Philippines, pay CURMA a visit. You can also write them or send a contribution to their worthy cause:

CURMA
374 Saint Jude Subdivision
Ili Norte
San Juan, La Union, Philippines


We typically write about destinations that make up a bucket list. However, if supporting a worthwhile cause isn’t on your bucket list, it really should be. There are few drops in the bucket that will make you feel as good as becoming passionate about helping a just cause and CURMA is certainly one of them.

For more detailed information about sea turtles, please click here: Marine Turtles


All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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