Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

My idyllic island life... by the Co Down man trying to protect endangered turtles

Turtles dig nests in the Caribbean island's beaches to lay eggs
Turtles dig nests in the Caribbean island's beaches to lay eggs
Ardglass man Sean Clifford
Ardglass man Sean Clifford
Sean Clifford's spartan accommodation which has no electricity or running water
Sean Clifford's spartan accommodation which has no electricity or running water

There's no electricity and no running water.

But Sean Clifford says his home from home on the tiny Caribbean island of Pacuare is idyllic.

The marine biologist has travelled thousands of miles from his home in Ardglass to help run a vital turtle conservation project on the island, saving the reptiles that are being targeted by poachers for their meat and eggs.

The beach he and his volunteers patrol every night is a key nesting site for huge leatherback turtles and their smaller cousins, the green turtles, who travel there from across the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs.

The animals are easy prey for poachers who believe their eggs act as an aphrodisiac and who also sell the meat of the green turtles. Leatherback turtles are regarded as having diseased meat, so local people won't eat them.

"The eggs are marketed for virility. They go round bars at night with ice boxes full of turtle eggs and men eat them with chilli," Sean explains.

"The government is trying to protect them."

Sean says he came across the project when a friend told him about it during a round-the-world trip a few years ago. After volunteering there for a spell he told the organisers if they needed anyone to help them run the project to get in touch and headed off on the next stage of his travels.

Once back in Northern Ireland, Sean started to settle down – he went back to work for Queen's University, making sure the blades of the marine current turbine in Strangford Lough didn't injure marine mammals. He was working for Exploris in Portaferry when the organisers phoned him out of the blue and asked him to help.

He admits: "It was too tempting".

Last year Sean returned to the island from March to October and is preparing to head back in a few weeks.

"Our patrolling hours are from about 8pm to the early hours of the morning. If you see a turtle on the beach you have to approach it quietly," he says.

"It comes up and digs a nest in the sand and starts to lay eggs. As it's laying the eggs you get a plastic bag underneath the turtle and you bring all the eggs back to the hatchery.

"The hatchery has to be manned 24/7 because people would come in and try to steal the eggs. It takes six to eight weeks for the young turtles to hatch, then you collect all the turtles, put them in a bucket and release them onto the beach. They will always come back to the beach to lay their eggs for the rest of their lives."

The project attracts volunteers from all over the world – from Korea to Kazakhstan.

"There's no phone, no electricity, no nothing. There's no running water. You have to pump the water into a tank every day to get water," Sean says.

"We do have a phone for emergencies so we're not cut off. But it's an idyllic island. Instead of everyone sitting around looking at their phones every two minutes, everyone sits and chats. It must have been what it was like in old times."

And he's keen to persuade anyone from Northern Ireland who wants to get involved to get in touch. Full details of the project are on the website at www.latortugafeliz.com.

"It's the experience of a lifetime – it's unbelievable. We want to get the word out there," Sean says.

Factfile

The leatherback turtle is the most critically endangered of the marine turtles and is also the largest. Leatherbacks can exceed 540kg (118 lbs) and are generally not killed by poachers for their meat, which is described as having a disagreeable texture and flavour. Unfortunately, leatherback turtle eggs are among the most desirable turtle eggs, mistakenly believed by many to have potent aphrodisiac powers. Green turtles are not actually green but take their name from the colour of their body fat. They are hunted for both their eggs and meat, which is widely held to be the most delicious of all the sea turtle species. The beaches between Parismina and Tortuguero are believed to be the most important Atlantic nesting grounds for these turtles.

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