The beauty of travel is learning that paradise can be defined in millions of ways. Everyone envisions a slightly different heaven – but I think the closest you can get is experiencing the majesty of a sea turtle gliding alongside you in the waters of Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize.
These elegant creatures are elusive, but the serendipitous moment of sharing the ocean with a sea turtle stretching from your toes to your shoulders is worth the wait. It is one of the most transcendent and comforting wildlife encounters you can have. Belize’s crystalline ocean waters envelop you in warmth and light, and these grandfatherly figures (sea turtles can live to 100 years) calmly accept your presence as they glide on by.
Three types of sea turtle find safe nesting grounds in Belize: the hawksbill turtle, the loggerhead turtle, and the green turtle. They live full lives swimming and feeding in the expansive sea, rarely leaving the water, save for the females who return to shore every few years to lay eggs on Belize’s beaches, around the lush lagoons, and among the mangrove roots. These ecosystems offer plentiful food sources and good protection for mothers and their babies throughout nesting season. For a chance to see baby sea turtles beginning to hatch and make their way off the sandy shore, visit Belize in September, near the end of the nesting season.
Meet the turtle species that spend nesting season on Belize’s unspoiled cayes:
His name came right out of his own mouth, which has a distinctive hawk’s beak shape. This endangered reptile nests four to five times over a six-month span between July and October, with a 14-day break between each nesting. An overachiever at heart, the hawksbill lays the most eggs of the three turtle species. Every nesting produces about 140 eggs. Roughly two months later, the baby turtles break through the shell and head out into the world.
My, what a big head you have! The loggerhead has one main feature that distinguishes him from other sea turtles – a humongous cranium. The skull of this ocean behemoth can reach up to ten inches wide, and the full-grown turtle can weigh more than 350 pounds. Once every two to three years from May to August, the loggerhead turtle swims ashore for nesting season and lays 100 to 125 eggs. The endangered loggerhead, similar to the hawksbill, nests four or five times during the season with an incubation period of 60 days.
This beautiful creature is quite an oddity. The largest of the sea turtles in Belize, green turtles can reach up to 600 pounds, yet they have disproportionally small heads. Sleek green skin gives this turtle its name. Once nesting by the hundreds on Half Moon Caye, the protected green sea turtle still prefers Lighthouse Reef Atoll as a Belizean breeding ground. The number of nests may have dwindled through the years due to poaching and coastal development, but the turtles still return once every two to four years and lay about 100 eggs, two or three times per season. After about two months, baby green turtles emerge all over the beach and scramble to the water.
The warm, sun-drenched coral sand beaches of Belize play an important role in the lives of turtle hatchlings – temperature determines the length of incubation and the turtle’s sex. Long Caye and Half Moon Caye on Lighthouse Reef Atoll provide the best opportunities to swim with the turtles and get a glimpse of the babies’ first scurried dash to water. The lush lagoons and mangrove forests on the atoll serve as the perfect tropical hideaway for the turtles. These two cayes maintain Belize’s highest sea turtle population.
Over the years, sea turtle populations in Belize have rapidly declined due to a number of alarming threats. These reptiles can become entangled in fishing gear; they suffer from the effects of pollution (including light pollution, which can disorient new hatchlings as they dash to sea, making them more vulnerable to predators); irresponsible coastal development destroys critical nesting sites; poachers continue to hunt and eat turtles and their eggs in spite of regulations forbidding the practice.
To ensure that Belize’s sea turtles have a safe place to nest, the Belize Audubon Society and the Belizean government teamed up to establish a protected natural area on Lighthouse Reef Atoll. Half Moon Caye Natural Monument protects endangered turtles’ nests and delivers a stunning opportunity to witness turtle nesting season. For avid nature-lovers, plan your visit to Belize for the summer and fall months to witness the arrival of nesting mothers, the miracle of birth, and the baby sea turtles’ first journey to the water. You may discover that a sea turtle’s paradise is your own personal haven as well.