At dawn we can see Sal. From the sea this low-lying, sandy and dry Cape Verdean island looks like a miniature version of the Sahara desert. Aided by a strong northeast trade wind, we sailed here in six days from the Canary Island of El Hierro. We even slowed down towards the end, so we would arrive in daylight at. the bay of Palmeira. It is well-sheltered and we anchor behind a group of other sailboats. Ahead of them wooden fishing boats in different bright colours make for a pretty picture. Just as we step into the kayak, a sea turtle swims by. “As if it knows that we’re here because of it!” Ivar jokes.
On the quay boys of around ten years old are competing for our attention. They offer to guard our kayak, while we stroll through Palmeira. Lined by brightly colored houses its streets are remarkably tidy. A woman sits on the street selling fruit from a wheelbarrow. Around the corner, a Chinese family runs the local mini-market. When a group of tourists arrives in a touring car, stray dogs curiously approach them.
We head to the police station, where an inexperienced but friendly officer helps us with the formalities. “Where is your visa?” he asks us while flipping through our passports. “We get them from you!” we reply in a matter-of-fact way. After phoning is his boss, he stamps our passports. Just as we thought we were done, he sends us to make copies of all the documents we filled in at the library around the corner.
From Salt to Tourism
Although Sal owes its name to the production of sea salt, today it is mainly a tourist destination. The golden-yellow sandy beaches, the warm and sunny climate, the constant winds and the natural reefs are a paradise for sunbathers, surfers and divers alike. Numerous hotels and resorts have been built over the past decades to accommodate all tourists. It stimulates employment on the island, but there are also disadvantages. There is more litter, dunes are damaged, and there is less room for sea turtles to lay their eggs on the beaches, to name a few.
Project Biodiversity is an ngo that tries to counter the trend. They are based in Santa Maria, the island’s tourist hotspot, so we take a local minibus to visit them. It leaves once it is completely full and on the way we get a good impression of the arid landscape. Albert Taxonera, co-director of this organization, and communications manager Shannon Sutherland welcome us. “We are committed to nature conservation on Sal. We try to save sea turtles because they play an important role in the marine ecosystem,” Albert explains. “Their numbers are steadily decreasing, so our work is definitely needed.”
Albert continues: “The main threats are light pollution on beaches, plastic waste and poaching.” We understand that digesting plastic and poaching are obvious threats, but light pollution on beaches? “Sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand. Baby turtles hatch at night and then instinctively crawl to the light. Normally, that’s the horizon where the sea is. Except when there is light in the dunes, like hotels. Then they never reach the sea,” Shannon explains.
What does Project Biodiversity do about this, we wonder. Albert explains: “During nesting season, we walk along the island’s beaches at night in teams. On beaches where turtle nests are at risk because of light pollution, destroyed dunes, or where tourists like to sunbathe. We wait for the turtles to lay eggs and then move the nests to one of our hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatch, we take them to the sea, so more of them have a chance of surviving. We also patrol the beaches to prevent poaching, which still happens frequently.” Shannon adds: “Another part of our work is education and awareness-raising. We provide information to and work together with schools, tour operators and resorts to explain everyone’s role in the protection of turtles and their living environment. Because tourists can unintentionally destroy nesting sites of turtles, it is important that everyone knows how that can be prevented.”
At the Hatchery
The hatchery is illustrative of the work and challenges of Project Biodiversity. Sunbathing, cocktail-drinking tourists sit right next to a fenced-off the area of beach where sea turtle nests are buried in neatly numbered rows. It is an absurd sight and without Project Biodiversity this way of co-existence behind tourists and turtles would not be possible. “We have space for 900 nests here. With an average of 80 eggs per nest, we can save around 70,000 baby sea turtles a year,” Albert says. “Those are concrete results to help restore the fragile ecosystem, but that is not all. Every day during the nesting season, we explain the story of the sea turtles and our work to the sunbathers. Many respond enthusiastically and help us, for example by adopting a nest. In that way tourists support our work financially.”
Underwater Cleaning Action
The next day Shannon sends us a message. “Would you like to join an underwater cleaning action? A lot of plastic waste sinks and poses a threat to sea turtles and other marine life.” We don’t hesitate and are eager to help. Armed with snorkels and nets, we collect as much floating debris as possible, while underneath us more than 20 enthusiastic divers – volunteers from the island’s diving schools – clean the seabed. In just a few hours, a truckload full of waste is fished out of the water. After the clean-up, the owner of a nearby beach restaurant treats the whole group to lunch. “We also think clean beaches are important,” he smiles.
It is a remarkable achievement that thanks to Project Biodiversity’s efforts, thousands of baby sea turtles are given a chance to grow up. In addition, their awareness increasing activities concerning the fragility of Sal’s ecosystem surely also contributes to better protection of habitats. We were also impressed by the way they mobilize large groups of volunteers and engage the tourism industry.
During a farewell dinner, Albert talks about the conservation of endangered species. As a biologist, he understands the importance of every organism on our planet. Shannon studied environmental science and shares Albert’s passion. We greatly respect these people, who are committed to ecosystem recovery. Because when ecosystems are destroyed, a lot of work is needed to reinforce and conserve them. Project Biodiversity proves that it is possible. They ensure that also in the future sea turtles will swim in the waters surrounding Sal.