Proper Behavior around Sea Turtles
Would you like a stranger to touch you? Weird, right? Adequate behavior around the wildlife is incredibly important, which is one of the many good reasons why you shouldn't simply go into the ocean without a guide, even while having prior snorkeling experience. Many people already know by now, we hope, that touching, corals, taking organisms out of the water, like sea stars, and chasing sea turtles is not okay. It is in fact illegal to harass sea turtles.
Going with a guide vs going alone
You may think that you are good to go on your own simply because you have done it before and our ocean looks calm and so clear. However, the is not a pool and even at those times when it is flat and clear, there may be strong rip currents.
There are no signs underwater that will lead you to the reef and if you are caught in a rip current without the proper gear or don't know how to manage while being caught in the situation, a person can end up drowning. In certain beach areas around Vieques the currents can normally be stronger than others and when there are rip current advisories, these beaches should conclusively be avoided. We don't share this to be alarming, but so that visitors are more cautious since many shortsighted accidents have happened in the past which could have been avoided.
One of the many ocean creatures in Vieques that most tourists get excited about swimming with are the sea turtles. We enjoy sharing the location during our tours as well as all we know about them with our guests. Beyond everything, it is important that everyone is aware that they are an endangered species, a species of animal or plant that is seriously at risk of extinction. Swimmers should always respect their personal space and move adequately around them. On a whim, we decided to name some of them since we encounter them so often during our tours, like our favorite green turtle Squirt (named after the small turtle in Finding Nemo). Sea turtles have unique marks, they are no all exactly the same and that is how we are able to distinguish them. Also, there are certain characteristics that differentiate them from other species.
How to identify them
Hawksbill: has a beak-like mouth
Green: Has a round head and smooth shell
Loggerhead: Has a wide, block-like head, and four prefrontal scales (two pairs) between its eyes. Its top shell has 5 central plates going down its back, with 5 lateral plates on each side.
Leatherback: They are the easiest to identify, they are mostly black and the only sea turtle that does not have a hard shell.
Rules we have during our tours
Rule number 1: Do not harass or chase the sea turtles or any other sea organism. We are here to coexist with them. We will have a wonderful time as long as we respect their space. When we remain calm, they tend to stay for a longer time close to our group.
Rule number 2: It is illegal to touch sea turtles. Actually do not touch anything, not even the corals, tube worms, nothing. Like you learned in elementary school, keep you hands to yourself. Not many people know this but corals are animals and they get oxygen through their polyps, located on the surface of their bodies. If you touch them, you would be asphyxiating them and corals, unlike humans, are unable to tolerate stress.
Rule number 3: Give the sea turtles their space when they come up for air, which happens every 10 to 15 minutes. When turtles are active and burning energy by moving around because they are eating, they must come up for air and if you remain calm, they might just do so next to you. Again, when this happens, keep your hands to yourself and do not make sudden movements if you don't want to learn how fast a sea turtle can get away from you.
Rule number 4: When and if a sea turtle swims up to the surface near you, the best thing to do is to hug yourself or keep your arms close to your body, do not create sudden movements. This ensures a longer experience for you near the turtle. The calmer we are, the longer the turtle stays near us because it doesn't feel threatened. If you do the opposite, you will then learn how fast they go, sea turtles can swim at bursts of up to 25 mph when they feel unsafe.
Sometimes visitors bring their own go-pros with the longest sticks, if this is you, please do not stick the camera right onto the turtle's face or try to touch the turtle with it.
Go with a guide if you are not familiar with the area, go with a guide if you are not a marine biologist, go with a guide if you want to learn about the local wildlife, and book a tour with Salty Spirit because we cover all of the mentioned above. Even though we are not marine biologists, we do study the marine organisms in our island in their natural habitats and keep up to date with new research or investigation of behavior and physiology of the marine life. Additionally, our tour guides are local and fun.
Be present, cautious, learn about the ocean, and please always be safe!