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Turtles climb over each other at The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in Bequia in April.
Turtles climb over each other at The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in Bequia in April.
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Last month, I visited The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in Bequia for the first time in years. I remember the first time I visited the facility more than 20 years ago. I was amazed by the effort of Orton “Brother” King to save endangered hawksbill sea turtles.

However, as a person who cares deeply about the environment, I had my doubts, which remained during my other visits over the years. For instance, I was concerned about the extent to which the turtles were able to survive in the wild after being hand-raised in captivity for three years. What research had been done regarding the effectiveness or suitability of King’s efforts? How many of the turtles he had raised had survived to adulthood and returned to lay on the beaches from which they had been taken as hatchlings or released as 3-year-olds? This should be rather easy for those involved in King’s “project” to find out since King would drill a hole into the base of each turtle’s shell before releasing them into the wild.

However, after visiting the sanctuary last month, I felt compelled to write this commentary, suggesting that the authorities look into the sanctuary, with a view to shutting it down. 

Mr. King, I understand, is at an advanced age and no longer manages the turtle facility. During my visit, I heard more than I care to repeat about the alleged attitude of some people reportedly close to King about “their business” — the sanctuary. 

Here are the reasons why I think the authorities should look into the sanctuary, with a view to shutting it down: 

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Apparent lack of accountability:

On arrival at the sanctuary, my party of four attempted to pay the EC$60 entry fee for the group. However, the sole staff member there said he did not have change for EC$100. He accepted the EC$45 that we otherwise had. He pocketed the money. He gave us no receipt. My understanding is that this sanctuary is/was supposed to focus on conserving the turtle population rather than being a “business” as the worker repeatedly referred to it. What kind of accountability is there to ensure that the money the sanctuary generates is used in the interest of the turtles with a reasonable amount going to the staff as compensation for their time and efforts?

The conditions in which the turtles are kept were horrendous. 

The water was filthy. Several adult turtles — which the staff member said were 7 years old and ready for release — were crammed into a small pool. The man at the sanctuary explained that they would be released when the staff collects other hatchlings to replace them. Note that King would release the turtles at age 3. If the aim is to raise turtles to a certain age and then release them in the wild, why are turtles that have attained that age not released as a matter of course? Why is their release dependent on new hatchlings being found to “replace” them at the “sanctuary”?

Turtle
An injured turtle at The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in Bequia in April.

The turtles seemed to be starving. 

During my visit, the turtles appeared to be hungry, starving even. The staff members said that they were fed every other day and were due to be fed the day after we visited. The fish, he said, was to come from Kingstown. However, I had my doubts about when the turtles were last fed and how much they were fed. Never before had I seen the turtles climb onto each other’s back as they swam in the direction of anyone who went next to one of the pools as they did when I visited last month. This, as well as the fact that the turtles were eating what appeared to be each other’s droppings in the water, caused me to conclude that the turtles were very hungry — starving even.

The turtles are eating each other alive. 

Connected to my point above, I noticed that many of the turtles had what appeared to be bite marks, especially on their necks. Other turtles would pick at these wounds. When I asked the staff about this, he said that they were tumours similar to those that hawksbill turtles develop in the wild. I did a quick internet search then and there. The results showed that some hawksbill turtles in the wild do have tumours. However, the shape of the wounds I saw on the turtles at the sanctuary suggested that they were bite injuries. (In fact, I recalled that during my previous visits, King had said that the turtles would bite each other and he would remove the injured ones from the general population, treat the injuries and isolate the injured turtles in separate pools until they heal.) However, I saw a turtle that had a bite mark that was so pronounced and severe that it was impossible for the staff member to explain it away as anything other than a bite injury, especially as it was still bleeding. When I asked him about it, he said it was a bite mark and that the turtle should be removed from the tank and treated, which he did.

I left the “sanctuary” feeling sad and sorry for those turtles. The turtle sanctuary in Bequia might have served a useful purpose under King’s management. However, the time has come for the authorities to look into the operation there and decide whether what is taking place there today is in the best interest of the turtles. 

Kenton X. Chance 

The opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

6 replies on “Time to relook that turtle ‘sanctuary’ in Bequia ”

  1. Bim and the Dominican republic have turtles sanctuary too, they even got marine biologist and are on CNN and Nat geo.

  2. Reynold Hewitt says:

    We are stewards of all animals on earth especially when we enclosed them. I wonder if a logbook was opened when these turtles were enclosed and when they were last treated by a marine biologist.
    I would like to urge the staff to do a better job and they will benefit in the end.

  3. Rosie Hartmann says:

    Bim does not have an enclosed turtle sanctuary, although some injured turtle are treated until able to return to the wild where they belong. The Barbados Sea Turtle Project never encloses turtles but is dedicated to raising population numbers and successful breeding.. Over the years BSTP has done a fantastic job of helping turtles in completing nesting in safety as there are many dangers and obstacles they will encounter at the beach front. Then they monitor those nests and supervise the hatchings to ensure the highest number of babies reach the sea. In other words, BSTP simply facilitate the natural activities of wild sea turtles. The result of this is that there has been a very great rebounding of hawksbill numbers in the waters of Barbados. The Project is supervised by the university marine experts and manned by some locals and many, many young volunteers.

  4. I saw these issues at the sanctuary 7’years ago I was mortified when I left it needs investigating by animal welfare as it seems to have lost its way.

  5. Activities undertaken to conserve Barbados’ Sea Turtle populations by BSTP personnel include the following:

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