Photo Author Mariko Russel
What tourist attraction comes to your mind when you hear about Suriname? If you are like me, in the beginning you would respond by “Suriname? Gee, I really cannot make any concrete images in my mind….” Then you go to your laptop to do some Internet search, coming up with ideas like “visiting nature resorts surrounded by virgin forests” or “take a boat ride up the Suriname River to enjoy visits to interior villages.” Alternatively you may think of “just enjoying the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious city of Paramaribo.” Right? All of the above are fine options. However, as a resident specialist in Suriname, I am endowed with opportunities to explore different places to go and things to see in this beautiful, little known country.
Did you know that you can watch sea turtles right in the act of laying eggs at some beaches in Suriname? Honestly, I did not know that those beautiful creatures came to Surinamese shores; much less it was possible to see them up close and personal! So when a group of friends organized a sea turtle watching tour and asked if I wanted to join, I was nodding yes before I knew it.
The destination was Matapica on the northern coast of Suriname, across the mouth of the Suriname River from Paramaribo, the capital city of the country. On a fine late afternoon in May, we gathered at The Pier where the boat departs. There are no regular means of transportation to get there so you have to charter a boat. The trip towards Matapica takes about 70 minutes. We arrived around 6 pm, a little before sunset.
Here is the first thing I noticed: unlike other turtle watch spots I have been to in other countries of the world, such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, there are no indications that this is a turtle watch spot. In those countries there are at least some buildings where staff and volunteers work to protect turtles and/or some kind of educational facilities. But here, there is none of that; just a long stretch of beach.
Since turtles mostly come to the shore at night, we waited in a very basic shelter where we had the food and drinks we had brought with us. Although we had to deal with ferocious biting flies, we sat there for around an hour watching the beautiful sunset.
Once it was totally dark, the guide led us to walk along the beach. After we had walked at least two miles, we were told to sit on the beach and wait. While waiting, we casually looked up to the sky and were totally stunned by the incredible amount of stars; it looked as if they were practically dancing on the black background, rather than sitting there. Suddenly we heard the guide whispering to us to “be very quiet and follow me, never disturb the turtles with noise and only use red lights”. We walked slightly away from the shoreline, and there she was! …… just finishing digging a hole, into which she laid eggs. The way she dug was very skilful: by using her paddle-like hind flippers she made it deeper and deeper. We were careful though, because sometimes she can splash you with bunch of sand. We got closer when it was safe and calmly looked at where the red light was shone. We watched shiny ping-pong-ball-like eggs falling into the hole, all in awe and speechless.
After the tour was over the participants spoke about conservation issues. Matapica area does not seem to provide much infrastructure to protect turtles, but the remoteness and difficulty of access seem to be keeping turtles and their eggs from being poached – for now. Suriname’s economy is growing, and borders between countries are blurry when it comes to economic activities. This may pose problems to the turtles, because poorly controlled coastal development or unauthorized and illegal removal of large quantities of sand from the beach, known as beach theft, may take place, depriving turtles of possible egg-laying spots.
We wrapped up the day discussing what we can do to make this wonderful experience sustainable: tourists and residents should be educated about sea turtles’ habitats and threats to their survival; regulate coastal development so that environmental factors are taken into consideration; and create incentives for people to protect them and disincentives to poach their eggs.
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