Sea turtles cannot escape climate change, not even on the distant beaches of Cuba

Sea turtles cannot escape climate change, not even on the distant beaches of Cuba

HAVANA, Jul 12 (Reuters) – In Cuba, on the remote Guanahacabibes peninsula, park ranger Roberto Varela watches a sea turtleThe green turtle moves slowly towards the shore in a ritual as old as the development of the dinosaurs. “Getting to see them lay their eggs, knowing that their nests will be protected, that those little turtles will return to the sea (…) you get a sense of what one is doing to save the species,” said Varela, who helps oversee tortoise research in a national park that stretches across much of the peninsula.

So far, the efforts of Varela, other park researchers and the University of Havana have been successful. Turtle nesting here, once threatened by poaching, has stabilized and increased in some cases, published studies show.

But Varela, who grew up on the beaches of the peninsula, said all is not well.

Mounds of reddish-brown algae accumulate on the sand where there were few years ago, blocking the turtles’ path to nesting grounds.

Corals, shells and rocks litter the beach, signs of increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes. And more so when the female turtles are hatching, a phenomenon that scientists attribute to the increase in the temperature of the nest.

More than two decades of research on these Cuban beaches, scientists say, corroborate concerns that climate change has piled up new problems, even in settings as undeveloped and remote as Guanahacabibes on the island’s western tip.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating to have things that get out of hand and don’t depend on us,” said Julia Azanza, a biologist at the University of Havana and a professor who helps lead turtle research on the peninsula.

“You can have a good conservation system, you can even have pristine areas, and they are still affected by climate change,” she added.

Sea turtles have historically moved when temperatures or sea levels rise, seeking the most favorable beaches to lay their eggs.

But safe nesting havens in the region are now fewer in number as hotels, roads, lights and houses occupy much of the nearby Florida coast, as well as Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and many Caribbean islands.


The virgin peninsula of Guanahacabibes, protected and still undeveloped, can provide a safe haven for sea turtles.

Its white-sand beaches, though battered by hurricanes in recent years, are steeper than those of the lower keys, making them less likely to be consumed by rising sea levels.

Those elements make the park an ideal “laboratory” to observe the impacts of climate change and adapt to them, said Osmani Borrego, another researcher and park ranger from Guanahacabibes.

“More than fighting against climate change, it is adapting to changes,” said Borrego.

However, signs of hope shine on this beach.

On a starry night in late June, a green sea turtle at Playa La Barca, near the tip of the peninsula, navigated through rocks, coral and mounds of algae toward the tree line, safe from the storm surge caused by hurricanes. and the heat of the beach.

It settled under a bush and, with the laborious flapping of its fins that created a hole in the sand, it laid white golf-ball-sized eggs, falling one by one, for a total of 132.

“It is an experience impossible to describe, it is even joyous to see her arrive, to see her lay her eggs (and) return to the water,” said park ranger Varela.