Deserted Beaches Are a Boon to Sea Turtles During Nesting Season

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Less pressure from tourism is allowing conservation officials to focus on improving conditions for nesting sea turtles. Neophuket/Shutterstock

Images of empty beaches around the globe may seem strange to us, but to nesting sea turtles, the view has never looked better.

Conservation officials tasked with managing nesting sites are reporting an increase in the number of female turtles returning to beach sites to lay their eggs. Depending on whom you ask, the reasons are either partially due to a lack of tourism or are completely coincidental.

In the eastern Indian state of Odisha, along the beaches of Rushikulya and Gahirmatha, nearly 475,000 olive ridley sea turtles have been creating nests in broad daylight for the first time in seven years. Because officials already take steps to limit tourism pressures during the nesting season, officials don't believe the pandemic lockdown is responsible for the increased numbers.

"If the turtles were indeed responding to the lockdown, then they should have been nesting at Gahirmatha all the time where the beach is permanently locked down, due to inaccessibility and presence of defence establishment," Wildlife Institute of India researcher Bivash Pandav told Mongabay-India. "This is totally absurd and too much imagination by some people. Turtles strictly respond to certain environmental variables like tidal conditions, wind direction, lunar phase, and nest in mass accordingly."

Olive Ridley sea turtles make nests to lay their eggs at Ixtapilla Beach, Michoacan State, Mexico, on July 20, 2018.
Olive ridley sea turtles make nests to lay their eggs at Ixtapilla Beach in Michoacan State, Mexico, in July 2018. ENRIQUE CASTRO/AFP/Getty Images

Still others say the lack of humans is having a positive impact on a turtle's decision to come ashore. In South Florida, where nesting season is just starting, officials say less crowded beaches will likely create some of the best conditions in a long time for turtles coming ashore.

"What we find is fewer humans leads to turtles successfully nesting, as opposed to [the turtles] turning around and going to the water," Justin Perrault, director of research at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, told the Sun Sentinel. This is particularly true during the weekend hours, Perrault adds, when beaches are generally packed with people and conditions are unfavorable for turtles to come ashore.

One thing everyone can agree on: The presence of COVID-19 has allowed conservationists to focus less on keeping people away and more on the well-being of sea turtles.

"We do not allow people to go too close to the nesting hotbeds," Amlan Nayak, district forest officer, Odisha, told Mongabay-India. "But the advantage of lockdown was that we could divert our workforce more towards cleansing the debris on beaches and counting the nesting activities. When tourists come, part of our manpower is diverted to regulate and manage them."