Tour de Turtles Journey from Cuba to Florida

This past Summer, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Maria La Gorda, Cuba, the far most western tip of Cuba as part of the Sea Turtle Conservancy Sea Turtle Expedition.

While the core part of our trip was to tag sea turtles to be entered in the upcoming Tour de Turtles race, the trip also provided a wonderful introduction to Cuba.

Beginning with a two night stay at the Historic Hotel Nacional and a tour of the five plazas in historic Old Havana, we then left Havana for Maria LaGorda.

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On the way to Maria La Gorda we visited Laz Terrazas, a former coffee plantation worked by slaves, that has been reforested and converted into an ecotourism resort. With the end of slavery, coffee was not as profitable. The new resort has provided jobs, education for the community, and a new pride in the local people. A small portion of the area still grows coffee, which we did sample at Caftan Buenavista.

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On our return to Havana, we were able to spend a night in the town of Vinales, in Pinar del Rio. The area is the heartland of Cuba for tobacco, fruits and vegetables, and their fine rum.

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As we were leaving Havana, David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy summarized our trip of exploring the environment, the culture, the people, and the sea turtles of Cuba, and experiencing recreational tourism in a sustainable way. View David Godfrey sharing his thoughts in video below.

The nights on the beach at Maria La Gorda tagging the sea turtles were magical. The night sky was so dark in this remote part of Cuba that one could see Saturn with the naked eye, something I didn't realize was even possible.

While in Maria La Gorda I had the opportunity to speak with Richie Moretti, Director of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key, Florida, which sponsored one of the turtles we tagged in Cuba.

Richie shared some of the many hazards that sea turtles face and some important ideas that humans can implement to help protect them from fishing line, boat strikes and more.

View Richie sharing his thoughts below.

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We were on the beaches for three nights and yet only able to capture, tag, and release turtles on one of them. The night we were successful, we tagged two sea turtles. We worked from 9:00 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. under the knowledgeable and skilled direction of Dan Evans, the Sea Turtle Conservancy technology and research biologist, and Dr. Julio Anza Ricardo, the research scientist in Cuba.

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There are multiple purposes for placing the tracking devices on the sea turtles, including:

  • learning where they go and where they spend their time
  • what areas are important to the sea turtles beyond the nesting areas
  • what foraging and feeding areas they go to
  • how often they come up to nest
  • whether they use the same nesting beaches and do they use different beaches at different times of the year
This is important new research as there has been little tracking of sea turtles in Cuba.

Already through the tracking devices we have seen one turtle Esperanza nest in both Cuba and Mexico traveling first to Belize and then hugging the coast line around the Yucatan. This is the first time a sea turtle has been documented as nesting in two different countries in the same season.

The other turtle Juilia in contrast has gone South toward Nicaragua.

This information is critical for knowing where and how to best develop new sustainable tourism areas and make existing tourist areas more sustainable in their practice.

View an overview video of the project in Dan Evan's own words.

Dr. Julio Anza Ricardo is the scientific coordinator for all the conservation going on in Cuba's protected areas.

A key part of her organization's work is to achieve sustainable tourism particularly in all the coastal resort areas of Cuba. This includes both existing tourism resorts and future ones to be developed with an emphasis on protecting sea turtles. Education is a key part in her work with tourism including developing the protocol on how tourists can interact with the turtles in these resort areas.

View Dr. Julio Ricardo's thoughts below.

Also on the expedition was Gary Appleson, the Sea Turtle Policy Coordinator. Gary provided some thoughts on important policy to protect sea turtles, and equally as important, some of the education that is needed for tourists to best protect them.

Some of the key issues that Gary raised included lighting that protects turtles, the need to keep pets off the beaches, particularly in nesting season, and the need to not build sea walls or other barriers that impede sea turtles from nesting.

Gary expressed hope that Cuba would learn from some of the better models around the world. Specifically in the ares of sea turtle friendly lighting, waste water treatment, and education for tourists who will be visiting sea turtle areas. View Gary's comments below.

When I returned from Cuba, my sea turtle adventure continued later in the month at the Tour de Turtles. Two of my graduate students, Jerry Comellas, and Joshua Calero joined me as we met up with Dan Evans, David Godfrey, and Gary Appleson again as part of a new team to capture, tag, and release the final two turtles for the Tour de Turtles kick-off.

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The Tour de Turtles was started in 2008. Sea Turtle Conservancy describes it as a "fun, educational journey through the science, research and geography of sea turtle migration using satellite telemetry. Created by Sea Turtle Conservancy, with help from sponsors and partners, this event follows the marathon migration of sea turtles, representing four different species, from their nesting beaches to their foraging grounds."

This year there are 14 competitors in the race from Costa Rica, Cuba, Florida, Nevis, and Panama. The University of South Florida Patel College of Global SustainabilityCu, where I teach, is co-sponsoring with Cubamar and Pro Tortuga in Cuba, one of the sea turtles from Panama in the race, named Tortuga Turista,

The kick off for Tour de Turtles begins at the Disney Vero Beach Resort. The resort is a model resort for sustainable tourism, sea turtle conservation, and protection. Key features of the resort include:

  • Amber lighting that keeps all negative lighting away from sea turtles.
  • Closing the beach gates at night to tourists.
  • Educating tourists to close their drapes after sunset if they are facing the beach
  • Daily beach cleaning.
  • Not serving plastic straws or lids with food and beverage at the resort.
  • Developing educational sea turtle programs so that guests will go away not only more informed but actually as ambassadors for sea turtle conservation and protection.

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Dr. Blair Witherington, Sea Turtle Program Manager for the Disney Animal Science and Environment team, and I talked about some of the ways that sea turtle conservation can help humans develop a stronger ethic to address common issues and concerns with sea turtles such as climate change, maintaining a clean environment, and reducing plastics in the ocean.

View Dr. Witherington's comments below:

The Tour de Turtles kick-off includes the release of two sea turtles at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, an evening reception at the Barrier Island Center with fun, food, music, and an auction to benefit sea turtles that evening, and the release of two more sea turtles the following day.

Below are a few videos from the past three years that capture some of the beauty, fun, and excitement of the Tour de Turtles.

I hope you will consider participating this year by supporting one of the turtles in the race and/or coming to the event next year.

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Tour de Turtles Kickoff

2014 Disney Vero Beach

2015 Barrier Island Center

2016 Brooke Vu produced a video log of the event that captures much of the beauty and excitement.

Dr David W. Randle - Director USF Patel College of Global Sustainability Sustainable Tourism, Managing Director International Ocean Institute Waves of Change Blue Community Initiative, and President & CEO WHALE Center.