Go swimming with the turtles in Barbados
Snorkelers in Barbados can get up close with green turtles like this one. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / February 7, 2012)
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A toast to sun-splashed Barbados and three of its biggest attractions.
Turtle snorkels in Barbados are very popular. Tourists on a boat don snorkels and masks and quickly enter the blue-green water off the southern shore of this very British Caribbean island, which typically gets 3,000 hours of sunshine annually.
On this trip, a crew member carried some fish for turtle food.
And they quickly appeared out of nowhere at the bottom, cruising along in 20 feet of water. The shells are very colorful, with leather-like patches and markings.
They were much bigger than I had expected: bodies up to three feet across. Think of a large boulder or a spare tire with flippers, a head and a tail. The biggest ones we saw weighed in excess of 200 pounds. They can get bigger.
They were powerful and graceful, agile enough to twist and snap at small fish that dared come close to the powerful jaws. They were impressive and very cool. They approached the swimmers as if to see what was up.
The turtles are charismatic, even though they all but ignore swimmers. "Get out of my way, there's food here somewhere" seems to be their main message in the water. That meant there were frequent near-collisions and close encounters, but the turtles were unfazed.
We had hawksbill and green turtles (named for the color of their fat, not their shells), a few small ones and several large guys. They must surface regularly to get air.
The swimmers had been issued a few simple warnings: Keep your toes and fingers away from the turtles' jaws. That sounds easy, but actually is a bit trickier as the turtles weave in and out of the mosh pit of swimmers jostling for views.
Also we were told to give the turtles their space, not to chase, grab, harass or ride them.
We were told that we could touch the turtles if they swam by very close. Touch the shell, but not the head, flippers or the tail, especially on the males. The male turtles, it seems, store their penises in their tails. No one wanted to touch that.
The boat operator did not give us fins for our feet because they could injure the turtles.
Barbados is home to four species of sea turtles: the hawksbill and green turtles we saw, plus loggerheads and leatherbacks.
The hawksbill turtles are the most common in Barbados and the most colorful. The name comes from its narrow head and a large beak like that of a parrot. The turtles may be seen on the beaches or in the water.
Barbados has the second-largest hawksbill breeding population in the Caribbean with an estimated 500 nesting females annually. The hawksbill turtles thrive off the island's coral reefs. Sponges are a favorite food.
Green turtles are common in Barbados' waters and they nested on the island for the first time in 2005. They are the species most frequently found on turtle-feeding trips on the island's west coast. They dine largely on sea grass as adults.
The turtles' numbers have dropped because of overfishing, but they have been protected in Barbados since 1998. There is a $25,000 fine and two-year prison sentence for killing sea turtles.
The turtles are closely monitored by the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. It was started in 1987 by the government and the University of the West Indies. Turtles have been tagged to better study their movements. For information, check out http://www.barbadosseaturtles.org.