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From the Ground: Visiting a sea turtle hatchery in Con Dao National park, Vietnam.

Photo Credit: April Cole

With over 2,000 miles of pristine coastline, and thousands of off-shore islands, Vietnam is home to a wide arrange of endangered marine turtles. It’s a natural paradise that has been a nesting ground for many species over multiple generations. The protected, Con Dao National park is an archipelago situated less than 200 miles from the bustling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. This island refuge is an important habitat for sea turtles that lay their eggs from April through September. The park presently protects 14 beaches which cover thousands of square miles of important turtle nesting locations. Some of the endangered turtles that nest here include the Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley.

Because sea turtles return to the beaches where they were hatched to lay their eggs, this park was critical in protecting marine turtles across the globe. This unique and diverse ecosystem also protects many species of specialized coral, dolphin and the endangered dugong, a cousin of North America’s manatee. In 2006 a delegation of Vietnamese UNESCO representatives surveyed the area and recognized the importance of saving this natural animal habitat, with future hopes of it becoming a World Heritage site.

During the breeding season, from July to October, the conservation rangers work day and night, protecting the sea turtle’s buried eggs and nests. Once the eggs are laid, rangers record their measurement and statistical information, attach tags to the mother’s fins and move the new eggs to a safe location for incubation. After 46 to 60 days of incubating, the rangers return the hatched baby turtles to the ocean.

Carefully controlled numbers of park visitors are able to witness the mother’s arrival throughout the laying season. Fortunate visitors may also be able to assist in the release of recent hatchlings. For every 1000 baby turtles, only one will grow old enough to continue the reproductive cycle. Hatchlings are released about 10 to 15 feet from the ocean. This rite of passage helps them find their way using sound and light from the beckoning water. This important step will help them to return to the same beach where they were born 30 years later to lay their eggs, just as their mothers did.

Here is a firsthand turtle account from Journey’s Within’s very own, April Cole.

Photo Credit: April Cole

——  I spent the morning relaxing at the beautiful Poulo Condor Boutique resort and Spa and met my guide at 3:30 in the afternoon to transfer to the Con Son Port. After a 45 minute wooden boat ride, I arrived at a sparkling patch of water just off the coast of Bo Dap beach for some snorkeling. The water was warm and the fish were plenty, and it was a great afternoon at sea.

Photo Credit: April Cole

After snorkeling, I was excited to continue my journey on to Con Son Island. This island is renowned for having some of the greatest concentrations of marine turtle nesting sites in the Con Dao National park archipelago. A short walk led us to the Bay Canh ranger station where visitors have the chance to learn about the mangrove forest, and its important role in the delicate environment on Con Dao.

Dinner was served at 6pm – and by dinner, I mean I paid $1 for a Cup of Noodles, and by 7:00; I joined an evening ranger talk on turtle nesting facts and etiquette for unobtrusively watching the mother turtles laying their eggs. The turtles give birth in the wee hours of the night, so sleeping was not much of an option. My rustic, off the grid accommodations, were set up at the park ranger station. Hammocks were hung in a shared sleeping space, but luckily I had the place to myself. I relaxed in my hammock, reading a book, letting the sound of the wave’s sooth me to sleep. It would have been much nicer if there was a mosquito net so the bugs weren’t so much a bother, but that’s something we’ll prepare for our guests in the future. The ranger station is the only human habitation on the island.  This authentic experience is not the typical night at the Four Seasons; realities of life in a wilderness national park reflect a simple life of few modern comforts and conveniences. This is a “Roughing It” real world experience. My excitement to see the turtles and the peace and quiet of no cell phones, radios or television, eclipsed my need for any luxury accommodations.

Photo Credit: April Cole

At about midnight, I was joined by a small group of tourists who came over for the evening and we were guided by a ranger out to the beach to await our first guest from the sea. Around 1am, the first mother pulled up onto the sandy beach. The ranger said she was the impressively sized Green Turtle, which can weigh in at roughly 650 pounds. These impressive creatures have the same lifespan as a human and will travel thousands of miles in open sea for over 80 years.

Photo Credit: April Cole

The ranger told us to wait until she had dug her hole to lay her eggs. We saw two mothers give birth that night and stayed up with the mama’s from about 1-4am. The ranger gently collected the soft eggs to bury them safely in the sand hatchery.

Thrilled and exhausted, I napped until about 5:30am when the ranger woke me to see a batch of turtle eggs hatch that had been incubating in the hatchery. The ranger gathered the little brood into a basket, and we each helped to release the little baby’s from the shore to the sea, to make their way in the world. Baby turtles are pretty much the cutest creatures ever. Watching the little turtles head out to the ocean for the first time was absolutely beautiful.

Photo Credit: April Cole

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