Shelling out in Barbados

Jessica Pook discovers how Barbados is protecting its resident turtle population and how best to see them in their natural environment

I am handed a full face mask – the size of a dinner plate – and feel slightly self-conscious as I struggle to secure it around both my chin and forehead simultaneously. Looking like some sort of strange tropical astronaut, I wade into the water and submerge myself, breathing freely without a mouthpiece and not a hint of condensation. Genius!

Since arriving in Barbados evidence of the island’s resident turtles have followed me everywhere, from wooden magnets in the gift shops, to ‘turtle crossing’ road signs, to elaborate paintings in the hotel lobby. Despite the signs, I know nothing is guaranteed when it comes to nature – a lesson learnt on a fruitless whale, puffin and iceberg watching trip last year.

I bypass the turtle boat tours and instead take a local’s advice to head to Carlisle Bay, hire a snorkel and go on a solo search.Watching the tourists board the boats I’m sceptical to say the least, but within 10 minutes I’ve already had my first sighting.

Barbados turtle
Barbados Tourism

A few metres directly below me, shell glistening in the sun’s rays, is the most perfect green turtle. Convinced it’s just beginner’s luck, I watch it sweep the sandy bed with its flippers before it pushes off and glides effortlessly into the distance, totally unphased by me.

I continue swimming, scouring the seabed intently for any movement, when I’m unnerved by something floating at the surface. A hawksbill turtle, one of the rarest types, bobs just inches from me and I lift my head above water to see it flare its nostrils and take a breath, eyes wide at the world beyond, before it retreats to the seabed with a few powerful strokes. This is by far the highlight of my trip.

I look over to the boats in the distance where groups of snorkellers circle and laugh in disbelief at how accessible these creatures are: no guides, no food bribes, just authentic encounters.

It then dawns on me just how many boats there are along this stretch of beach.Whirring propellers and zipping jetskis skim the surface so close to where these turtles come up for air. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Conservation first

Barbados con
The Barbados Sea Turtle Project Facebook

It’s no secret that humans are having a negative impact on the survival of these gentle creatures. I’ve seen evidence of turtles with lost limbs and passed multiple road signs alerting drivers at turtle crossing points, but it’s light pollution and poaching that are the main contributors towards the critically endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles.

The Barbados Sea Turtle Project is offering a helping hand. Their work includes a 24-hour response to public reports of hawksbill and leatherback turtle nesting and hatching, nightly surveillance of beaches to closely monitor nesting activities and to deter potential poaching attempts of nesting females and their eggs, tagging and monitoring of hawksbill and green sea turtles in near shore waters and conducting extensive public education programmes on sea turtles.

“Hawksbill turtles return to nest on the beach that they were born on,” says a volunteer for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, “but only around one in every 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood, so they really do need all the help they can get.”

Barbados has one of the largest hawksbill nesting populations in the Caribbean but the careful females emerge under the cover of darkness to lay their eggs.

“We don’t get much sleep during the nesting season (between May-November), but seeing the hatchlings safely make it to the surf makes it worthwhile”.

Barbados hatch
The Barbados Sea Turtle Project Facebook

In 2021 The Barbados Sea Turtle Project rescued over 63,000 critically endangered hawksbill hatchlings during the nesting season and cared for 100 special needs turtles in the turtle ICU.

Visitors looking to get involved in the project can help out on an egg retrieval, which takes place if the eggs are too close to the water or roads and have to be moved to a safe spot. Monitoring nesting turtles and hatchlings is also part of the role.

“Our turtles are very special to us,” Cheryl Carter, Director UK at Barbados Tourism Marketing, tells me. “One of my fondest memories is sitting on a beach with family when suddenly the sand around me starts shifting and next thing I know I’m surrounded by baby turtles!

“We’re lucky to have The Barbados Turtle Project specialising in the conservation and protection of these animals.”

Cheryl tells me how islanders have a strong connection and respect for the sea and operate regular beach clean-ups. Meanwhile the tourist board has a goal of being plastic-free and 100% green and carbon-neutral by 2030.

Shipwreck capital

Barbados ship
Barbados Tourism

As well as swimming with turtles, there’s an abundance of marine life to discover in the calm waters of the west coast. The island is known as the ‘shipwreck capital of the Caribbean’, with 25 wrecks to explore, six of which are in the Carlisle Bay area.

I don flippers and a wetsuit and tumble into the water in search of the longest one, the Bajan Queen, at over 36 meters long.

Circling the wreck I spot starfish, stingrays and three giant Tarpon with their shark-like fins. It’s enough to send me back to the shallows, but deep diving enthusiasts continue to The Folkestone Marine Park in search of the Stravronikita, which lies 35 metres underwater, creating a reef of corals, sponges and other deep-sea dwellers.

Above the water Barbados is a beautiful island that is home to friendly locals, a fascinating rum history and weekly parties at Oistins fish fry! But there’s no doubt the underwater world is the top ‘shelling’ point.

Book it with… Sandals

A seven-night stay at Sandals Barbados on an all-inclusive basis is priced from £2,277pp, including direct flights with Virgin on November 30 from London Heathrow, transfers and taxes. Scuba diving is part of the all-inclusive package for certified divers.