Story: Huynh Phuong 
Photos: Nguyen Ngoc Thien

Learn about the long-term efforts to protect sea turtles in the Con Dao Islands

Con Dao has long been renowned for the pristine beauty of its azure sea and white sand, as well as the fiery patriotic history that left an indelible mark on these islands. This Ba Ria – Vung Tau archipelago is also a favorite destination for scuba divers thanks to one of the most diverse and vibrant marine ecosystems in Vietnam. Con Dao is home to many ongoing and successful sea turtle conservation and rescue projects.

The eggs are carefully collected and counted before being brought

Con Dao’s sea turtles

There are seven species of sea turtles on the global list of protected species, making the hunting and trading of these species illegal in most countries. According to Con Dao National Park, the majority of turtles in its waters are green sea turtles (also known as black turtles or Pacific sea turtles). The peak season for mother turtles to nest and lay eggs is between June and September. Nesting sites include 18 sandy beaches in Con Dao National Park. The turtles lay eggs on Cau Island, Tre Lon Island, and Tai Island, but the most important nesting site is the large sandy beach of Bay Canh Island.

When night falls, a mother turtle comes ashore to lay eggs on the sandy beach

A diver who loves sea turtles

Nguyen Ngoc Thien (born in 1988) works as a service manager for a French multinational corporation in Ho Chi Minh City but moonlights as a diver and photographer. He has explored many coastal regions across the country and made repeated diving trips in Con Dao National Park, mainly on Bay Canh Island, where many national and international conservation projects (organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – IUCN) are taking place.

Mr. Thien shared many interesting anecdotes from his trips beneath the sea. “During the mating season, Con Dao’s sea turtles tend to appear in coral reefs and seagrass meadows. Once, while diving, our whole group saw two green turtles, but they were quite shy and swam away very quickly at the sight of us. At the end of the session, when we were preparing to swim back, we met an adult green turtle, about 1.2 m long, relaxing on the seafloor. It seemed used to humans, so I took the chance to dive down for two or three minutes. I got close enough to observe it and take pictures. I even swam along with it for a while at the bottom of the sea, before saying my excited goodbyes. This was a precious moment of serendipity, the fateful bond between humans and nature in Con Dao.”

Mr. Thien has also captured photos of sea turtles feeding in the seagrass meadows scattered along Con Dao’s seafloor, searching for mates, and even mating.

Watching over a mother turtle as she lays eggs on the beach of Bay Canh Island

Bringing sea turtles to life

Park rangers are the attentive and professional “midwives” of Con Dao’s sea turtles. Mr. Thien and his diving group were given detailed instructions by Ranger Pham Trung Kien to assist the sea turtles in giving birth on Bay Canh Island.

As night falls, the rangers walk across the beaches to watch for turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. Depending on the tides, mother turtles give birth from 10 pm to 5 am the next morning. They dig a hole about 50 to 60 cm deep and 20 cm wide with their front legs, and lay about 80 to 200 eggs in the hollow. Afterward, park rangers will check the mother turtles’ tags for their records, or tag them if they haven’t been identified already. After the turtle has finished giving birth and returned to the sea, the rangers will mark the nest, gently count the eggs, and bring them to the incubating area. At about 10 am the next day, they will check on the incubating eggs, dig new holes, and sharpen bamboo trees into markers to write the date of egg collection and the number of eggs in the hole. At 3 pm, they fill the birthing holes from the night before. The day-and-night birthing process of the sea turtles on Bay Canh Island continues for many days during the peak egg-laying season in Con Dao National Park.

At sunrise, a mother turtle digs a nest on the sandy beach of Bay Canh Island

Mr. Thien recounted a memory of seeing a mother turtle come ashore to lay eggs. “Some nights, I waited lying down on the beach for five hours straight,” recalled Mr. Thien. “The atmosphere of the islands is very quiet and serene, with nothing but endless night skies and waves lapping the sand. While enjoying the pure air from the pristine sea and skies, I fell asleep without meaning to. I was awakened by rustling noises to find a shadow right next to me, digging in the sand to make her nest.”

Releasing baby turtles into nature

The eggs hatch into baby turtles after 45 to 60 days depending on the temperature. Mr. Thien described the joy and excitement of accompanying the rangers to release the baby turtles. Watching hundreds of baby turtles crawl slowly into the sea gave him a sense of hope and freedom.

A swimmer has a close encounter with a green sea turtle

“Sea turtles are excellent at recognizing visual imagery and locations. After 20 to 30 years, the adults will return to the same place where they were born to lay their eggs. This is why rangers must release the turtles from the beaches and let them crawl into the sea by themselves. The way to the sea is only some dozens of meters across the sand, but the path is imprinted in their brains so that the sea turtles can return to their place of origin and continue their species. Thus, to conserve nature in general and marine life in particular, we can’t only do as we want. We must do what these animals truly need,” shared Mr. Thien.

A green sea turtle eats sea grass in the waters of Con Dao

In fact, sea turtle populations are constantly threatened by predators, diseases, and human capture. With high death rates and low survival rates, in addition to a long growth period, only one out of 1,000 sea turtles lives to adulthood.

To continue the efforts to save sea turtles, we must act together to protect and conserve their habitats and marine ecosystems, in addition to further expanding sea turtle conservation efforts. From 1995 to date, the unceasing efforts of the Con Dao National Park Management Board have assisted over 21,000 sea turtle nests, with a hatching rate of over 80 percent. To date, about 1.5 million baby turtles have been released from Con Dao into the sea.