Just how many times can you watch a turtle swim around its pool in the pouring rain?
Well, despite the weather, the turtles fascinated me. There is something primeval about them--something slow and ponderous, as if they have just emerged from the Jurassic or Cretaceous age. With their strong jaws, leathery backs, and protruding eyes, they do look like something out of the age of the dinosaur. They are something rare and special, and the sanctuary I visited was set up to protect this exceptionally endangered species.
Brazil has some of the greatest turtle populations in the world. It definitely has some of the longest tropical coastline in the world--a coastline whose temperature starts to rise just north of Sao Paolo and stretches tens of thousands of miles, around the bump of South America to Guyana and Venezuela on the Caribbean coast. These thousands of miles of unspoilt beaches are where turtles have hauled themselves up to lay their eggs for millions of years. Unfortunately, due to the depredations of man, the sea turtles that use this coast are in trouble. Project Tamar at the turtle sanctuary seeks to reverse this decline by releasing new turtles into the sea each year from its beaches.
And I must admit that I have a weakness for animal viewing. I was a week in Salvador de Bahia, and while I met friends in the evening, I felt I had time to take one excursion out of the city, and Project Tamar was my first choice. A very good travel agency on the Terreiro de Jesus fixed me up with a day trip for fifty reals. Salvador has been on the domestic Brazilian tourist circuit for many years (it is seen as very exotic even by Brazilians) but has only just been building the big resorts for international tourists. We stopped at a few of these on our way north out of Salvador and the big chain hotels looked out of place in Ondina and Pituba. The northern suburbs of Salvador stunned me - I did not expect beach after beach after beach. They were lined with Afro-Brasileiros clutching surfboards, showering off the sand, or just hanging out with friends. Some Bahians may be very poor, but the beach is free.
North of Salvador, we cleared the suburbs and followed the A102 along the Bahian coast. This is where the famous dunes of the Northeast start. They were also covered in palm forests. One of the biggest exports of Bahia is cashew nuts. The nuts are poisonous in their natural state and have to be baked before they can be exported and eaten. Swathes of palm forest covered the resort of Praia do Forte which twenty years ago was a small fishing village of 200 people and now is a big, sanitised resort with a purpose built tourist village selling T-shirts, jewellers, surf boards and beachwear. It was the same antiseptic, spiffy clean as I remember from Buzios - not a street child or beggar in sight. However, the hawkers were just as persistent as they were in Pelhurinho.
The turtle sanctuary is at the end of the main street and costs 6 reals. Inside was a beach (praia), and thick and deep white sand covered everything, and dotted around were a number of pools and aquariums. The pools contained sea creatures - sand sharks, rays, and a monster fish called a 'Mero'. There was a tub full of baby turtles and a huge pool of sharks and eels. Rain was now coming down, making the sand rather sticky to walk on, and each pool was now splattered with rain droplets. But I entered into the spirit of the excursion and was impressed to see the whole project backed onto the beach. Turtle eggs were buried on the beach, ready to hatch; each one was covered in wire netting to protect it from predators. Project Tamar has a big responsibility. It watches and protects the hundreds of turtle nesting sites hundreds of miles up the Brazilian coast. It boasts reintroducing 100,000 new hatchlings to the wild each year.
And can you view the adult turtles? There were truly some monsters there - according to the literature, one of the big male turtles was over 60 years old. Most were too old or two unhealthy to cope by themselves in the wild, so instead they swim around saltwater pools and are ogled by hundreds of tourists. I must admit they are friendly - a couple of the larger hawksbill turtles would come to the pool edge and snort hello. One of the best pools was a large central one containing six huge monsters. A humpback bridge crossed where you could watch these big titans, which were often four feet in diameter, effortlessly glide below you...
I found myself absolutely enchanted by these creatures. Rain? Ha! Who cares...