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Turtle-watching in French Guiana: tips from a naturalist

Could there be a more moving sight than a sea turtle emerging from the waves, digging its nest in the sand, and laying dozens of eggs?

Regularly frequented by three species, the beaches of French Guiana are some of the best in the world for turtle-watching. Anaïs Gainette, coordinator of the National Action Plan for Sea Turtles in French Guiana, shares some tips and stories to help us make the most of this incredible experience.

400kg expectant mothers
The olive ridley sea turtle can lay up to 110 eggs in a single nest.

Sea turtles spend almost all their lives out at sea, only leaving the water on rare occasions every two or three years to lay and then leave their eggs. French Guiana, a popular laying site for three protected species – the leatherback, Pacific ridley, and green sea turtles – is therefore an outstanding destination. Anaïs Gainette tells us why: “In the same place you can see the world’s biggest turtle, the leatherback, which can weigh up to 400kg and is the only turtle without carapace nor shell, instead protected by a leathery back, and the smallest sea turtle, the Pacific ridley, measuring just over 60cm and weighing 40kg, but able to lay up to 110 eggs in a single nest”.

Eggs like ping pong balls
Green turtles are one of the three protected species of sea turtle found in French Guiana.

“In French Guiana, you’re guaranteed a turtle sighting!” the naturalist assures us, “And in perfect conditions because it isn’t too touristy”. There’s no businesses here so no mass excursions with a predefined route and expensive charge. You just need to go for a stroll along the beach at night, in perfect freedom, between February and the end of August, and you’re guaranteed to see an expectant mother very busy digging a hole in the sand and then firing out tens of eggs like ping pong balls. “To avoid disturbing them, we always stay behind the ladies”, Anaïs Gainette advises, “and use a torch with a red light”. Kwata, a highly active charity in French Guiana that works to protect the environment and promote respectful turtle-watching, hands out stickers that you can affix to your torch to dampen the light.

My beachfront karbay

The peak viewing period at the two main sites is in June and July. Historically, Awala-Yalimapo in the Alama nature reserve in north-west Guiana, 270 kilometres from the capital, is the most popular. But for the past decade or so, leatherback turtles have colonised the beaches on the Cayenne spur. “Even with the three hour drive, I recommend experiencing Awala-Yalimapo, an authentic Native American village”, Anaïs Gainette advises. “It’s the most unspoilt site. There’s fewer people, and the emotions run stronger”. The ideal plan is to stay in a karbay, a traditional and extremely picturesque dwelling, and sample some of the local cuisine.

Tanning with turtlets
Like this leatherback turtle, all baby turtles try to reach the sea.

Laying season ends in late August, with the little Pacific ridley sea turtles being the last to drag themselves up onto the sand. But the eggs left at the bottom of the hole, carefully camouflaged, hatch 60-70 days later. And that is a spectacle just as heart-melting because the turtlets, the cute but not very scientific name for baby turtles, struggle to emerge from their nest and make their way out to sea. “Until mid-October, relaxing and catching some rays on Cayenne’s beaches, you might find yourself eye-to-eye with a turtlet”, Anaïs recounts. And that’s the type of encounter you remember for the rest of your life!

Getting to French Guiana