Onlookers watch from a safe distance as a mother pawikan lays her eggs on the beach in Urbiztondo, San Juan, La Union.
A VIP visits La Union
Artemio Dumlao (The Philippine Star) - November 4, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — La Union’s phenomenal tourism pitch “Surf Break” got another break last week – a visit from a VIP. 

Not just any VIP, but a Very Important Pawikan, an olive ridley sea turtle that came ashore last Sunday afternoon in Barangay Urbiztondo in San Juan town to lay her eggs.

Sea turtles like olive ridleys lay their eggs in the spot where they hatched. Thus, this VIP was probably hatched in Urbiztondo some 25 years ago.  

Laying 101 eggs that Sunday afternoon just before sunset, the usually noise- and light-shy mother pawikan slowly approached the shore, the same sandy grounds where hundreds of mother olive ridleys have been hatching. A delighted La Union Surf Break crowd witnessed the rare natural spectacle, said Carlos Tamayo, coordinator of Project CURMA (Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions), a pawikan conservation and protection program supported by the Science of Identity Foundation (SIF-CARE). 

Supported by policemen, Coast Guard Auxiliary, men and women from the Bureau of Fire Protection, Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Office, Urbiztondo barangay captain Eric Valdriz, CURMA volunteers managed the excited crowd to create a safe perimeter around the nesting turtle.

The mother sea turtle was tagged and measured before it returned back to the sea with a rousing send off by the Surf Break crowd, added Tamayo.   

The nest was transferred to the CURMA hatchery nearby for safe monitoring and release after 50-60 days.  

Tamayo said there are already two nests at the hatchery since the nesting season started earlier this month. Nesting season ends in February. The first nest has 85 eggs and the second has 118.

Sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are one of very few creatures – manatees are another – that eat sea grass. Sea grass needs to be constantly cut short to help it grow across the sea floor.   

Sea turtle grazing helps maintain the health of the sea grass beds. Sea grass beds in turn provide breeding and developmental grounds for numerous marine animals. Without sea grass beds, many marine species humans harvest would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain.  The chain reactions could result in many more marine species eventually becoming endangered or extinct.

Furthermore, only sea turtles feed on jellyfish. If they become extinct, the deadly jellyfishes would multiply exponentially, according to CURMA.

Tamayo is optimistic that more turtles would be coming in to nest in the following months. “Let us all keep the beaches clean, quiet and safe for all, humans and turtles,” he urged.

Unfortunately, the booming tourism industry in San Juan is challenging the nesting grounds of the olive ridley turtles, CURMA warned.   

Recently, an establishment began building right where the nesting ground is in Urbiztondo. But fortunately conservationists, including CURMA, reacted in time and raised questions that prompted the environment department to shut down the planned restaurant. 

“We are transient caretakers of the Earth and should act responsibly towards all living beings and Mother Earth herself,” Tamayo pointed out. “Together we must stand to protect our beaches and environment so that those living beings like the pawikan will still have their homes.”  

Two years ago, a huge international hotel chain planned to build on the beach of San Juan, a popular surfing site, along the nesting ground. But CURMA and the San Juan local government negotiated with the developer not to build too close to the nesting site.

While the waves and the sand are a big tourism draw for this La Union town, it is equally important that residents and visitors take care of their environment, so that all VIPs – Very Important Persons as well as Very Important Pawikans – can together enjoy the surf and the sand for a long, long time.

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