Discovering the Unknown About Turtles

By Jennifer Palma

Discovering the Unknown About Turtles

By Jennifer Palma
UM researchers study a unique ecology in coastal Colombia that hosts large numbers of sea turtles during a growth period that has remained a mystery to experts.

La Guajira, Colombia is not a welcoming place.

The coastal waters are roiling, the arid conditions leave you breathless and the desert landscape of impassable sand dunes are enough to deter curious travelers. 

For those able to make the journey, the unforgiving environment eventually leads to the unique and preserved lifestyle of the Wayúu. As the indigenous people of La Guajira, Colombia, the Wayúu keep the secrets of the land and sea close to their hearts. Now, for the first time, they have shared their knowledge with researchers from the University of Miami.

Funded by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation Grant Program, the expedition this summer created an opportunity for researchers from the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences to study how the unique ecology of La Guajira plays host to sea turtles between nesting and full maturation – a phase of life about which little is known and is assumed to last 20 years. For reasons unknown to researchers, sea turtles not only thrive in this unique environment, but they also seem to return year after year. Catalina Vasquez and Jacob Patus, both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Biology, were joined by Associate Professor Kathleen Sealey to embark on an eye-opening journey into the untapped ecology and culture of the Guajira peninsula.

SUNDAY, JULY 24, 2016

Sealey and her team of researchers start their journey by securing vehicles to haul two weeks’ worth of groceries and any personal items or research equipment they will need for their expedition. They are joined by Lorenzo, a native Colombian and indigenous Wayúu. While many Wayúu are somewhat familiar with Spanish, their main language is Wayuunaiki and the team will need Lorenzo to help communicate throughout their time in La Guajira.

Everyone is acutely aware of the importance of having Lorenzo on board for the mission. Not only is he able to navigate through seemingly endless desert territory without roads, but he will also help connect Sealey, Vasquez and Patus with the indigenous Wayúu.

MONDAY, JULY 25, 2016

The team rises with the sun to begin the first phase of research. Before they can understand why La Guajira seems to be the optimal place for sea turtles to thrive, they must make contact with the local experts—the fishermen. From her experience on previous pilot expeditions, Vasquez knows the importance of maintaining and building relationships with local fishermen who often know most about the ecology and conditions where the sea turtles live.

“The water surrounding La Guajira is difficult to navigate, but the fishermen know exactly where to find the largest fish and turtles, so it is important to have their trust,” said Vasquez. 

The team is optimistic about their first boating excursion, but are soon confronted with realities of the Wayúu—aging boats and equipment and rough conditions in murky, unmanageable water. Sealey enters the water with her snorkel in hopes to observe the sea bottom and look for food items but finds the seas are not as she expected.

“I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face through the dark water,” said Sealey.

Though she will still find ways to collect other needed samples, snorkeling most likely will not be one of them.


Unfavorable boating conditions dictate the plans for the day. Vasquez takes advantage of early morning interviews with fishermen before they face the rough seas. Through her conversations, she is constantly reminded of the knowledge held by the fishermen. The Wayúu often know details that would take a great deal of time for Vasquez and her team to uncover. It is apparent, she notes, that they value the turtles and the sea life that supports their livelihood and family. They are conscious of weather patterns, currents and trends that bring the turtles back year after year. Vasquez and her team will continuously rely on their expertise to guide their expedition.


As Vasquez continues networking and interviewing fishermen, she is able to measure and record other turtles to track their growth and overall health based on their size and weight. Inland, Sealey and Patus take sediment samples and observe the startling environmental changes that have occurred since previous visits.

“We soon realized that the large enclosed areas that we thought were livestock pens are actually gardens that have not been planted for over four years because of the lack of rain,” said Sealey. “The maps from Google Earth showed rivers and lakes that were undetectable; climate change is obviously a major threat to this region.”

The Wayúu people are currently in a five-year drought. The team starts to better understand the challenges the drought has created for a community of people who live off of the land.

“The drought has impacted most farming efforts, even small house plants like Aloe are struggling to survive,” observed Sealey. The team is interested in looking at historical aerial photos to see exactly how the vegetation has changed.


Due to the harsh environmental conditions, there have been times where Vasquez is unable to join the fishermen on their boats or meet them in remote areas where turtle activity is frequent. But the Wayúu fishermen are fearless. A few days prior to the team’s arrival, Vasquez was told that one man had died at sea. While the conditions may not be favorable for fishing, they are part of the reason why the team and the turtles are here.

Over the past few days, Vasquez has continued to work with the fishermen that lead her to locations where they often see turtles. She frequently receives tips and calls throughout the day from fishermen who know she is conducting research. Many times, she offers phone minutes as an incentive for the fishermen to call her when they come across turtles. Despite the severe environment, she remains hopeful that the fishermen will continue to spread the word to others and that they will continue to call.

“It is a mosaic of things in the ecology that make these waters a unique environment,” said Vasquez.

“Coastal upwelling along La Guajira creates deep cold water that rises to the surface and provides nutrients that stimulate phytoplankton and marine plant growth, which is an ideal environment for many types of turtles and other marine life,” added Sealey.


At this point, the research team has spent weeks on their expedition living among the indigenous Wayúu people and find that their network of family and friends is strong. Word of mouth is truly a powerful tool among the Wayúu and the team is thankful for the connections they fostered; it isn’t common for the locals to invite foreigners into their daily lives, especially to speak about their fishing practices. Before they depart, Vasquez receives calls from other fishermen and is able to conduct additional measurements.

As the expedition comes to a close, the team is on track for testing their hypothesis about La Guajira being a hot spot for turtle development. As she had hoped, Vasquez has observed more than 30 juvenile turtles. The fishermen joke about turtles they see on television and how they always appear to be skinny. Vasquez takes this as a sign that they often see large, healthy turtles. Her research, along with the team’s data collection, will provide insight into various ecological factors which encourage the turtles to remain or return to this turbulent coast.

“So much is known about the nesting period for sea turtles, but the gap between nesting and full maturation leaves many unanswered questions. The conditions in La Guajira make it difficult to monitor and collect data, but there may be something here that can provide answers to the many questions regarding growth and maturation,” said Vasquez.

The team has since returned from La Guajira and will continue their research to answer many unknowns surrounding coastal Colombia and the life of sea turtles. Their findings will contribute to the immense undertaking of learning more about how turtles in various ecosystems can thrive during the period of their lives that has been a mystery to researchers and scientists.