The Sea of Change Foundation has announced the winner of its competition to design sustainable sea turtle nest boxes.

In partnership with the Science Exchange, the Foundation initiated an exciting new project that directly addresses both threatened species conservation projects and ocean pollution awareness while promoting citizen science.

The “Build A Better Box” Contest invited international students and the general public to propose improved designs for sea turtle eggs incubation boxes using affordable, easily obtainable, and sustainable materials to replace the Styrofoam coolers currently used by many sea turtle conservation projects around the world.

The contest required egg incubation box designs to:

  • be sturdy and light while allowing gas exchange
  • maintain a constant temperature around 30 degrees C
  • keep predators out
  • be easy to assemble and low-cost (< $5USD each)
  • be non-toxic, or biodegradable, or use natural or post-consumer material.

Finalists’ designs ranged from plywood and papier mache boxes to modified water buckets and rustic baskets; all were built, and field tested at a sea turtle nesting beach in Mexico. So as not to endanger any sea turtle hatchlings, the experimental boxes were tested using data loggers buried in moist beach sand within each box.

College interns Cora McClelland and Ellery Newcomer built the prototypes, collected the data and analyzed the results to determine which would perform the best within the parameters of the competition.

After 45 days (the average time for Olive Ridley sea turtles’ nests to hatch), Ms McClelland’s data analysis revealed that the winner was a sphere-shaped basket made of a common tropical vine, cuauhmecate, lined with natural palm fibre. It was found to be cheap and easy to build, sturdy with good gas exchange, and maintained a viable temperature. The addition of a secure lid and cinnamon to deter insects may also be tested moving forward. In the future, making the baskets could involve the local community and provide them with a source of income while contributing to sea turtle conservation.

The winning design was submitted by Karla De La Pena, owner of Boca Divers ecotour company and Jorge Bolivar, founder of the Puerto del Sol Restaurant. Both live in Jalisco, Mexico, where they are surrounded by the wild vines and palms that inspired their entry. The two friends heard about the competition on Facebook and decided to combine their mutual passion for nature with their backgrounds in architecture, art, and marine biology to create a woven basket as a sea turtle egg incubation box.

They have been awarded the cash prize and a visit to the sea turtle nesting beach in San Pancho, Mexico, where their design prototype was built and tested.

“I’m so proud of our interns, grateful for all the innovative design contest entries, and excited about the results of this first step in finding a sustainable alternative for incubating sea turtle eggs,” says Katherine Comer Santos, Director of the Science Exchange International Sea Turtle Internship Programme.

Why was this important? Worldwide, many vulnerable sea turtles’ nesting beaches are managed to protect nests from poaching, sea-level rise, and other threats. Often part of that important management process includes incubating turtle eggs in Styrofoam coolers to insure nest  protection and temperature control. While these coolers can be effective as nest incubators, they aren’t environmentally sustainable.

Studies reveal that Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene foam or EPS) is a pervasive and persistent marine pollutant. Some researchers estimate that petroleum-based plastics, such as EPS, degrade into smaller and smaller pieces but never disappear. Unfortunately, these small pieces then float in the ocean and are ingested by fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. And finally, EPS has a very low recycling rate especially in many of the tropical countries working to protect sea turtles.

“At the Sea of Change Foundation, we support and believe in empowering students and the public to actively participate in community-based conservation” said Samantha Whitcraft, Director of Conservation and Outreach for the Foundation. Importantly, “through the Foundation, 100 percent of donations go directly to support such innovative conservation projects that help ensure future generations can also experience the natural world and its wonders,” concluded Wayne Brown, CEO of Aggressor Adventures and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Foundation.

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