Hamamatsu is the largest city in Shizuoka—the prefecture in central Japan most famous for sharing Mount Fuji with neighboring Yamanashi Prefecture. Yet a spectacular event happens annually here that manages to fly mostly out of sight of the national tourism radar.
From May to August, loggerhead sea turtles come out of the ocean and onto the beaches of Hamamatsu’s Nakatajima Beach in an instinctual ritual—the laying of their eggs. The sea turtle mothers drag themselves onto the dunes after a nearly 30-year time away, riding the currents from their western Pacific birthplaces to the American and Central American west coasts to feed.
The eggs hatch from mid-August to early October, and it’s during this time that volunteers from the Sanctuary Nature Center begin their yearly process of protecting the eggs. For ¥800, locals and tourists can apply to release a baby loggerhead into the ocean by hand, as well.
The Sanctuary Nature Center
The Sanctuary Nature Center, a research institute covered with giant loggerhead sea turtle replicas at Nakatajima Beach, focuses most of the year on educating the public on conservation. It does, however, take on the role of nurturers once the eggs are buried by the sea turtles.
After mom has retreated into the ocean, the eggs, similar in shape and size to ping pong balls, are dug up and reburied in a safe location that is monitored by the sanctuary until they hatch. The eggs are soft but leathery, which keeps them from breaking when falling into the nesting hole. The loggerhead hatchlings use a tiny horn on their noses to tear the shell open at birth.
We lined up parallel to the ocean, and, all at once, set the turtles free.
While this may sound like a delicate and sensitive process, it’s often a part of local school field trips. It’s a wonderful learning experience for children, but it’s also a testament to how tough the turtles are and how they have to survive the most dangerous period of their lives—the start.
Once the eggs hatch, the baby turtles begin a fight for survival, crawling their way to the ocean to grow and begin the cycle anew. Their journey from the egg to the ocean is now much more dangerous due to humans. Due to threats such as hunting, global warming, waste and artificial light, these creatures are vulnerable globally. Thus, Sanctuary Nature Center volunteers take the opportunity to give the baby turtles a head start—and anyone can apply to join in the experience.
With the eggs collected, the turtles can hatch without the threat of predators, humans or environmental dangers thwarting their journey to the sea. The hatchlings are then brought to the beach in batches, where they’re freed by research workers and volunteers.
To enter the beach as a participant, visitors need to stop by the sanctuary and register. It’s best to do this beforehand, either with a visit or by phone, as it’s first-come, first-serve signup.
Inside, participants are given stickers to be worn for identification and a larger sticker can be exchanged to experience releasing a baby turtle—one per group. Depending on the size of the crowd, that could even mean one per person.
After a brief seminar on the turtles, their birthing process and how to properly hold the newborns, they’re released at sunset in what makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
Human error and intervention
I arrived at the sanctuary in the midafternoon with my wife and friends. The beach was busy, but, surprisingly, very few people were lining up for the release.
Our guides directed us to the embankment area west of the dunes under a small awning for a presentation. A local American expat and sanctuary volunteer explained the loggerhead life cycle and said that egg numbers are about 25% less than prior years.
Plastics in Japan’s oceans and waste left behind from gatherings remain an issue. Seaside construction has also added a concerning number of stones to the shoreline, making it difficult for turtles to climb onto the sand—often forcing them to find somewhere else to nest or not to nest at all.
It all seemed so much bigger than me, and the experience left me with intense gratitude and respect for marine life.
While Nakatajima isn’t the only nesting beach in Japan, it is a part of a large Japanese city. As a result, beachgoers come in high numbers throughout the summer and are asked to take special care not to damage or alter the nesting environment.
Driving on the beach, for example, has been deemed illegal to stop drivers from creating trenches in the sand—potentially trapping turtles. Summer occasions remain a problem for prospective nesters. As disheartening as it was to hear about their conservation struggles, sanctuary workers steadily applaud the local government’s efforts to improve turtle survival. Overall, the public is complying, and events like these further encourage people to pack out what trash they bring in.
Seeing them off
Then I saw the realization of Sanctuary Nature Center’s conservation efforts with my own eyes. In a plastic foam cooler, over 30 tiny turtles were waiting to beeline to the ocean without obstacles.
Stickers were traded for hatchlings, one by one until it came to me. I felt an overwhelming amount of responsibility in that initial moment, as this fragile creature was squirming in my hands as only a newborn could. Yet, as much as I wanted to hold and observe it more, I felt an equal eagerness to get the hatchling to its ocean home.
We lined up parallel to the ocean, and, all at once, set the turtles free.
Some ran towards the ocean. Some ran towards the sun. Others ran towards each other, but each one of them made it to the water. A series of sincere goodbyes and well wishes were yelled as if we were seeing off beloved family members for possibly the last time.
They’re so frail and gentle but also strong and determined. Without a way of knowing exactly how far they’ll make it beyond the beach, all a person can do is hope. That realization turned even the most reserved of us into proud parents. The cheering made the dream seem tangible.
As quickly as it began, they were gone. Per the advice of our guide, everyone leaving the beach that day left with handfuls of bottle caps, chopstick wrappers, fishing lines and various other loose plastics that were scattered along the coast.
Holding the baby turtle in my hands that day—what human pollution directly affects—made me want to do more to protect their habitat, and recalling my time with those delicate, beautiful animals reminds me of how important what I experienced was. They’ve left me constantly asking myself how I can do more.
I wish this profound encounter for everyone, and I hope to see it added to the itineraries of more future visitors to the region. It all seemed so much bigger than me, and the experience left me with intense gratitude and respect for marine life.
Plan your visit
Plan your sea turtle experience now by visiting the Sanctuary Nature Center of Hamamatsu website. There, you can find updates on the hatching and release schedule. Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore on Nakatajima Beach to lay eggs from May to August. The eggs hatch from mid-August to early October.
If you’d like to view the turtles coming ashore or the hatching process, please follow observation rules and take the utmost care not to disturb the sea turtles. You can learn more about the area by browsing the Hamamatsu tourism page. Also, visit the SeeTurtles.org page for more advice on how to help protect sea turtles in your area.
Are you interested in environmental conservatism? What do you think we can do to make Japan a better place for animal welfare? Let us know in the comments!