The Sea Turtle Restoration Project and SOS Tobago say MTV and show producer Bunim/Murray ran roughshod over leatherback sea turtles, specifically they are accused of destroying nesting areas for the endangered turtles during filming of reality competition The Gauntlet on Turtle Beach in Tobago.
For its part, the production company says the accusations are not true.
"Heavy equipment, the presence of about 90 film crews and the removal of sand blocked numerous turtles from nesting and destroyed an estimated eight nests containing approximately 400 eggs," said the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. "Numerous other eggs are now buried beneath densely compacted sand without any hope for escape for the hatchlings."
The Resoration Project could have been trying to capitalize on Bunim/Murray's high-profile presence on the island and nesting beach to promote a documentary, Last Journey for the Leatherback?, that will air on Free Speech TV (Dish Network) July 15, but Restoration Project's Robert Ovetz called the timing coincidental (it sent out a release Monday on the documentary), saying it has already aired at hundreds of festivals.
In a statement, Bunim/Murray countered the group's charges, saying: “Bunim-Murray Productions worked closely with all relevant environmental and governmental agencies in Tobago, including the Ministry of Tourism of Trinidad and Tobago, the Tobago House of Assembly, the Environmental Management Authority, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment to insure that all production-related activities were ecologically sound and respectful of Tobago’s natural resources. Any claim to the contrary is false.”
Ovetz says MTV and Bunim/Murray refused requests to move the filming of the show to another beach not frequented by the turtles.
They did move the set back a few feet from the water, said Ovetz, but not enough to make a difference, he says. There are only about 30,000 leatherbacks left, he said, and this two-month nesting period was "absolutely the worst time" for the filming in terms of potential impact on the 40 or 50 nests on the beach.
Tanya Clovis of SOS told B&C that their group initially asked that the set be moved to another beach. "Unbeknownst to them, they were setting up on the biggest turtle nesting beach in Tobago," she said.
For logistical and budgetary reasons that was not an option, she says. In addition to moving the set back some 10 feet, she says, security guards on the set tried to contact the group when a turtle was approaching the set. "We tried to give them a kind of crash course in what to do," she says.
But there were also things the group couldn't affect, she said, like show staffers pounding stakes into the nesting area on the last day for a volleyball contest. Ultimately, she said, it was just one more hit for the turtles, who have had a bad nesting season due to flooding.
"It was kind of tragic all around," she said.
"We are calling for MTV to contribute to efforts to repair the damage they caused to the beach, contribute to ongoing sea turtle conservation efforts and negotiate a code of conduct that can be a model for Hollywood," said Ovetz.
MTV had no immediate comment on the turtle fans' demands.
The Trinidad & Tobago Express newspaper seemed to foreshadow the complaint in a June 19 story when it wrote: "Less than two months after Tobago hosted the '7th Annual Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development,' permission has been granted to the American cable network [MTV] to film part of their series upon the sands of Tobago's most famous, and important, nesting site for globally-endangered Leatherback turtles - Turtle Beach."
SOS Tobago is a small group on the island that monitors the nesting turtles. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is a California-based group working to save the endangered animals.