Life and Death
Wow, it is so hot here…around 37 degrees hot. I sweated so much in the night that my body constantly felt ‘damp’ so you can imagine I couldn’t wait to jump in the shower.
‘Yikes!’ Even though the morning was already hotting up, my body wasn’t quite ready for the shock surprise iciness of the water! After the quickest shower on record, I dressed and had a look around the camp.
The camp was made up of 5 volunteer bedrooms averaging 8 bunk beds in each. There was a kitchen/serving area, 2 showers, 2 toilets, a chillout and dining area complete with 6 hammocks oh and another smaller area with a table and chairs where you could also chill/read etc. Aww and the camp has 2 pet dogs, Toby and Vicki – Toby was a young, crazy Boxer dog and Vicki was a much older lady who would be quite happy lazing about the camp. I later learnt that Toby liked to lick the toads that came out after the rain haha…ewww. Not sure if they were the hallucinogenic kind but it was funny all the same.
By the time breakfast came out, we’d now met all the other volunteers and laughed about how crappy our journey over was. I loved how diverse the group was. We were a great mix of ages and nationalities ranging from Australia, Canada, Seattle, Ireland, Slovakia and America. I knew these guys were going to be fun to work with.
Our breakfast was so yummy. We had pancakes with strawberry jam paired with a side order of rice and beans (which actually had a bit of a spicy kick to them). We were fed 3 healthy meals per day and all of it being 85% vegan.
10am we were called to a morning meeting with another group of volunteers that lived 5 minutes down the beach. ‘Last’ or previously known as ‘Widecast’ are another sea turtle rescue project that have merged with Tortuga Feliz. They were a much bigger bunch of volunteers (mostly American) along with Marine Biologists and Research Assistants.
The aim of the 10am meeting was to gain everyones stats from the night before. Fabien, the Manager of camp ‘Last’ went round the table asking if there were any hatchlings during the night (for those on hatchery duties) and ‘any eggs collected?’ (for the night patrollers). Not quite knowing what was going on, we knew we’d be up to speed in no time. Stats taken, it was then time to get involved, yay!
I couldn’t wait to get started. We were taken over to a huge model of a leather back turtle and it was BIG! We were shown how to measure the length and the width of the turtle, how to tag them (if they’re not already) and also how to scan them to check if they have been electronically chipped (the kind you’d chip your dog or cat with). Everything is then recorded on the data sheets. Omg, I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing one of these beautiful creatures however, a little nervous as to how I might react – would I get the stats right? What does the turtle do when she sees us? How well will we be able to see in the dark? Will the tagging hurt her? My mind filled with all sorts of questions that I couldn’t keep up with the cogs!
After our training, we helped the other volunteers for ‘operation beach clean up’ where we’d pick up all the litter from beach that had been washed up – we’d do this a few times a week. I couldn’t believe what utter crap we found! It kinda made me feel ashamed and also saddened by humans behaviour. We mainly found plastic/glass bottles, shoes, crisp packets, foam, nappies (of all gross things) oh and a light bulb! I mean…who brings a light bulb to the beach ha?!
“Would you like to watch our new hatchlings being released?” Fabien asked. “Er YESSS!” Karen, Jodi and I didn’t realise we’d be seeing baby turtles this early on so were super excited! “The sand is a lot cooler from 3:30pm onwards which makes it perfect for baby hatchlings to be released. We can’t release them any earlier as the sand will literally cook them and they will die!” Fabien was a real laid back character – a passionate, knowledgable, turtle loving 24 yr old. I couldn’t help but notice the turtle tattoos on his arms. I’d always marvel at them whenever he had his arm deep down a turtles nest! I remember thinking ‘Hmm, that’s a good idea…I could get myself a cute turtle tat to relive this memory!’
3:30pm and Karen, Jodi and I waited patiently for the ‘release’. Volunteers appeared from the hatchery pushing 2 wheelbarrows full of teenie, tiny, wriggly baby leather back turtles! “OMG! How CUTE are they!” They were bursting with energy ready to pull their lil leathery selves across the cool black sand.
I turned to Karen and Jodi and noticed we all had the same wide eyed ‘is this really happening?’ face The first 15 babies were measured, weighed and recorded and then transfered to a smaller bucket. After a final headcount, we took a walk along the beach to find a nice stretch of flat sand – the babies can get stuck in holes or deep footprints so Fabien had to make sure they had an easy run ahead…well, I say easy run, they must be released 15ft from the ocean so they can get used to using their flippers.
The buckets were gently tipped and they were off! I felt like I was watching a ‘behind the scenes’ live recording of a David Attenborough documentary! What an utterly heart warming moment, watching these tiny leatherbacks no more than 5cm long taking their first steps (or should I say flaps?) into life itself. I was standing there in awe watching each one instinctively drag themselves over each and every grain. “Omg, there’s a crab! Will it try and eat them?” I shouted to Fabien and pointed out the little gey crab that nosily popped out of it’s hole in the sand. “Ah, yes, we must scare the crabs because they will try to eat them!” Blimey, these tiny turtles don’t get it easy! So not only do they have to climb up and out of a sandy hole, they then have to flip and flap over 15 ft of sand, avoid predators from above (birds) AND below to finally reach the ocean also full of millions of predators, eek!
I loved how the baby turtles would use their flippers to pull themselves along with a forwards and backwards motion but as soon as the first wave gently kissed them, their flippers would then flap up and down in a butterfly motion! So cute, they’re swimming!
After dinner, our work schedules were distributed and Karen, Jodi and I were put on the graveyard night patrol shift – a 12 to 4 am beach walk. Turtles come ashore to lay their eggs at night so we need night patrollers (covering various shifts) to start walking the perimeters of the beach to find turtles in action. The ultimate aim is to reach the turtles before the poachers do. It was basically a ‘finders keepers’ situation here on the beach. Whoever gets there first are not allowed to interfere with the other – a kind of mutual agreement between poachers and researchers.
To give you a brief overview – the turtles are a protected species here in Costa Rica and it is illegal to collect turtle eggs however, this doesn’t stop the poachers coming. We learnt there are 3 main turtles (depending on the season) that will visit this beach; the leather back, the greens and the Hawksbills. Poachers will collect eggs from all but they will only kill the greens and the hawksbills – Greens and Hawksbills are good for eggs but they are also killed for their meat as well as their valuable shells so you can imagine these are very sought after. Apparently leatherbacks don’t taste very nice plus, they don’t really have the shells…hence the name, ‘leather back’. It is such a heatbreaking affair. Eggs are either sold at the markets or exchanged for crack or marijuana (all great for the drugs trade of course which sadly is still very rife) and shells sold for jewellery or ornamental objects etc…
But moving back to the washed out part of the story! So, it must have been around 8:30pm and everyone was in bed. I was stirring anyway but I could hear a light rain starting to fall and gently tinkle on the roof of our beach hut. This ‘gentle tinkle’ fast became an orchestral monsoon! I’ve never experienced a rain like it! It came down so hard I actually thought the roof of our beach hut was going to cave in and wash us all away. Headlamps were being switched on one by one and pointing directly above to the ceiling. I too looked up to see what everyone was looking at. “Omg, my bed is getting soaked!” Screeched Elizabeth (one of the top bunkers) “My mattress is soaked through, guys we’ve gotta move the beds around”. Poor girl! There was a pool of water right in the middle of her mattress! The 2 lads did the manly thing and helped to move the bunks around and we managed to find a spare mattress so Elizabeth could get back to sleep. Finally, with watery drama’s over, the room went back to black and we all drifted back off to sleep to the sounds of the Niagara falls above!
‘BEEP, BEEP, BEEP’ URGHH…11:30pm and my alarms practically jumping and dancing off my pillow and shouting at me to get out of bed. Unbelievably, the rain was still hamering it’s monsoon concerto but that doesn’t stop the turtles coming out- nor the poachers. So Karen, Jodi and I got dressed, grabbed our headlamps and made our way to the head quarters meeting point.
The stretch of beach is about 8km long and is broken down into sections – Route A/B and route C. So you are basically walking an 8km route (4km along and then 4km back again) so I believe that’s just a smidge under 5 miles of walking.
That night was incredibly hard, well, walking on the sand was the easy part because it was so wet it became more ‘compact’ giving us the ideal surface for walking. But my cheap jungle green primark rain jacket was NOT rain proof AT all haha! Very early on, I was soaked through to the skin with rain (and sweat) and even the skin on my fingers fast became prune like as though warning me it was time to get out of the bath haha. My trousers had become an outer extension of my skin and I think my toes were already evolving and fusing into webbed feet!
We didn’t see any turtles that night. Nevermind, I’m sure we would soon enough. Heading back to our beds at 3:40am, we put our wet selves to bed and tried to sleep. Being damp and sandy just became a way of life here – nothing dried properly due to the humidity and the sand just became a part of you, just like another mole or freckle on your skin.
The death part
Ok so I am not going to sugar coat this section. This is a journal of my true experiences and I will be explaining this in graphic detail to tell you ‘how it is’. Perhaps put down your eggy sandwiches or come back to this part later.
So once a nest has hatched, we must dig the hole, check for stray babies incase there are some that still haven’t made it out as well as remove the hatched/unhatched eggs. Nests are on average 75cm deep so that’s a lot of nest to dig up!
Our guide Candace (an awesome woman from Florida who was just an inspiration to me) took us over to the hatchery and 2 of us pulled on latex gloves and began gently scooping away the sand with our hands. A few lifeless babies were pulled out and put into a bucket. Sometimes they would be almost ‘sleeping’ but just needed to wake up and others were simply dead, quite possibly from suffocation or exhaustion?
Once everything had been exhumed, we’d then move to an area on the beach well away from the hatchery where another hole would be dug (but this time with a spade) – this would become a ‘grave’. (A grave that would always been found later and dug up by the stray dogs! Eww).
Guides would hold torches up to the ‘perfect’ looking eggs to check if they are indeed still alive or dead – you could tell they were alive because you could literally see tiny veins from within the egg which was actually pretty incredible.
“Helen, can you record the data for me?” Candace handed me a clip board and a pen and ushered me to the front. “Um, yeh sure” I felt a bit reluctant as it didn’t take a genius to know what was going to happen next but I felt as though I couldn’t exact say no…I was a volunteer, I was there to work, you couldn’t be a diva about it. I sat close to the ‘grave’ with my legs crossed and pen poised. “So now we’re going to open the unhatched eggs and record what is inside to try figure why they didn’t make it” Candace then held one of the white ping pong looking eggs over the hole. Omg…I was absolutely dreading this. ‘Just be scientific about this Hels..detach and just record the data’ I thought to myself.
The egg shell wasn’t like an ordinary chicken egg with a hard, cripsy outer shell, it was almost leathery like – the skin would dent just like a ping pongs exterior if pressed. Candace gently prized open the eggs one by one. Of course it was totally gross but a part of you is perversly curious to see what is going on in there. We saw some turtles at the very early stages of development which is recorded on a scale of stages between 1,2,3 or 4. (4 being the final stage). Some were deformed, e.g. eyes or flippers were missing, some eggs were literally filled with a mulch of white cottage cheese looking goo – these ones had been infected with a type of fungus. Others were pink inside (salmonella) and some had green or even deep purple hues, again, these were also types of bacteria that had managed to develop inside the egg. The smell was so bad that I just had to breathe in and out of my mouth and keep my ‘scientific – am I bothered face’ on.
We saw one turtle that had made it to the final stages of development, it looked perfect – it’s tiny body was wrapped around the yolk as though still depending on it. That one was kinda hard to look at.
Candace picked up the last egg and remarked how hard it felt. “This one’s got a bit of pressure built up inside”. Again, with my pen ready to write, we waited patiently for her to pull open the egg. ‘SQUELCH’ The egg burst propelling a cloudy white juice which sprayed right across my glasses. A chorus of “Ewwwww” echoed around the volunteers. I kind of sat there a in shock and immediately scratched around for a tissue to wipe off the turtle juice from my specs!
Finally we wrapped up, buried the hole and then headed back to camp for lunch. My comment of “I hope we don’t have omlette for lunch” didn’t go down too well but I really don’t think any of us had the stomach for food at this point.
Later on that day, we had hatchery training so we’d know what to do if we saw baby turtles hatching from their nests. The hatchery must be manned 24/7 not only to check on babies hatching but to protect them from wandering opportunistic poachers.
I was on another 12-4pm night patrol but this time with a guide called Sergio. I LOVED sergio, well everyone did, a 20 something Bolivian guy who oozed passion and enthusiasm and someone who I learnt a lot from.
Walking along the beach front, I noticed something glowing in the sand. Occassionally, when you stepped on the wet sand, I could see these beautiful tiny glowing lights. Sounds strange but the glow would stay just for a few seconds but just enough time for you to see it. “Wow…Sergio, what is that glow?” I was so distracted haha. Sergio explained they were some kind of tiny micro organism that has been washed up from the ocean. “Have you seen the movie, ‘The Life of Pi?’ Well, they are like that. But when there are millions of them together, they produce a brilliant glow!” How amazing!!
35 minutes into our walk we stumbled across a HUGE leatherback building her nest! ‘WOAH!!’ I felt my jaw drop the minute my eyes laid on this beautiful beast. ‘This thing is MASSIVE’ I thought to myself.
Sergio then whispered to me “Ok Helen, I will be here to guide you but you’re going to be the one to catch all the eggs in the bag” WHAT…holy s**t!! I WAS OFFICIALLY GOING TO BECOME A TURTLE HUNTER! I could not believe it. Well, I mean, I knew this was part of the job description but this doesn’t happen to all the volunteers. Some volunteers had been at the camp for weeks and still not even seen a turtle yet but there I was working with my first leatherback.
I felt so panicky inside but was trying not to show it. ‘Will I catch all the eggs?’, ‘What if I break one?’ Again, the millions of excessive thoughts were scrambling my brain at this point.
We pulled on our latex gloves and helped the turtle to dig her nest. The turtle has no idea you are there as they go into some kind of trance (thankfully) and oh my are they strong – The turtle would occassionally flick sand over you now and then and you’d sometimes encounter the odd ‘turtle slap’ from one of her huge back flippers. Both our head lamps were on the red light setting as they are very sensitve to white light so we were literally in stealth mode.
“Ok, Helen. I think she is ready to drop the eggs now…make sure the bag is ready” Sergio guided me to ensure I had enough of the bag around the ‘essential’ parts to collect the batch. There it was…the first giant ping pong plopped into the bag and then another and another. WOW! It was such a beautiful moment (apart from the clear, gooey slimey bits which reminded me of the slimer from ghostbusters haha). You can even feel the turtle contracting so you knew exactly when an egg was abouts to drop.
Sergio measured the depth of the nest as you must recreate this in the hatchery later on. And the mozzies!! Oh my word, they seemed to come out of nowhere, I think they are attracted by the smell so you’re constantly being bitten but you just have to ride it out.
Cor, the bag was getting super heavy. We collected 85 turtle eggs. They actually lay ‘real’ eggs and then ‘yolkless’ eggs. The yolkless eggs are much much smaller and even went down to the size of a pea! This is so that if a nest is discovered, it’s the yolkless ones that will be gobbled up first! How amazing nature is hey!
Afterwards, we measured the turtle, gave her a metal tag and checked for her chip. Loaded with a full bag of eggs, we tredged through the sand towards the hatchery to bury our haul. Recreating the nest to the same measurements of the original nest, we then buried the eggs 2 by 2.
And guess what…we ended up finding another 2 turtles after this! Our 2nd turtle laid 92 eggs and our 3rd gave us 155!! But the 3rd turtle was no ordinary turtle, this one was VERY special…we’d stumbled across a Hawksbill!! “OMG Helen…this is GOLD. Do you know how rare these turtles are? They are on the critically endangered list. We only found 3 last year!” Sergio’s eyes lit up and it was wonderful to feel his incredibly infectious excitement. Unbelievable. We appropriately named our Hawksbill ‘Lucky’.
Finally finishing our shift at 6am (instead of 4am)…we were shattered and I don’t know about Sergio but my body ached (and itched from all my mozzie bites). We gave each other a fist pump and appropriately named ourselves the ‘dreamteam’.
I think I crawled into my bed and fell aslep with a big smile on my face for we’d set the record that night for the most turtles found and saved 😀
Karen and I were on hatchery duties the following night 6pm to midnight. That was hard work. Although you’re sitting there guarding and watching all the nests, you’re also being bitten to death by mozzies and sand fleas in the process…hmm, sitting bait. I was even wearing 2 pairs of trousers and 2 pairs of socks but the buggers can be unforgiving and relentless. One thing I didn’t mention is that you’re not allowed to wear bug spray. It’s toxic to the turtles as well as the eggs so you don’t want to risk damaging them so basically, you have to man up and take it haha.
We were checking the eggs every 20 minutes, chatting and also watching the pretty fire flies buzzing about illuminating the darkness with their tiny lil orange lanterns.
2 hours in and already your eyes are becoming heavy, especially as I’d only finished my night patrol that morning! When suddenly…’RUSTLE, RUSTLE’…”Omg, what was that?” I said. Karen didn’t hear it at first but then I grabbed my torched and switched the red light on. “There’s something by my feet! OMG Karen, look, it’s a baby turtle!! Where did he come from?!” Well obviously one of the nests but we’d literally just checked them all. We caught him and put him in the bucket. We immediately began checking all the nests again. “Here it is” Karen pointed down to one of the nests. Inside the circular mesh and netting, we could see it was filled to the brim with little baby turtles bursting with energy and desperate to get out to the ocean.
Carefully, we transfered all 26 of them to the bucket ready for us to measure and weigh 15 of them. Once we’d done all the ‘office’ work, we were then able to release them ourselves right in front of the hatchery and on the beach (because it was dark and the sand cool enough for them to paddle off).
It was a beautiful night too. The moon was full so we stood and watched all 26 babies pull themselves towards the ocean until we could see them no more. Like proud baby turtle mama’s, our work here was done
Phew we thought! We were shocked at the speed they surface from their nests! Hence why you must check the nests every 20 minutes!
We couldn’t wait to tell Fabien in the next morning meeting of our news. Nothing much happened after that apart from another monsoon, ughhh great! We walked home in the rain again getting another soaking right to the bone and yet again, getting into bed feeling damp. I swear we were growing gills by the end of this trip!
Fabien and Candace were both very happy with our actions and said we’d done everything right, yay!
“Fabien…how many babies make it out there in ocean once they’re released?” I asked in the morning meeting. “Out of 1000 that are released, only 1 makes it! And it takes that 1 baby takes 30 yrs to reach materity to mate”. OMG! That is a shocking stat!! No one could believe it. But then the babies are so small that they really are sitting prey out there for anything to gobble them up.
I wonder what they do for 30 yrs? Where do they go? Again….my mind drifted into a thousand thoughts until I could no longer here what was being said in the meeting lol…
To be continued…