This past weekend was one of the highlights of this whole semester for me. It was the weekend of our tortugero, or “save the turtles” trip. I am writing it in an as-it-happened format because I decided that will be the least confusing. Also, there might be more pictures later of the baby turtles and of the turtle eggs. Someone took them on her night camera, so when she posts them on Facebook I will post them here.
The turtle place is literally right on the beach. It is a very rustic setting – no electricity, no hot water, no screens on the windows, and obviously no air conditioning. The food is basic and nutritious but very bland. I am not opposed to rice and beans, but the rice and beans they served here just had no taste. However, the roof was rain-proof, which is a definite necessity for Costa Rica. Our group just went for the weekend, but they have longer-term volunteers that are there for anywhere from a few weeks to a year.
When we got there, the people who run the place explained the work they do there (more about that later) and why turtles are endangered. When turtles are pregnant they swim onto a beach and try to find a safe place to build a nest and lay their eggs (usually at least 70 or so). Natural predators (just about any animal that can dig) a lot of times will attack the turtle and eat the eggs, or dig up the nest and eat the eggs if the turtle has already gone. However, I guess turtle eggs are also valuable, so some people steal the eggs to sell (my guess is that people maybe want to buy the turtles as pets, but I’m not totally clear on that point). Also, the region where we were was the region affected most by the huge earthquake a few weeks back. Because of the earthquake, the tides changed, so on that particular beach there was also the problem of the turtles not creating their nests far enough above the tide – so the tide would just sweep the nest away.
The first night I was on beach patrol. A few of us went out with one of the regular volunteers at 9pm, which is when they had determined that the tide would just have finished being high tide. You can’t put on bug spray starting 2 hours before you do anything with the turtles, because if they smell it they will not lay their eggs and instead go back into the ocean. But at night and with the ocean wind it was cool enough to wear long sleeves and long pants, so that wasn’t actually a problem. Oh, and you can’t really have any light except red light and you have to be silent, for the same reason (that it would scare away the turtles). So we walked along the beach in the dark looking for turtle tracks, and when we found some we followed the tracks away from the water. The turtle had already gone, but we found the nest. Our guide dug a hole, and I got to put the turtle eggs into the bag to take to the hatchery. There were 75 eggs. After the eggs were bagged we carried them to the hatchery and created a turtle nest there. The idea is to recreate the same conditions for the eggs, but in an environment safe from predators. Then we kept patrolling for a few more hours. That was the first night.
Then I went to bed around 12:30. At this point I should mention that they strongly recommend bringing mosquito nets because there are tons of mosquitoes at night. Nobody in our group has a mosquito net, so we were going to just go without. I really lucked out, though, because the camp had a couple of extras and I happened to be around when they mentioned that. So I had a mosquito net for both nights, and I made it back home without a single mosquito bite. Quite impressive.
Then we woke up at 6am to carry sand bags. In the hatchery, after a nest hatches they have to clean out the area. So we had to dig a 5-foot hole, bring the old sand to the sand pile, and then go down to the beach to get fresh sand, and carry that sand back to fill the holes we had dug. We didn’t have to walk that far, maybe 30 meters, but it was uphill back from the beach. We worked from 6am-8am, then ate breakfast, and then worked for another 2 hours. In total we dug and filled 6 holes.
Then we got free time for a few hours, and it was actually sunny, so we went swimming. I didn’t stay out too long because I didn’t want to burn. It worked!
Also, everyone is signed up for 2-hour hatchery shifts (throughout the day and night). The hatchery is where the human-constructed turtle nests are, and they have mesh cages around them to keep out animals. The hatchery shift people are responsible for checking every nest cage for hatchings and also for animals, especially crabs, every 15 minutes.
So, fast forward to the second night. First I worked the hatchery shift, but with no action. Then I went out with night patrol again at 9pm. Almost right away we found a turtle laying eggs. That was even more exciting than the nest from the night before because the turtle was actually there! As we were carrying the eggs back to the hatchery, we found another turtle building her nest. To build the nest, first she found a spot in the sand she was content with. Then, with her front flippers she starts digging away sand, sort of in a breaststroke swimming motion (I think that’s the right stroke, that goes away from your body horizontally). Turtles are super strong – she was flinging sand like 10 feet away! Also, she builds the nest super deep, so after awhile her head disappears into the hole while she keeps digging. Then she sits down to lay her eggs. At this point the guide carefully comes up behind her and digs out from under her so we can access the eggs as she is laying them.
I got to sit with the second turtle (who was really big – I think something like 65 cm across and 70 long) and pick up her eggs as she laid them. That was really cool. She was laying 2 and 3 at a time, and I was catching them as they dropped (because it’s better for the baby turtles the less impact they experience). In total she laid 106 eggs. It was amazing. Turtle eggs are really cool. The outside is kind of the texture of a water balloon, and they can take little dents here and there, but they aren’t totally squishy. They aren’t totally solid like our eggs either – normally, the eggs fall maybe 6 or 8 inches into the nest as the mother is laying them, so they have to be kind of durable. Anyway, so after she laid the eggs she was supposed to get up and bury the nest and go back to the sea, but she must have been sick or injured or maybe just tired, because she sat there for over an hour. So I sat with her, and we bonded. Eventually she did get up and close the nest. Closing the nest means filling it with sand and then basically stomping on it with all her weight. Then she very slowly, and with a few rest breaks, made it back to the sea.
Wow this is a long blog post, but the night is still young. It’s maybe 11:30pm at this point. We are carrying the eggs back to the hatchery (with urgency because they had to sit out for so long), and we run into the hatchery group. They are carrying a bucket of baby turtles to be released into the ocean. They inform us that there are 4 more nests already hatched. So we hurry back to the hatchery and help the baby turtles!
What happens when they hatch is they break out of their eggs underground, and then dig their way up to the surface. So you see their little head poking out of the sand, and then their body, and then more and more and more come. To release them, we had to get a huge bucket, fill the bottom with wet sand, pick up the turtles one by one and put them in the bucket, carry the bucket back to camp, measure the shell size and weigh 10 of the turtles, and then bring them down to the ocean. It was really amazing, and they were soo cute.
So after all that action I got to bed around 1:30, and then we all got up at 6 to pick up trash on the beach. After a 5-hour bus ride back to Heredia, I am exhausted but the work was so special and satisfying that it was totally worth it.