It was the 3rd night of my visit to la tortuga feliz. I had a good feeling about the chance of encountering a leatherback turtle as my 2 friend volunteers. I prepared for our assigned patrol at 10pm.
It turns out that Robert, our host, had a similar vibe. We set off with our guide Carlos, a research assistant on a moonless night. During a break after walking approximately 4 miles, at around midnight, it began to rain. Visibility was poor; I could barely make out the dark shade of the volunteer in front of me through the downpour, as we set off single file down the beach.
About 20 minutes in, the figure in front of me stopped moving. Our group came to an abrupt halt. Then, in the soft glow of a red light, there she was, what a sight to behold!
Nothing quite prepares you for the size of the leatherback turtle. Though discussed in the turtle training/orientation provided to each new volunteer, it is truly hard to fathom the enormity of this amazing prehistoric creature until you actually witness it firsthand. And there she was, right before our very eyes doing what her ancestors have done for millions of years: returning to the place of her birth to lay her eggs. The very idea that she somehow stores in her memory the information that leads her to return to the very location of her own birth to repeat the cycle of life which in itself is amazing.
The numbered tags on her rear flippers indicated she had done this journey before and this was not her first return visit.
As she was actually in the process of laying her eggs when we came upon her, we quickly got to business of taking her measurements and recording data. My eyes kept being drawn to her rear flipper, which appeared to have been partially severed. The edge of this wound was bright pink, suggesting that this was a new injury. Because the injury was a straight clear cut rather than a semi-circular shaped one, a member of our group speculated that this may have been caused by a motor rather than a shark bite, which I am told is rather common for turtles.
In our case, our guide marked the nest location with a stick as the turtle quickly moved on to the business of camouflaging the nest location with a flurry of swishing movements with her front and back flippers. As soon as the turtle had moved far enough away, the guide and research assistant began digging and collecting the eggs which average 100 in number.
Once the eggs were all carefully placed in a large plastic bag, our group set of down the beach from whence we came to relocate the eggs in a secret location, hopefully safe from the poachers.
As we departed, I was awestruck at how fortunate this turtle was to be the one in a thousand who survives to adulthood. I was also filled with gratitude to have had the opportunity to witness the wonders of it all.
With one last glance over my shoulder at the turtle, which was still on the beach, I whispered: Espero que se vaya bien tortuga!