If you have never spent 20 minutes straining your eyes in the dark at a large, oblong piece of driftwood, you have not yet had the joy of patrolling for turtles. These 20 minutes are captivating because sometimes your driftwood has flippers, bellows like a Jurassic creature and lays a few hundred eggs.
Most of the time those eggs are easily snatched up by poachers whose circumstances, like the turtles guarantee an annual presence on the beach. I often wonder about our poacher friends, who are friendly enough to let us tag and document their turtles (sans eggs of course) did some of which, through education and economic opportunity, become the very guides that lead us bumbling through jungle , sand and tide. Without them, our guarded hatchery would be quite empty.
I love walking at night. Often we make the whole trek without our lights. It’s a tough march (four hours sometimes starting as late as one in the morning) but it’s also one of those visceral, unforgettable experiences you inevitably fail to share afterwards with words: moonlit beaches, silhouettes of poachers, lightening bugs in the shadows, turtle tracks, sweet pipa nectar trickling down my face, roaring waves, fickle breezes that blow both hot and cool, stars and smells of night, the awesome bliss felt in bed afterwards – the vignettes we bring back fail to convey the total experience. And of course, there are also the turtles.
We scared away a green turtle moments away from laying her eggs in an artificial hole dug by our guide on the jungle trail. Our biologist says that this is the worst erosion in 30 years. Maybe we moved too quickly. Maybe someone’s shirt wasn’t dark enough. Maybe we just smelled. Whatever the case, we dutifully finished our turtle-less patrol that night.
The following night I saw my first leatherback turtle. It was my third early morning patrol in a row and after several nights I hadn’t returned triumphantly to the hatchery with a bag of endangered turtles to be. Plus there was no coffee that night! My group of three arrived in time to tag, measure and record a leatherback whose nest had just been poached. Measuring the carapace of a moving leatherback is no easy business. Her powerful flippers bruised my ankles and filled my pants full of sand.
The following night we came across a leatherback emerging from the water ten minutes into our shift which is kind of like the holy grail for weary sleep deprived volunteers. We met briefly with another successful patrol, bag of eggs in hand, although they were quite weary on account of finding their leatherback two hours away at the end of the beach.
Childhood years spent building castles in the sand were not in vain. We quickly form a ‘u’ shaped barrier around the nesting turtle to block the tide. We mark date, time,existing tag numbers and the new numbers we tag the turtle with. Our guide digs a hole for the turtle, then catches her eggs in a plastic bag. We measure her carapace, mark the time once more, and walk carefully back to the hatchery to bury our nest and to celebrate with friends.
“If you are here for the turtles, you are going to have a great time. If you are here for yourself you are going to be miserable” Robert from La Tortuga Feliz fed us delicious food, made us feel warm and welcome and also gave us this peace of wisdom. I’ve found it to be absolutely true. After a week of hard work and turtle patrols some volunteers are whacked – others have an energetic glow.
Will the leatherback be around in another ten years? Twenty? Fifty? who knows, but what matters now is how we use our time and energy. What matters is making a difference in the world by being in it, and by training future generations to give, serve and love nature and not just take. Even if we lose the leatherbacks (let’s hope we don’t!) our selfless sacrifice today is the only chance we have to change the way people think tomorrow. VIVA LA TORTUGA!