I have been working as a volunteer in a sea turtle research camp for a month. Tonight I’m on the second shift with Javi, the Spanish coordinator.
Our camp is located in Cabuyal, in the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica, right on the border with Nicaragua. It is 11:30 PM, we are walking towards the beach we patrol each evening, lit by our headlamps. We are going to take over from the first team who’s been there since 8 PM.
It’s a moonless night. The sky is pierced with thousands of twinkles. The bioluminescent plankton lights up under our feet and sparkles in the waves. After taking a first break in the south of the beach, and a second in the north, we discover turtle’s tracks.
She just came out from the ocean! It is a Lora, its scientific name being « Lepidochelys olivacea », or « Olive Ridley ».
She is small. She may be a youngster. She does not have any metal badge on her fin. It is her first time of the season on this beach. Javi takes out our notebook-database and writes down : « L035 ». That means she is the 35th Lora of the season. Since it is a tradition to name each turtle, we decide to baptize her Olympe.
L035 digs a first nest, but she bangs on pebbles. You can tell that she is a newbie. She is using her fins in an awkward and poorly coordinated way. She goes somewhere else, then comes back to the same spot with no reason. She stops on the same stones. I feel sorry for her, I would like to be able to help her … She picks another place. Bad draw again. This time the nest will be too close to the sea. The high tide might drown the eggs before they hatch (NB: on average a nest hatches within two months).
We are going to « relocate » her nest. I stand behind her, and her finally dug nest. I am waiting feverishly for her to start laying.
I need to take one by one the white and soft eggs coming out of its cloaca, and put them in a big plastic bag. The smell coming into my nose is very strong: it’s a mix of tide and genitals. I feel like a poacher, stealing a helpless turtle’s eggs to sell them on the black market. (Unfortunately it is still a common practice on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.)
When she is done, she begins the characteristic Lora’s dance. She cups the sand over her nest (which is empty…) giving vigorous belly blows, as she slams into the sand. She sways with all her weight on one side and the other for long seconds. I am fascinated by these movements: half-graceful, half-clumsy. The instinctive gestures are astounding.
We go a little further and dig a deep hole (16 inches). We make sure to reproduce the original nest design. The bottom edges must be wider to create the egg chambers. I drop with the greatest care the still hot 100 small eggs. I fill the nest back with the salvaged sand sample, tapping vigorously on top of it.
I may not throw my stomach on the nest, but I try my best to reproduce the Lora’s covering. Would the eggs feel the vibrations? Is it crucial for their development? We will never know how many babies will survive in this nest. It is going to hatch when the season is over. No one will be here to excavate it and count the empty shells… I make a quick calculation – is it a coincidence? I don’t think so. Those babies will be born in two months, in early April, almost for my birthday!
-PS: It is forbidden to take pictures during night patrols to not scare the turtles. The photos of this article have therefore been taken at daytime.