NB: Leatherback turtles belong to the same group as the Prehistoric Archelon, a species that swam in the ocean 70 million years ago. While Archon measured 13 feet long, Leatherbacks can reach 10 feet and weigh up to 2.000 pounds.
Estacion Las Tortugas (Pacuare Nature Reserve, Caribbean coast, Costa Rica)
It’s April, the peak of the season for « baulas » (leatherbacks), the largest and oldest species of all marine turtles still alive. The night is going to be busy. Voices in our walkie-talkie keep announcing new turtles on the beach. « It’s a baula party! » Stanley the director of the station says laughing.
Only 15 minutes since we have started patrolling, and I am meeting my very first baula. Two biologists are on her side: she is laying eggs. Its gigantic size and texture so smooth that it seems artificial fascinate me. I look at her upper body. It remains completely still while she lays her eggs. I can not believe she is here, real and alive.
I see tears in her eyes beaming in my red light. I question the biologists. They tell me that sea turtles cry to wash their eyes from salted water. They do it on land, but also under water, to expel salt from the water they drink. It makes me feel pretty sentimental to know that turtles cry too …
I put on gloves to touch her shell and fins. The shell seems to be cast in bronze. Her fins are covered with white dots. They are soft and mellow, like the rough skin of an elephant. Because of their size, leatherbacks don’t walk unnoticed on the beach. Their huge fins create tracks bigger than SUV’s in the sand!
A few hours later, we walk in the dark by the waves. The night is pitch black. We hardly see our own silhouettes dressed with long rain jackets and shepherd sticks. The beach is shrouded in a misty rain, it smells like artichoke. Jesus (not a joke, this is the real name of my Spanish biologist colleague) suddenly grabs my arm and pushes me back.
Walking without seeing anything, we almost stumbled on a baula that was just coming out of the ocean.
WOOWZERS! This one looks even bigger than the first one. My heart skips a beat. It is so enormous, so close and so alive! I don’t know if we scare her, or if she changes her mind, but she returns to the ocean without nesting …
All night long, we go back and forth between the beach and the nursery. As soon as we collect the turtle eggs we have to take them quickly to the nursery. Here on the Caribbean coast, many poachers steal turtle eggs. That’s why we need to collect them and bury them in a well-monitored part of the beach. The egg bags are huge and super heavy (which makes sense since huge turtles lay big eggs). We use our walking sticks to carry them as a bundle.
My first patrol ends. We walked 5 hours with no break! I collapse in my bed at 1:30 am. I am soaked from head to toe with sweat and rain. I am very exhausted, and also very grateful to have met 4 baulas in this first night. ❤
This is my last patrol at Estacion Las Tortugas. I am working with Jesus again. I soak myself into the atmosphere of this place for a last time : the black and soft beach sand, the heavy clouds laden with rain, the diffuse lights of Limon harbor, the ylang-ylang smell, the men in camo jackets sheltered under the watchtower.
The night starts very quietly. No turtles on the horizon. Shortly after midnight, we suddenly have 4 turtles in a row, just a few feet away from each others. I see one.
I point to Jesus the wide tracks in the sand and the silver-gray reflection of its shell under the moonlight. Now we have two turtles at the same time!
I’m going to take care of one, while Jesus will take care of the other … Although I’ve been watching the biologists repeating the same process for a week, real-time practice is proving much more delicate. In the meantime I am really happy and excited to get a true hands-on experience. First thing to do is to dig a « seat » behind the turtle. Once seated at a lower level, you can catch the eggs before they fall into the nest.
It’s a funny mirrored ballet. She digs her nest with nimble fins. I dig mine with gloved hands. It’s raining cats and dogs.
I am covered with a black crust of wet and sticky sand. Sandflies devour me while I dig unable to defend myself. Digging a single « seat » is exhausting, I cannot believe my colleagues do it 5 or 6 times a night.
I finally sit in the hole and wait behind her. Her fins waltz large packs of sticky sand. She suddenly stops digging. One of her fins covers the nest. I’m afraid to move it or touch it but I cannot see what’s going on in the nest. I have the feeling she is going to start laying eggs … Oops. I am not ready!
I use my red light to call Jesus for help. When he arrives, several eggs have already fallen in the egg chamber (= the deepest part of the nest). I try clumsily to position the plastic bag to catch them. The white slippery eggs fall out of it. Jesus struggles to get the eggs in the sand while I reposition the bag. We finally collect all the eggs. Success!
As we walk back to the nursery with our two bundles of fresh eggs, we see the tracks of another turtle. This time I am ready and well trained. I dig my « seat » and wait cross-legged. I wait for the moment when the turtle uses her fin to hide the nest. I push her fin with no fear and put the plastic bag under her. It fills with hot eggs.
When they’re finished with laying fertile eggs, leatherbacks always lay a series of smaller weird shaped eggs. These eggs are infertile (they call them « vanos »). Among other functions, they create space in the sand to facilitate the rise of babies when they hatch from the nest.
Once I am done collecting the last eggs, I lift the heavy plastic bag full of eggs and let my seat to Jesus. He needs to pierce the rear fins with a metallic tag to identify the turtle. I look with affection at the humped spotted shell of this contemporary prehistoric creature.
This turtle has no tag, it’s a newcomer. We need to baptize her, it’s a tradition. After « Olympe the young Lora of the Pacific« , let me introduce you to « Olympe the Caribbean Baula » 🙂
(NB: Pictures are prohibited during night patrols. The images of turtles featured in this article come from Wikipedia)
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