San Jose^2

Kieran and Denise's Blog of their adventure in Costa Rica. Start reading from the bottom if you want it to make sense.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Mid-wifing Green Back Turtles

Thursday night I dragged Denise out of her slumber with much convincing to see the famous Tortuguera giant sea turtles. We were required to dress in all dark colors, and were strictly instructed to not bring a camera, or light of any kind. I felt like we were going to a cult party as almost a hundred tourists outfitted in black came streaming past us on the way to the beaches.

Denise held my hand as we headed out into the darkness of the Tortuguera national park beach. The park had set aside some 19 miles of beach. This area was identified by an american biologist Archie Carr who pioneered studying of several giant sea turtles. His book the "Windward Road" created a community of influential activists who work in the US and Costa Rica and created protections for the nesting grounds of atlantic ocean sea turtles. The sea turtles live for decades and are one of the few animals that have outlived the dinosaurs. However, they are extremely sensitive to having their breeding cycle distrupted when they attempt to lay their eggs on beaches at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and here in Tortuguera.

We walked out to the beach and were inspected by the national park rangers. Denise and I were both impressed with how knowledgable and serious our guides and the rangers were. Victor, our guide, kept us informed of what was going on as we waited our turn. He told us that we were allowed to see only one turtle nesting and that there was no guarantee we would see one. We had access to 5 of the 19 miles of beach and two hours to see a turtle nest and return. However, he suggested it would not be a problem since there were a lot of turtles at this time of season.

Sure enough, within 5 minutes a giant sea turtle came up on the beach. We lined up on the beach staring at a black lump in the rough carribean surf. We all watched intently, but our eyes hadn't yet had 15 minutes necessary to reach the first stage of night vision. The mass moved slowly up the beach to the edge of the tide. Suddenly, it turned and there was a comotion as we were told to rush towards the black lump.

Victor pulled out a red light and shined it on the back of the turtle as it quickly plunged back into the sea. I wondered if that was our one chance. Had we missed it? The rules of engagement with the turtles seemed very odd to me. We regrouped once the turtle dissapeared and waited as another group was instructed to hudle around a large impression in the sand. All I could see was a wall of black clothes. It felt like junior high recess and I was on the outside.

Soon enough Victor told us to move close to the hole in the sand. I dived in and got down on my hands and knees. Out came his red light and I was looking up the personal end of three and a half foot diameter female turtle. The logic of having to wear black but also being able to look up the shell of the turtle evaded me. I was fascinated. There were two large holes, the first was a large dug out trench that the sea turtle had made for herself. Then she has created a small deeper triangle shaped hole another 2 feet deep. I looked into the hole and I saw her birth an egg. It was the kind of shocking experience that biting on a bare wire would give you. I felt like I was going to swallow my jaw. Denise was almost in tears. I felt part embarrased, part pride of being a living creature. Watching life being created before you is an intense feeling that puts everything else in perspective.

We continued to watch as more eggs, they looked like hardboiled eggs, dropped into the sand. Victor told us this turtle would lay around 100 eggs tonight. She would return to Tortuguero 6 to 7 more times laying 100 eggs each time. Approximately 70 of the turtle eggs would hatch into turtles and 1 in a thousand would reach maturity and return to these beaches to lay eggs in 30 years. She would repeating this nesting process every 3 years.

Once she was done laying eggs she started using her fins to push back sand and cover the whole. Victor explained to Denise that these eggs would be predominantly female because the nest would be in the hot sand of the beach rather than the sand further from shore under some vegetation. I told Denise that's because boys are cooler than girls.

I asked about the rules and wouldn't we interrupt the turtles if we were so close. Victor informed us that the turtles were sensitive when choosing to begin nesting, but once they began nesting they entered a trance and although they knew we were around, they weren't disrupted in completing the nesting process.

Then a group from the Carribean Conservation Corporation arrived to measure and tag this turtle. They check the front tags for existing tags and when they didn't find them they tagged the turtles. These tags were redeemable to the marine biology department at Florida state university for 5 dollars. Archie Carr has secured a national science grant for paying for tags and tagging information that he claimed was the best money he ever spent. This tagging reward program provided excellent lifecycle data and migration patterns for sea turtles over the last several decades.

We stayed and saw another nesting turtle digging it's whole. We also quietly hid as another turtle climbed out of the sea only to return to sea in what is called half mooning. I was assured the turtles would return to the sea and try again to nest else where along the 19 miles.

What's really fascinating is that you can now signup to sponsor a turtle and recieve email of your turtles location as they are spotted for only $25. If you looking for a lifelong present then you might want to consider this as a special gift for someone.