Saturday, May 2, 2015

Looking for Leatherbacks

One might think that after seeing so much wildlife on my night hike with Brian, I would be ready to sleep in a bed at night instead of prowling around looking for critters. But not so fast! There was one big animal on the list that I was dying to see, and I needed to take advantage of the fact that I was in one of the best places in the world, at one of the best times of the year to see it. I am referring to the almighty Leatherback sea turtle.

These gigantic marine reptiles can reach over 2 meters in length (7 ft) and weigh up to 650 kg (1,500 lbs)... that's a lot of turtle! Unlike other sea turtles, the chances of seeing them while scuba diving are nearly impossible since they prefer wide open water and can't be found cruising along reefs like green, hawksbill,  and loggerhead turtles can. So when I figured out I might have a chance to see one while here in Costa Rica, I knew I had to jump on it.

The nesting season for the Leatherbacks runs from February to July according to most sources, but the "high season" is in April and May. Perfect. Also just so happens that one of their favorite beaches for nesting is located right along the border between Costa Rica and Panama, not far from where I was hanging out. This area is known to humans as the Gandoca Manzanilla Reserve, and it protects a massive stretch of southern Caribbean beach from any development so that the turtles can come ashore without being disturbed by light pollution. 

So the stage was set. I had just arrived back into Puerto Viejo from Brian's place, and it was about 3 pm. I had to decide whether to check back in to the hostel that evening and arrange my turtle expedition for the next night "con calma" as they would say here... or I could act on my feet and try to figure out a way to find the turtles that night. I couldn't bear to think of missing a chance to see one, so I hurried down to the ATEC (Talamanca Association of Ecotourism and Conservation) office and chatted with the woman about my options. 

She answered my pleading question, "Yes, they have seen turtles there recently." I knew I had to go. First she tried to sell me expensive packages where someone would drive me there and back. I explained I had no money, so she leveled with me and told me how to take a bus and a taxi in order to find myself in the tiny community of Gandoca... where most residents make their livelihood from protecting the turtles. After calling around to a few different people, she arranged a guide for me and the cost was $35. This seemed like a lot, but I was really hoping to see one. Going alone would not only be illegal and dangerous, but it would also divert necessary funds to these guides and organizations that are working so hard to protect these majestic animals. So I paid up.

The last bus left at 4:30 pm so I had to act fast. I gathered my belongings, begrudgingly yanked more colones out of the ATM, and then hopped on the bus just in time to head down to Sixaola, the same border town I had passed through only a few days before. When I arrived it was dark and I was definitely the only gringo wandering around with a large pack amongst grungy convenience stores and locals standing around drinking beer in the streets. Sixaola is about 3/4 of a block of actual open businesses. The rest is just run down buildings, the border, and the bus station. Not exactly the sort of place you hang out in at night.

 I knew I needed to get out of there, but I bought some snacks first. Food took priority, especially since I had sacrificed dinner to catch the bus and I had no idea how long I would be awake walking the beach that night. I asked the guys drinking beer in the street about a Taxi, and they seemed to enjoy the mission. 

The taxi they found me turned out to be a local guy who was heading back home to Gandoca with his friend, but that worked for me. Plus it was cheaper. He took me all the way down to the beach, which involved bouncing along down a dirt road full of pot-holes for about 30 minutes. We passed very few signs of humans along the way. A couple simple houses, one church that also served as the town meeting hall, and a school... that was about it. 

At the end of the road we started asking around for my guide, Giberto ("he-berto"). Eventually one of his neighbors told us where to go, and the "taxi" driver dropped me off at a large wooden two story home, with an expansive open air porch on the top floor. Giberto greeted me in English and showed me to the room where I would be staying, complete with mosquito nets and fan. Then we quickly switched gears and discussed our turtle plans. 

Giberto was a very kind man, and if you are looking  for a turtle guide... I would highly recommend him. He spoke English well, but when he realized I could speak Spanish, he switched back to his native tongue. I arrived at his house around 7:30, and by 8 pm we were out on the beach with another French couple that had also booked a tour, ready to begin our search for sea turtles.  

Giberto gave us some basic facts about all the different turtles that nest in the area, when to expect them, and how the residents of Gandoca are working to protect them. He told me earlier, while we were waiting for the French couple to show up in their rental car, that he used to help the guards that patrol the beach when he was only 9 years old. Turtles have been his passion ever since, and he is concerned not only about their conservation but also their habitat. With sea levels rising, much of this prime beach habitat is beginning to disappear underwater. The community has built a hatchery where they keep the eggs from turtles that lay later in the season, to protect them from poachers,  predators, and rising sea levels. Any eggs we found tonight, would be collected for the hatchery. 

The Rangers that patrol the beaches all night, along with a few dedicated volunteers showed up only a few minutes after us. Giberto chatted with the Rangers for a bit,  while the volunteers spread out along the beach. 

The idea was if a volunteer saw a turtle leaving the water, they would signal with their flashlight so that the others could come and help, and we would come watch. So we waited and waited for someone to find one, but nobody did. After an hour, our guide told us we would walk with him down the beach, instead of just sitting around under a shelter trying to avoid losing all of our blood to mosquitos and sand flies. 

This walk started around 9:35/10ish,  and within only 15 minutes of walking, we came upon a large gray blob on the beach. Giberto instructed us to stay put while he went to check it out with his red light. The red light is not intrusive to the turtles, but a normal flashlight could scare them off. Seconds later he returned with his hand up in the air, eager for us to give him some High-fives. "ES una!!" He exclaimed. 

TOO COOL! The thinking on my feet had paid off. We were especially lucky to have found a turtle so early in the night, since guides are only allowed to take people out on the beach until midnight. If the turtles come ashore after midnight,  the Rangers will know but we would miss out. Earlier Giberto had told us that 4 turtles came shore yesterday, but all after midnight.  So this was a treat.  

We were eager to take photos, but Giberto informed me that we could only take photos without the flash. I tried, but it turned out completely black. So you will simply have to take my word for it. 

The massive turtle had already begun digging the hole for her eggs, and it seemed she was pretty much finished and getting ready to start depositing the eggs when we showed up. Giberto signaled to the others that we had found a turtle, and then instructed me to hold the red light while he dug around the hole the turtle had created to widen it a bit. He would use that extra space to squeeze his arms in with a sturdy plastic bag, to catch the eggs that the turtle laid. 

Leatherbacks can lay around 110 eggs, so you need a fairly big bag to collect all of them. The female will lay infertile eggs as well, to provide extra cushioning for the viable eggs. These nonviable eggs will decay, leaving important air pockets near the top of the nest that the baby sea turtles will use as a refuge while waiting for their bodies to consume the yolk after hatching. 

The Rangers and volunteers quickly showed up with a bag, but the turtle had already begun to drop a few eggs into the soft sand. Because Leatherbacks don't have hard shells like other sea turtles, beaches with soft sand are important to avoid damaging their skin with rough rocks and fine particles. I thought about this as I dug my feet into the  soft, cool black sand, leaning forward with the light to peer into the hole. 

Giberto quickly slipped the bag under the turtle and also collected the eggs that had already fallen, placing them in the bottom of the bag. The turtle seemed to sense our presence (I don't know how it could not) but it continued laying eggs, perhaps somehow realizing that we were trying to help. 

The laying continued for maybe 8 or 10 minutes, each egg gently coddled by the turtles tail into the bag. Giberto pointed out that catching them in the bag was important, since the mother turtle also secretes a fluid with the eggs that is believed to act as a protection against the bacteria that live in the sand. Digging the eggs up afterwards would mean this vital fluid would be lost. 

When the bag was full, Giberto hoisted it out of the hole and handed it to one of the Rangers. At the top were a bunch of small eggs, about the size of ping pong balls, instead of the typical billard ball size. These were the inviable eggs. 

The show wasn't over yet! The caring mother would spend the next 40 minutes carefully filling in the hole. At first she used her back flippers to push the sand down over the hole. Giberto gave her a hand by pushing some sand into the hole with his hand. I did the same. 

After most of the sand had been packed down with her back flippers, she took her front flippers and spread them out in front of her. In a quick sweeping motion, she flung a large amount of sand backwards towards the hole... some of it pelting us in the shins. I was surprised by the force, but I shouldn't have been. These turtles can swim over 9,700 km (6,000 miles) a year in search of food, and their huge flippers can reach a span of over 2.75 meters (8.9 ft). This turtle's were not that big, but they were impressive. She continued sweeping sand backwards, almost as if making sand angels. 

She continued this process for quite some time, slowly shifting her body then sweeping and covering until she was 2 or 3 ft away from where the actual hole had been dug. This meticulous covering of her hole was done to hide the location of the eggs from their many predators. 

Raccoons, seagulls, dogs, crows, and many other creatures find sea turtle eggs a tasty treat... so this mother must be extremely careful to make sure they are not found. The most dangerous predator of all, Giberto proclaimed, was human beings. 

Central Americans have long had a tradition of eating turtle eggs, and turtles as well if they are lucky enough to catch one. Originally collecting the eggs simply for food, the drive for the eggs today has been fueled  by the false belief that turtle eggs are an aprodisiac. Unfortunately this has created a black market for the eggs, despite efforts to end this tradition. Egg collecting is illegal in Costa Rica, but it still occurs in Gandoca where it can be tricky for only a few Rangers to keep track of over 26 miles of beach. This is one of the major reasons we were collecting the eggs. 

We sat crouched behind the turtle as she continued to fill in the hole. If she turned to the right, we moved to the left so as to stay behind her and avoid spooking her. I figured she probably knew we were there, but who knows. Leatherbacks have pretty poor vision, which is why they prefer beaches with dark forested jungle behind them, like the ones in Central America. They exit the water towards the dark forest, and return to the moonlit sea... using light and dark to guide them. This is why light pollution from beachside buildings can be so devastating, confusing the turtles -- which often results in them choosingnot to come ashore.

At last, the turtle turned to head back out to shore. We watched it go, feeling lucky to have seen such a wonderful, elusive beast in its natural state. I asked Giberto about taking a photo of the tracks, but he told me I'd have to wait until the morning. 

So I went back to Giberto's house with him and his young son, who had also joined us on the turtle search. We saw some frogs and owls on the walk back, and he pointed out some cows that are typically preyed upon by vampire bats. Tonight the moon was almost full, so the bats stayed away. 

The next morning I went to the beach at dawn and took some photos of the giant tracks that seemed as if heavy machinery had passed by. I reminisced about the turtle that had made them only hours before. Feeling unusually inspired and also curious,  I went for a jog along the beach to see if I could find other tracks. I did not see any more tracks, but I did find something even more fascinating... a turtle egg! It was just sitting on the sand as if someone placed it there. I picked it up and felt it's leather soft texture, much different from a bird egg. 

Later, I asked Giberto over breakfast about the egg. He told me the turtles commonly squeeze an egg out while leaving the beach... maybe the exertion causes it, maybe it's just for luck ;) , nobody knows. 

As I was preparing to leave, Giberto called a taxi for me... but no one responded. After waiting awhile, he offered to give me a ride to the border on his motorcycle for half the price of a taxi. SOLD! I was immediately reminded of the motorcycle taxis in Thailand. Off we went, bouncing along down the dirt road. The thrill quickly wore off as my ab muscles were working very hard to keep me straight on the bike with the heavy back on my back. Really need to pack lighter! Every pothole I winced a little bit. But we made it, and I said goodbye to Giberto at the border... thanking him profusely for all he had done for me. He wished me well and I took off, bound for more adventures!!

Entering the reserve

The beach in the morning

Turtle tracks!
Turtle egg
Jogging along the beach 
Riding to the border in style

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