Friday, September 25, 2009

Green Sea Turtle Adventure at Night

I caught the last bus out to the Sian Ka'an a few weeks ago on a Sunday night, not sure what to expect, feeling a bit insecure, but excited to help with the baby sea turtle release.

It's the slow season at Cesiak right now so the staff of tour guides and boat captains are a bit more laid back at the end of their shift. They snack, smoke, drink a few (!) beers, and play a pretty aggressive game of dominos. The guys were all hanging out when I arrived, in great spirits, and made me feel immediately comfortable. I made the mistake of saying I play a mean game of dominos and of course I lost the first game - though I do have to say I was just getting warmed up and they have different rules than I'm used to! They bought me a few beers, I chatted with their girlfriends, and after a while the sun began to set and it was time to release the baby sea turtles.

We went down to the beach, while Alberto, the main turtle conservation worker, carefully brought out the halved gas container full of sand and baby turtles. A small crowd had gathered, children and parents, mainly tourists staying at Cesiak, and a handful of staff. A line was drawn in the sand and directions were given how to carefully hold the turtles and then place them in the sand to make their mad dash to the sea. We named them, cheered them one, fearfully watched for birds of prey and sighed in relief when the last turtle made it to the water. Then in a few seconds they were gone, having caught a current out to sea where they would be spending the next 25 or so years of their life before once again returning to the same beach to mate and lay their eggs. Such is the beginning of a sea turtle's life. Only one in a thousand baby sea turtles actually make it to adulthood, which is a staggeringly small number. Sea turtle conservation here is taken very seriously, the beaches are patrolled nightly for poachers and stranded turtles and obnoxious tourists, and much care is put into ensuring the peace and safety of the mature turtles that do make it back to these beaches to nest.

After the release, and another beer and some more hanging out, it was time to start the 8km round trip walk patrolling the beach. It was dark that night, cloudy, a few scattered stars and no moon. The soft, warm breeze was a welcoming relief to the heat of earlier that day. Alberto and I walked barefoot in the sand, talking barely above a whisper, scanning the beach for telltale marks of a turtle pulling itself over the sand. Soon we came upon our first nesting female. She was enormous. About 3 feet wide and 3 1/2 feet long, heavy, and focused. We sat a distance in the sand, occasionally feeling the spray of the sand she was flinging towards us from 20 feet away as she dug her nest and prepared to lay eggs. We cautiously walked back toward the water and continued down the beach. She would take at least an hour to finish her nesting.

We found a few freshly laid nests -big mounds of sand- and labeled them with the date and a nest number on a plastic bottle found among the trash on the beach. This bottle was buried into the top of the nest and a piece of driftwood was erected to mark the spot. We continued in this way for hours, occasionally spotting another nesting turtle and carefully measuring it, checking it's tags and writing the data in our little notebook. At one point we tried to help a female who was trying to climb up the dune over some tree roots, apparently to nest in the jungle. She kept slipping down, straining to get up the sharp incline, and eventually pulling herself over some sharp looking roots protruding like an arm from the side of the dune. She fell with a loud thud onto the sand and I winced imagining the impact on her. Alberto consoled me with the fact that sea turtles go through much tougher circumstances on the reefs and are hearty animals. We left her to figure things out, very aware of the effort involved of a water animal struggling to make sense of land.

A short while later we saw another great she-turtle nesting. This one successfully. Quietly, carefully, army style we crawled up to the back of her and with a tiny red light, were able to see her lay eggs. There are a few moments of pure wonder that stand out for me when I think of life/birth. Once I saw baby Alaskan huskies being born and that was pretty neat. But this blew me away. I was about 2 1/2 feet from her tail watching the gooey eggs drop by ones, twos and threes into the perfectly shaped 3 foot deep nest she had dug. Before each egg dropped I heard her inhale and then sigh as her efforts produced more eggs. She laid perhaps 100 or more. They were like soft white golf balls. Her hind fins were webbed and toe-like and had carefully dug that perfect hole without her ever even seeing it. I lay in the cool sand in awe. Huge and prehistoric, deserving of respect, from a whole other world. A sea turtle so vulnerable and intimate in that moment.

All this has made me contemplate our role as stewards of this earth - it's animals and resources. For the most part we are not doing a very good job. Rarely do we treat with respect, respond in awe and work to protect what we have been blessed with. Think on that.


Emily said...

this sounds completely amazing. I've always been quite obsessed with sea turtles! It's really always been a dream to help baby turtles find their way to the ocean, so glad I could do it vicariously through you!

Arianna Elizabeth said...

That would be an amazing thing to experience.