Published: March 14th 2010March 13th 2010
Pictures of turtles are from google images. Photographs are not allowed during the turtle's private moments.
Sunday evening we found out that the bridges on the road to Limon had been fixed - so we were able to have a stress free journey to Bataan, the small town where we would be picked up to head to the turtle project. We arranged a driver to take us the 2 1/2 hour drive. It was a bit overcast and drizzling when we left Puerto Viejo, but at least the heavy rains stopped for us! The pick up point was a pizza stand in a semi trailer called Pizza King. 3 girls from Holland were also heading into the project and we were met by the volunteer coordinator - Robert, who filled us in on some basics, and gave us a chance to make a final run to the Mega Super grocery store for last minute supplies. There were 3 other volunteers who were arriving from San Jose, but their bus was delayed due to mudslides - so we headed to the project with a group of folks who live near and work with La Tortuga Feliz.
In order to reach the project, we first drove for about 30 minutes or so outside of town past banana plantations.
We reached the river that would take us to the island area where we would be staying. The project is very remote, surrounded by canals on one side, and the ocean on the other. We all piled into the boat - about 15 people, luggage and supplies and headed out. The ride took about 45 minutes. It was a bit damp, and the river is lined with reeds and tall trees. We passed a variety of birds, iguana, and monkeys. We didn't get to see any caimans, I think it was too chilly for them to be out. We had a chance to brush up on our Spanish, and chatted with some of the folks on the boat and learned that there had been 2 turtles the night before we arrived. We found out it was the start of the leatherback season!!!!!!! We had hoped to see the leatherbacks, but weren't sure if we had timed it right.
We arrived at the camp and were greeted and welcomed by the other volunteers, which was really nice. They showed us around the cabins, the common area, kitchen, and bathrooms - and we settled in for our stay. The camp is
literally steps away from the beach. You can hear the surf all day and night - it’s a great way to wake up and go to sleep. There is no electricity, only solar power for a few fixtures. All food is brought in each evening by a nearby local restaurant. They prepare gallo pinto (rice and beans) for breakfast, soup or pasta for lunch, and dinner. There is no refrigeration, so meals are reheated throughout the day to prevent bacteria. All volunteers help out with a variety of chores in the camp including kitchen cleaning, preparing meals, washing sheets, bathroom clean up and yard work. The project does have drinking water, but rainwater is used for all other cleaning.
After dinner, we got to know the other volunteers - and went to bed fairly early. It’s easy to do when there's no electricity! At around midnight, Robert came through the camp and woke us up to let us know there was a turtle ashore near the camp! We jumped out of bed, threw on our shoes and headed out into the night. The turtle had finished laying her eggs (which we later learned poachers had gotten) and was in
the process of burying them. She was about 1.8 meters (that is about 6 feet!!!). It was an amazing sight to see - the way she uses her flippers to move the sand around, the gentle way she pats down the area, and her slow lumbering walk back to the ocean.
Our first day in camp was sunny and warm! A nice change after the rain from the previous week. I was assigned kitchen clean up for the day (after breakfast, lunch and dinner) and Edward was assigned to work in the hatchery. We were there at the beginning of the turtle season, so the primary focus for the group was to get the hatchery built. The hatchery is where the turtle eggs will be moved immediately after the turtles lay their eggs and provide a safe place for the eggs to hatch. There are 3 types of turtles that will come to the beaches in this area - leatherback, green and hawksbill turtles. The eggs are poached for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities. The green turtles are also sought after for their meat, and hawksbill for their meat and shells. The hatchery is about 20 meters long by 6
meters wide by 1.5 meters deep. It is built right on the beach, and is very labor intensive. First the sand has to be dug out, then all the sand must be sifted back into the whole - removing any organic material like roots and sticks, as well as garbage. It’s important to remove this material to prevent bacteria and molds from forming in the nests. The area is then sectioned off, and the nests are protected with wire and mesh netting. Every year the project must complete paperwork for the government in order to continue their work protecting the turtles. The process is lengthy and complex, and must be finalized before the hatchery is operational. Volunteers work in shifts in the hatchery, alternating digging and sifting sand to refill the hole. There is also another volunteer project nearby, and we all work together on the hatchery.
That evening, we weren't scheduled to patrol the beaches but we decided to go on a walk with the hopes that we would see another turtle. When the volunteers patrol, they walk in groups of 4-6 with an assistant. The assistants are local residents who used to be poachers. They know the
beaches like the back of their hand. When the project started 6 years ago, the founders worked closely with the community to build relationships, and share information about the plight of the turtles and attempt to provide an alternative to poaching. There are many residents who work with the project, and who benefit from the volunteer program (the assistants who guide the volunteers, the restaurant that caters the food in, the local artist who sells jewelry). The patrols start at 8pm, 10pm and 12am and are 4 hours long. The walk is about 8 - 10km round trip on the beach. The group has a non-confrontational policy with the poachers and whoever reaches a nesting turtle first lays claim on the turtle. Since the hatchery was not completed, the eggs could not be moved to the safety of the hatchery. Volunteers and assistants could only camouflage nests as best they could and hope that the poachers didn't see the location or spot the nests. The evening of our first walk was beautiful - a full moon lit up the night and we could see lots of stars. We didn't see any turtles that night, but it was very cool to
be on the beach walking by the light of the moon. It was the only night we would be able to do that.
Wednesday, we both worked in the hatchery for the morning and afternoon shifts. There was a light rain in the afternoon, but it was blazing hot in the afternoon. Halfway through the hatchery shifts, everyone takes a break - and someone cuts open some pipas for a drink. Its like coconut water - and is supposed to be packed with electrolytes. Its a bit of an acuired taste, but is really refreshing. Around dinnertime, a big storm rolled in and it poured rain. We were scheduled to walk from midnight - 4am. The rain let up in the evening. We napped for a bit before we had to head out. We dressed in the required dark clothes, grabbed our red head lamps, and raincoats and started out on our walk. We were with 2 other volunteers and a guide. As soon as we walked out of the camp's gate - the heavens opened up, and the winds started to howl and another storm rolled in. Within 10 minutes we were all soaked to the bone! About
45 minutes into the walk, we came upon a turtle. She had just started laying her eggs. Our guide led us over to a spot right behind the turtle, and we were able to watch her finish laying her eggs, and then bury them. Considering their size, they are surprisingly dexterous with their flippers. They are also incredibly strong - we were all caught in the crossfire as she pushed sand with her flippers. Once she started to move away, we began the process of attempting to camouflage the nest - using wood and palm leaves to erase the turtle’s tracks and smooth the sand. The whole process from the turtle coming ashore, digging the hole, laying eggs, and burying the nest can take 1 1/2 - 2 hours. We watched the turtle make her way back to the ocean, and continued on our patrol. Did I mention it was still raining? Shortly after, we ran into the group who was on the patrol ahead of ours. They had encountered 2 turtles that night. We continued walking for about another 40 minutes, but didn't go all the way to the end of the beach - it was nearing the end
of our shift. So we started the return trip. On the way, we ran into the group we had passed - they had spotted another turtle as she came up onto the beach. They handed her off to us, and we stayed with her while she was burying the nest and we then camouflaged the tracks and area as best we could. And yes, it was still raining. We started the hour walk back to camp, wondering if we would see any more turtles. We got back to camp around 3:45 and promptly passed out.
We woke up on Thursday to another rainy day. I had bathroom duty in the morning and Edward worked in the hatchery. After lunch, we had raking duty. We raked for about 3 hours - and received lots of compliments on our efforts. :) Edward walked the 8-12 shift and I walked the 10-2 shift. It was an incredibly dark night. There were heavy rain clouds that completely blocked out any hint of the moon. It was so dark, you could not see the person walking in front of you. I was walking with Bettina, and we clung to each other in order to
find our way. Our group passed Edwards group as they were heading back to the camp, and everyone was struggling to keep up with the guides and not trip and fall on the beach debris. On our way back, a driving rain started, making the walk even more challenging. On that evening, no groups spotted turtles - the assistants said when the ocean is very rough, that there are not usually turtles on those evenings.
On Friday, we had more rain and more work at the hatchery. It was a cold, windy and rainy shift all day. We were glad to have the night off from patrolling, as we needed a break after 2 nights of walking in the pitch black and rain. Since we couldn't have a hot shower, a couple of us gals heated up some rain water and soaked our feet in buckets of warm water to try and get rid of the chill from working in the rain all day and the cold showers. All of our belongings were a bit musty and damp by this time, and we were hoping that nothing got too moldy. When the evening boat arrived to deliver food -
we decided to buy some much needed treats. The boat that delivers meals, also sells soda, cookies and snickers. We bought a few bars, figuring we could have them over our last few days. By bedtime, we had a snickers meltdown and devoured 3 big bars. :)
Saturday, we didn't have any daytime chores assigned to us, so we relaxed all day. We were scheduled for our last walk - I went at 8pm, and Edward went at 10pm. Our group didn't encounter any turtles and I was a bit disappointed. Edward was fortunate enough to see 4 turtles! However, there were already poachers with the first 2 turtles they came upon. The 3rd turtle, he was able to see the entire egg laying process. The last turtle was in the process of burying the nest, however when the guide checked - the eggs had already been poached.
On our last day, Edward was assigned kitchen clean up duty and I was assigned to food prep duty. We made a pretty good team but we decided the kitchen work was more draining than digging the hatchery! In between cooking and cleaning, we packed up and got ready for
our journey back to civilization. The week was a very interesting experience and we were glad that we decided to do it. It was a bit disheartening seeing the poachers taking eggs, and hearing that they even got the nests which we camouflaged, but helping build the hatchery and knowing that would make a difference helped. I think it would be even more difficult in green and hawksbill season, when the poachers not only take the eggs, but the turtles as well. We considered ourselves lucky to have been able to sit besides these great animals, and hope that in our future encounters, we are able to see eggs hatch and watch the little turtles make their journey to the ocean. The boat out of the project left at 5:15am, and we hoped and wished for a dry morning - and happily we got one.
Only 1 more stop to go before heading home :)
There are more photos below