Tortuguero and Turtles

Published: September 27th 2008
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Nothing more need be said.
We returned to ASVO in San Jose to organise our next project in Matapalo and were offered to spend a week in Tortuguero at the ASVO house next to the national park. We jumped at the chance for a relaxing pace, no work, and cheaper accommodation and food for the week.

Tortuguero is not just a quick bus ride. It takes two buses and a long boat to reach in approximately 5 or so hours. But as with everything we have done so far, the journey is part of the adventure. Once on the water, we travelled for about 1 hour along narrow canals and then onto wider rivers seeing crocodiles, fresh water turtles and birdlife all the way. We are dropped off at the national park entrance and have to walk about 200 metres to the ASVO house. From the canal to the Carribean is only 300 metres. We meet Elias, who is the volunteer co-ordinator for this region. Very little English on his part so we had lots of practise with our Spanish for the week. He has lots of personality and always wants to talk.

We are in the best position to see much wildlife. Howler monkeys, and white face capuchin monkeys all came close to the house. We´d lay in the hammocks watching them play in the trees above our heads. They would be curious and come down closer. Toucans flew through the trees and landed on a branch above our heads. Deadly snakes spotted in the bamboo. An eyelash viper venom would have a human dead in an hour.

It is very easy to like this place. There are some nice restaurants and Cafes, a few tourist shops for souvenirs. Most visitors only come for a day or two and stay in the usual groups and don´t stray from the herd. They won´t ever know that the people are sooo friendly here and because we are here for longer we quickly become part of the community with friendly greetings all day every day. We stop for chats with the local stall owners, the shop keepers, cafe staff etc. Not much else to do.

One day we took large plastic bags and scoured the beach for rubbish. Both bags were full after only 400 metres. One of the huge negatives is that the beach is full of plastic bottles and bags. Most of this rubbish is left by the tourists at night time when they spend 2 or 3 hours sitting and waiting until a turtle is found.

A note on the night time tours... we paid $15 each for the 10pm session. The guides are only allowed to take us on the pueblo/town part of the beach. The beach and especially the national park side of the beach are totally off limits from 6pm to 6am each night without a guide. We tried one night to venture out on our own, with a pathetic story of wanting to watch the stars but the ranger saw right through us and sent us on our way. On the night we went on the tour, only 2 turtles arrived on this section of the beach. One turtle was discouraged by human presence and turned back. The other was found already digging the nest. Once she is in position and laying she is in a trance and will not budge until finished. This is the best time for us to come closer to watch. And with this we were competing with many other groups to catch a glimpse of the turtle laying eggs. We went to bed feeling like we have seen something fascinating but not getting enough of it.

Thursday 5th September

Mornings are beautiful. Today we (I) decide to set out for a long walk, to head south along the less trodden section of the beach. 5am and David is wondering why we are awake. At this time of day the most we could hope for was to see a she turtle heading back to sea after laying her eggs.

The sand is very soft and made it hard going. We noticed a huge amount of new tracks (called Arribadas where hundreds or thousands of turtles beach at the same time). Also many new nests which look like bomb sites. We started to despair when some nests had already been raided by vultures or damaged by later turtles digging their own nests. Egg shells littered from the huge holes. Further on we found the bones of a large turtle picked clean and the bones already whitened from the exposure to the sun. Every now and then we see signs of small flipper tracks to show that the hatchlings have made it to sea. A small victory in the viscious life cycle. We pass many nests where the turkey vultures are dancing around picking at eggs. Things were getting even worse when we found a turtle, only dead for some hours, being fought over by about 50 of the scavenging birds. A couple of times David ran at them to shoo them away. The last time he did this was to find new hatchlings with their heads and some flippers missing. So depressing a sight.

After an hour and a half we decided to turn back. We walked for some time lost in our own thoughts about how cruel life can be for these creatures. And when we least expected it, a huge glimmer of hope. The movement caught David´s eye. About 20 newly hatched babies flipping and flapping their way to the sea. Pic´s attached. What a moment of beauty. They are only about 50mm long and can move fast. We both looked around for any vultures or other predatory type animals. The vultures were nowhere in sight. Thanks to the unfortunate turtle that died overnight these babies have a better chance of survival.

Most had flippered there way to the water but there was one smaller baby (runt of the litter) that was having a harder time getting over the what would appear to him as large sand dunes, but were only our foot prints in the soft sand. His shell was narrower too. Must have been in one of the bottom eggs of the nest. Squished him! My favourite picture is of his last steps towards the water. The ´runt´tastes the Carribean for the first time. Once the hatchlings touch the water, the only sign of them is their little heads bobbing up for air.

We learned too, that they will now swim for 5 or 6 days to reach a massive bed of seaweed. Once they reach this floating mass they are more protected and have much food. They will grow quickly for the first 3 years and it is believed that they don´t mature until almost 30 years. (sounds like some humans we have met, ha!)

But...until they reach the weed, they are still prey for other marine predators. The chances of survival are slim. Maybe 1 in 100 will reach maturity. Some researchers say 1 in 1000. We have seen this morning the most natural beauty and the absolute ugly aspects of the turtle´s life cycle. But that´s was all natural.

We will be spending 2 weeks in Matapalo, guarding the hatchery and patrolling the beach at night to protect the sea turtle nests from poachers. Thinking about it now though, I wonder whether the man assisted releases in the sea will give as much pleasure as the natural wonder we witnessed this morning.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


A friend in the cane outside the hut.A friend in the cane outside the hut.
A friend in the cane outside the hut.

Eyelash viper. One of the most venemos snakes here.

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