31 August 2010

turtle patrol: (night) life on the beach

Officially, turtle patrol shift at Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos (CTP) would run from roughly 9 a.m. – 2 a.m. But the giggle-like-a-schoolgirl excitement starts nightly at 7 p.m. when we would release hatchings (or barely day old baby turtles). Hermilo, the onsite biologist, would go to the incubation casita and put out all of the baby turtles that had hatched that morning. Can you imagine a world in which you were set free to fend for yourself less than 24 hours after birth? These days, some parents are lucky to get their offspring out of the house by their 35th birthday.

As the sun set on Playa Las Tortugas, Hermilo would drag a stick across the sand to make a line. On some nights, it was just me, Hermilo and Gerardo, the CTP volunteer coordinator. Other nights, nearly two dozen guests, homeowners or rental visitors of next door residential property would crowd to release their very own handful of hatchlings. One night, I named several of the hatchings in honor of Chelsea, Sabrina, Robin Jean International Sex Symbol, Teri, and Peter, and silently, willed them to swim and survive.

When the sun would finally dip below the Pacific, in a lazy, mesmerizing way flashing vivid hues of pink, purple and peach, we’d head back to camp. Gerardo would pop out to check the tides and when the time was right, we’d cover every inch of our bodies possible in bug-barrier attire and layer on eco-friendly repellant. I’m not generally a fan of unnatural products (read: chemical), but I call B.S. on the efficacy of eco-friendly bug spray (and I have countless insect bites, or picaduras, to prove it.).

Armed with a rain coat, water bottle, and survival knife, Gerardo and I would head out to the beach to patrol a designated stretch, usually spanning 2km (or about 1.3 miles), to search for Olive Ridley turtles. Campamento Tortuguera Platanitos patrols a 10-mile stretch (16 km) of beach, seven nights a week, both on-foot and via ATV. And night after night, several members of nearby Otates community show up to help patrol. It is not easy work, especially during summer’s rainy season, when intense thunder and lightning storms reign supreme on a seemingly nightly basis.

Walking at steady pace, but not so fast as to tire quickly, we’d walk from one end of our patrol “zone” to the other, scanning the sand for turtles emerging from the ocean or for tracks. If we didn’t find anything, we’d wait approximately 20-30 minutes, then circle back in the opposite direction. We’d repeat this process as many times as the shift would allow, often walking close to 10 miles per night. At first, I needed a flashlight, but your eyes adjust rapidly to the night sky and tracks can be spotting from several paces away. If we found a turtle making her way from the sea, we’d step back and let her find a place to nest in peace.

Once she located the perfect place to lay her eggs, she’d dig a nest, more than a foot deep, cupping her rear flippers like hands, scooping out piles of sand. She’d then lay 80-150 eggs. During this time, I’d crouch on down on my knees, reaching my hand under the backside of the turtle pulling out eggs, two or three at a time. They resembled ping pong balls, but slimier and squishier in texture. I’d count the eggs as Gerardo would measure the turtle’s length and width and note any remarkable features. A form was filled out for each and every nest documenting details of the find.

If we found tracks, we’d follow them. Sometimes we’d find a turtle nesting; other times we’d have to suss out where the turtle had nested to find the eggs. In any case, we always tried to find the nest before the poachers did; we weren’t always successful. We’d mark the tracks with criss-cross lines (or whatever mark we were using that night). Surprisingly, the round-trip timeline for an Olive Ridley turtle to emerge from the sea, build a nest, and lay eggs is roughly 30-45 minutes. These incredible creatures repeat this journey three times during each nesting season.

Poachers, or people who illegally collect turtle eggs despite conservation and wildlife management laws, are a big problem around Playa Las Tortugas and we encountered them on an almost nightly basis. They mostly kept to themselves, probably because what they are doing is, umm, illegal. Sometimes, they’d create fake turtle tracks or try to gauge our distance by sending false flashlight signals (we had our own flashing systems, which indicated various things, including “We need back up”). Some wielded machetes. Some hid in the bushes, thinking they had outsmarted us (they didn’t). Others reeked of alcohol. One of the main problems with the poachers is that they are generally un-policed. Sure, there are police in the Mexican state of Nayarit, but they did not have a presence once on Playa Las Tortugas during the nights I patrolled. From what I understand, they have bigger gang-related issues to deal with the state’s capital of Tepic.

Poachers can sell a turtle egg for 3 pesos (or about .25 cents USD), so finding a nest with 80-150 eggs could net someone $20USD or more. Multiply that by several nests over the course of a night and you’ve got yourself a potentially a lucrative, albeit illegal business. To put it in perspective, there were nights when CTP found 40+ nests, while the poachers staked claim to as many as ten. That is why several dedicated souls pace methodically up and down the beach at all hours of the night, in all kinds of weather, getting bit by the peskiest of mosquitoes and no-see-ums. These are the people who make a difference in the Olive Ridley population of Playa Las Tortugas.

Night after night, as we beat poachers to the nests (more times than not), I felt like I was playing some small part in making a difference (superhero cape not included). I love that I was to jump right in to the CTP volunteer program and help out with absolutely no sea turtle conservation knowledge. If there is any question about how great this program is, witness the release of 1200 hatchings into the ocean, all while silently rooting them on, “Swim, swim, swim!” It’s a pretty fantastic feeling.

If you go:

It’s a bit of a transportation adventure to get to Campomentos Tortuguero Platanitos. I flew into Puerto Vallarta International Airport. From there, I took a taxi to Central Bus Station (about a 5 minute drive, 60 pesos – or about $5USD). At the bus terminal, I went to the Pacifico Bus Line counter and bought a ticket to Las Varas (about a two hour drive, 105 pesos – or about $10USD). Busses leave every 20-30 minutes. There, I’d coordinated a pick up from the CTP people (a 45 minute drive to camp); otherwise, expect to pay about $30USD to take a taxi to camp.

Need to know:

Campomentos Tortuguero Platanitos does not recycle, which is a big red flag considering the eco-conscious nature of the program. Recycling programs are in place in nearby Las Varas, so it doesn’t seem impossible.

A woman’s dormitory is currently under construction. For the time being, housing is co-ed in a poorly ventilated sleeping/living space which doubles as the kitchen. Much of the time, this room is hotter than a Bikram Yoga Studio.

CTP advertises internet availability, but from camp, it’s a very weak signal with spotty accessibility.

CTP is a dry camp, meaning no alcohol is allowed on the premises. This “rule” was not made known to me until I arrived at Turtle Camp. Mexico + intense heat + beach + sunsets + adult who can imbibe responsibly + no occasional cold cerveza = no bueno in my book.

If you bring fruit or vegetables to camp, expect a very short shelf life. The heat wrecks havoc causing produce to start rotting almost immediately.

Do not pack purified water. It is provided for you.

The heat and humidity are intense; I strongly recommend bringing Gatorade and some salty snacks (or “Survival Chips” as my significant other likes to call them). When I got to camp, I was drinking close to two gallons of water a day and peed maybe once a day for the first five days. I was in much better shape once I incorporated electrolytes and increased salt into my diet.

Only eco-friendly bug repellant is allowed (in the best interest of the hatchings and eggs). Expect to get bitten. A lot. The mosquitos and no-see-ums are merciless.

Ocean currents at Playa Las Tortugas are extremely strong and volunteers are advised not to swim solo. The ocean was too rough for me to swim during my 10-day stay at CTP. There is an estuary at the end of the beach where people can and do swim, but crocodiles have been spotted here during turtle patrol.

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