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Ecology and Sea Turtle Conservation by Deborah Tope

Ecology and Sea Turtle Conservation

Start Date: 17th October 2004

Return Date: 14th November 2004

Ecology Costa Rica

Whilst in on my meaningful vacation in Costa Rica, I volunteered on two different marine turtle conservation internships. They took place in two different locations but the work was essentially the same. Beach patrols and hatchery duty were carried out every night. The daytime was generally used for cleaning the camp/house and surrounding area, and for resting after work
during the night.

A majority of the work took place at night. There would be two beach patrols a night, each patrol consisting of a few volunteers with the volunteer coordinator, and a walk for about an hour and a half to two hours. I vividly remember my very first patrol. I was filled with excitement but also a little anxious. How would I be able to see in the darkness and walk along the beach with no torches allowed?! Actually it turned out to be a fun adventure. With the roar of the ocean, you can always tell how close you are to the sea, and by the light of the moon, you can pick out the froth on the waves rushing up the beach towards you. However, I always found it difficult to tell if that shadow I saw ahead of me was a lump of driftwood to trip over, or a crab that was about to scuttle away!

So, walking up and down the beach, we were looking for parallel tracks from the sea, crawling directly up the sand in a landwards direction. This was the sign of a turtle. Some nights we could see nothing, other nights we'd find turtle tracks and so the possibilities of a turtle nest. Great care (and skill!) has to be undertaken when searching for the nest. It is likely to be hidden beneath a patch of disturbed sand; however, after a long walk in the dark and with tired eyes, sometimes all sand looks the same! Once the nest is found, it's onto your hands and knees to dig up and collect the eggs. Eggs are ping-pong ball sized and surprisingly squishy! We recorded the number of eggs in a nest, along with the a few details of the nest itself. Occasionally we would come across nests that been attacked by animals or nests where the eggs had been removed by poachers. This is where I came to realise the importance of the turtle conservation project.

On a couple of occasions I was lucky enough to encounter an adult turtle on the beach. It is an inspiring sight to watch her searching for a suitable place to nest. Only when she was happy with her position would she take the time to dig her nest and lay the eggs. In this instance we would also record details of the turtle. At the end of any patrol, if we have collected eggs, they must be buried in the hatchery. The hatchery is a purpose built, large fenced region where all the 'rescued' turtle eggs can be buried in artificial nests, watched closely, and kept safe, until they hatch. Baby turtles are so cute! It always amazed me as to how these tiny creatures could manage to hatch from their eggs and head upwards to emerge out of the sand. Sometimes they did need a little encouragement. The hatchery is guarded at all hours through the night (even in thunderstorms if I remember correctly!), so any turtles hatching from a nest are counted, collected, and eventually released to the sea.

One night in particular, we had literally hundreds of baby turtles to release. They were hatching all over the place. The hatchery crew were overloaded with baby turtles so the volunteer coordinator and I decided to release some during the course of our beach patrol. We set the babies down on the beach as usual and sat ourselves down to watch them crawl towards the sea. Now, having been up all night already, we were both very tired and we both started to doze. However, I suddenly came to realise that I could see some glowing eyes ahead of me. I flashed my torch only to find out it was a crab and not one but several of them. To make matters worse, they had captured some baby turtles in their pincers. The next thing, impulse kicks in and I find myself jumping up to save my babies. Crabs scuttled in all directions and I ran after them to rescue the turtles that we had all so lovingly helped to get this far in their quest for life. I am pleased to say that after running down the beach in hot pursuit of crabs, I rescued every single baby turtle from a near death, and I suffered a nipped finger in the process! Considering my level of tiredness, I was so proud of my achievement. I can only hope that the baby turtles escaped their next predators, the pelicans swooping down into the waves or the crocodiles at the river mouth. The poor little things are so ambitious, yet so defenceless when released to the big blue sea.

- Deborah