Hello! My name is Ms. Elebash . Please join me as I travel to Costa Rica to study sea turtles!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lunar New Year Leatherbacks

At 10:55 we gathered at the meeting place in the station. Tera announced, "High tide, 02:50 Expecting 2 turtles. 9 nests. Back at 4:50."

Six of us walked silently in the soft light to the truck, 4 jammed in the cab and 2 in the back for the drive to South and North beaches. Super bumpy in the back so that is not where I chose. Ventanas started out on foot through the hatchery access and headed north to the serene and dark beach. A smaller bay is marked by much less light there and rocks that cast shadows. I told James the night I went I felt uneasy. It is an interesting feeling;even more why that occurs. He said he felt safer there than around people. We talked about animals and people fears...

Tera, Julianne and I were on our nightly patrol. We were on North. I had never been on North before. There had been a lot of action here in the past nights. I think 3 turtles had come up here. I was excited to be with Tera, who runs the station because she is good company and knows a lot since she has been here for several years and worked with turtles around the world. I was also excited as the odds for seeing a leatherback on this beach were higher than the others. We drove through the dark corduroy roads for about 10 minutes until we got to the middle of Playa Grande. We didn't see any nocturnal animals along the way.

Out on the beach with not much bioluminescence and a warm breeze, we began our walking. It gets easier every night. The first nights are hard but with each night a flow begins to develop. We walked for only about 25 minutes, when I saw in the distance a darken path of sand that positioned itself from the water to the dry sand...turtle tracks!! So much emotion flooded me that I almost cried. My lungs had to breathe deeper for several breaths.We walked closer. It was a leatherback! The spotters were already there up in the sand. We did not see them at first. We radioed to the people on south to let them know we had found a turtle. Michelle was in the south group and had not counted eggs which she wanted to do. Would we trade somebody? We discussed. Julianne ended up trading because she had spent some time down here before and has seen a lot more turtles than I. The south group was pretty close so they hurried and arrived quickly. Michelle and Julianne traded, then Paula, Jacob Hill, fellow Tarheel and researcher, and Julianne headed back down south to see what they could find. Tera checked the turtle and spoke with the spotters. Tera is fluent in Spanish. It is fun to hear them speaking Spanish. Actually most of the researchers can speak quite a bit. I can order food and ask a few questions and greet people. I am learning fast. The people here help you.

The turtle, fondly named Bootsie and Jacob Hill's favorite, was a returnee, but not one of the first six. I think she has returned somewhere around 7 times. Jacob will know so I will ask him. Bootsie is so named because her left hind flipper is shaped like a boot rather than a solid flipper. Her carapace at the very base is also gone. Something must have happened when she was young. Her boot made it a slight tad harder to scoop when digging because when she scooped sand a bit would fall out of the flipper (where the arch would be).

Picture taken from the internet. Not Bootsie. (http://www.wayfaring.info/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/leatherback-sea-turtle-eggs.jpg)

There were also a group of tourists who were radioed to by the spotters and you could see a dark mass of people approaching. Tourists pay a bit to have the opportunity to see the nesting turtles. They are lucky if they get to see one...just like us.

We waited about 30 feet away from the turtle. She had dug her body pit and was beginning to dig the nest. The researchers and spotters are very respectful of space initially when the turtle starts her process. But when she is halfway through digging and begins laying, then the people come and stand, but behind her so as to not disturb her. Tera began checking her tools. She checked the scanner. It didn't work. She put in the spare battery, and it was spotty. She quickly radioed Jacob and he came back with his group and brought his. Then they went back to sweeping the south.

The leatherback had halfway finished digging. Tera could tell by the nest depth. Then Tera dug a pit behind Bootsie for Michelle and she snuggled in with the counter in one hand and her head lamp on. I waited in the shadows with the scanner in my hand and the tape measure all neatly rolled in my pocket. The egg laying started. I got to come up and watch. Every time Bootsie would contract her flipper, an egg or eggs would drop. There were some Americans in this group, and I was able to tell them a little more what was happening and how leatherbacks nest. I felt empowered that I was able to share my new-found knowledge.

Tera gave me the signal and we went up to the side of Bootsie. Again, my adrenaline began to pump... more than usual. The energy around and in my body created a strange and unusual feeling. I was in a different realm. It felt surreal. We decided she should scan since the scanners were sort of iffy. Tera scanned her right shoulder and I recorded the 7-8 digit number and checked the return box. Then Tera scanned the other shoulder and I recorded that one and checked return. Tera had also noted the time and date when we first arrived. The data collection is important and interesting. It is written on water-proof paper. Next, Tera showed me how to brush the sand off of her back so that we could get an accurate measure. It gave me the opportunity to feel the smooth, firm black skin. There were no barnacles to cut me at all. To touch this huge reptile and kneel beside her stirred something inside of me...what I do not know. Turtles throw a lot of sand around when they body pit so there can be a good amount. Tera showed me how to feel around her neck where her soft skin met the rubbery carapace. I put the beginning of the tape here. Tera pulled it taut to the back, then I recorded in the book 129 cm. Tera showed me how to feel down the side edge of Bootsie's carapace. I could tell where the place was that was the widest. Tera went to the other side and we measured. I can't remember that number. But Bootsie was quite a bit smaller than the one I had egg-counted the other night. (She was 149 cm)

Bootsie stopped laying. Michelle stopped counting. Bootsie began to fill the nest. I was amazed how both turtles I saw used the weight of their bodies to tamp down the sand hard. And I mean really hard; they pack it. This took a while. Her process of covering the eggs is very thoughtful and purposeful. She takes her time tamping and covering, and then disguising. The tourists and we are not able to see her whole process. The tourists have seen a leatherback laying. We have to get going in case one has started laying somewhere else or a nest is hatching.The spotters stay until they "escort" her down to the water. Meanwhile, Michelle backed out and the counter stood at 57.

Since Jacob Hill and his group have gone southward and have covered some of our sweep, we start out northward. We continue up the beach to see what else the night or the beach will bring. Michelle and I especially recall the experience and Tera easily joins in. The encounter is thrilling and hard to keep quiet about.

We radio Jacob Hill and check in. Researchers constantly check-in to let each other know what is happening. Usually groups time it so they take the break together. We reach the hatchery and sit in chairs and have a snack. I eat some leftover chocolate croissant from the German baker who comes in a truck about twice a week. Tera eats a sandwich. Chewing my last bite, I remember I haven't cleaned my hands since touching Bootie. I hope I don't get Samonella. I talk to Tera about this and now figure out why she washed her hands in the surf after the nesting! I watched her do it but couldn't figure She figures I'll be all right. I think to myself, oh well,m what happens, happens but I would have liked to have thought it though a little faster!!

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