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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Seeing the Leatherback

As soon as we left the hatchlings, we got a call on our radio from the group in the north. They had two turtles in their area and now a third. Could we help them with the one closest to us? YES, YES, YES!

We walked as fast as we could. As we walked Avalon asked who was counting eggs and who was measuring and scanning. I was the counter. She went over with me what I was going to do. She was going to go behind the turtle and scoop me out a body pit so that I was right behind the turtle. All of my weight was going to be on my belly. She drew a line and I had to stay behind it with my body but should stick my head over it so that I could count the eggs. I would have to be careful not to push any sand into the nest. Next. I would wrap the cord attached to the counter in my hand so that I would not drop it into the nest by accident. We were not going to put thermo couplers (thermometers) into the nest because in a month the season is over, the researchers go home, and there would be no one to monitor the nest. When she stopped digging, I was to put my hand under her flipper and lift it up so that I could see to count the eggs.

So we walked a few more minutes. Then we got close. Michelle and I were told to wait near the water. Avalon went up with the turtle spotter (a person who spots turtles so the tourists can come see them) and surveyed the situation. Then she came back to me and said we were ready. She took me up right behind the turtle. I made the body pit just right for my body because I was going to be lying down for 20 minutes of so. Time flew by so I am not sure how many minutes went by actually. Then I was a foot from her flippers behind this massive prehistoric looking creature!
turtle in body pit

Her nest was already about 2 feet deep. She used her back flippers exquisitely. While she rested on one flipper, she used the other to scoop the sand out. Then she would switch. She did this for about 10 -14 more times. I was sweating and breathing hard. I was so excited and nervous. Tourists came around me and sort of stepped on me to get a closer look. They had an English/Spanish translator talking to the tourists. 15 tourist get to come per turtle. All at once she stopped digging and just let her flipper hang there in the air over her nest.
Suddenly three eggs seemed to fall out of her body and rolled to the bottom of the nest. I quickly counted and put my hand under her flipper to move it away a bit so I could count and people could see. She did not want to move her flipper . I pushed hard and she finally gave a little. She would press her flipper against my arm while her egg-laying muscles contract, then the flipper would quit pushing against me and either 1,2, or 3 eggs would come out. Then she would contract and push against my arm, then release and then the eggs would come. It was very rhythmical. She laid 53 eggs. Then she started laying the SAGS, the little ping pong size egg cases. She laid about 20 or so of them. I did not count them . Then she laid a few more eggs...56 in all! Finally she started covering up her nest. We left because we had to sweep the beach in case another turtle came up. I did not get to see her go back to the ocean. Apparently she spends about 20 minutes disguising the nest so you cannot tell where the nest is.

While I was counting eggs, Michelle took the scanner and scanned her right shoulder. She and Avalon measured the carapace. First they had to clean sand off of her back. They measured 148 cm lone and 104 cm wide!! Michelle said her skin felt very velvety. I thought it was very smooth, too. I could feel the bone in her flipper. There were barnacles on her skin.

It was quite a night. I will never forget it. So close to this animal and experiencing such a primeval event.

We'll see what tonight brings...


  1. Hey Ms. Elebash,
    I was wondering how many eggs does an average leather back lay?
    Henry K

  2. Hi Henry,
    The answer is in the writing below the picture of the leatherback returning to the ocean.

  3. Hi Henry again,

    Well, the average...hmmm. I'll have to ask the researchers. They told m once, but can't remember now.

  4. Hi Ms Elebash
    I would like to know how fast a leatherback moves?
    Henry K