The Girls Are Back In Town

A baby leatherback hatching, not our picture obviously...

At the Epcot Aquarium we met a couple of sea turtles during our dive that struck me as very large at the time but they were nothing compared to the Leatherback momma we saw a few nights ago.

We arrived at the Parque Marino Las Baulas for our appointed ‘turtle-time’ at 10:30pm. There was already a small crowd gathered, most of them reading books or magazines and looking comfortably installed for a long wait. We on the other hand hadn’t brought even an iPod to while away the time. It hadn’t occurred to us that turtle(s) might be late or even decide not to appear at all that night, oops!
As soon as we sat down in front of the park station though, movement came into the rangers: radios crackled, orders were barked and everyone was looking for ‘Zuleyman’. I’m not sure if Zuleyman eventually turned up or if they decided they simply had to do without him but they got us all to line up in front of the office to pay our entrance fees. After only two people paid – which took some time since currencies had to be converted, colones counted, dollars found, etc. – the guards outside of the station started bellowing for everyone to come onto the road, right now, come quickly, everyone line up, two groups. Boyfriends were lost (and found), old ladies from Florida hooted and cackled and finally we got our marching orders to the beach.

The short walk was supposed to be done in darkness and ideally complete silence but there wasn’t much chance of that happening with the hooting Floridian around. The few houses on the side of the road all had dark tinted windows and if they had lights outside in the yard they were of a dark greenish color. There were no streetlights anywhere and even our guide only had a very limp flashlight. All this is of course for the turtles who are coming up to the beach to nest – bright lights irritate them and could potentially scare them away for good. (Although we learned that Leatherbacks are the only species of sea turtle that isn’t too picky about their nesting. They can move to another beach in the same area if they deem the ‘home’ beach unfit for the eggs.)

Once on the beach, only a few metres away from the entrance, we saw some red lights flicking back and forth. These were the rangers who were already with the turtle, aiding her with the nest dig and waiting for her to drop the eggs. Because she had chosen a location so close to the entrance of the beach, they were going to collect the eggs as she laid them and relocate them to a hatchery further down the beach later.

There were way too many of us tourists, almost 30, so we were divided into several smaller groups and lead around the beach to approach the turtle from different angles and in stages. No one was allowed directly in front of the turtle since that could scare her and cameras, cell phones or any other light-emitting, photo-taking devices were strictly prohibited. Finally our group was lead to one side of the giant dinosaur so we could watch her finish the nest and lay her eggs.

The size of the turtle was unbelievable. It measured over a meter and a half in length. The rangers measure and if necessary tag the turtle while it’s out of the water. It laid on the sand like a giant boulder, slowly moving her hind-flippers in a digging motion first to keep opening the hole and then once she dropped her eggs, to close it. As mentioned before, the rangers picked the eggs up because of the nest’s location, but she didn’t seem to mind or even notice that there was someone holding a plastic bag under her rear-end. I have to admit that I felt a bit sorry for her, all those people crowding around, trying to get a good-look at her part of the reproductive cycle. People were throwing bitchy looks at each other as they tried to hustle for the best position (as much as you can throw bitchy looks in complete darkness on a moonless night) and all that was missing really was for someone to give the turtle a little shove so that they could see better.

Eventually we were lead away again to make way for another group to watch and we got some turtle info from our guide Carlos. (He didn’t speak much English so Conor did the honors of translating.) Carlos showed us the tracks the turtle left when she heaved herself up the beach – they are about 30cm wide, looking like a little tractor drove through. You can easily distinguish the prints left by her fore-flippers (tractor-like indentations) which she uses to pull her massive body up the beach and the back-flippers (smooth, wavey tracks) which she uses to push. You can even see the line left by the egg sack that already hangs down low under her belly, ready to dispense her little ones. Since the eggs were in a plastic bag now, one of the rangers was taking them around the groups to show them and let us gently touch the shells. They are off-white and squishy, like large, soft ping-pong balls.

Then it was time for us to leave the beach because turtle momma had closed her nest and was ready to move back out into the ocean. We would have loved to see her make her way back down the beach but unfortunately that was not an option. Instead we had to go pay our dues at the ranger station and then got to watch a short video about leatherbacks, the park and the conservation efforts they were taking to protect the species.

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