Tale of the Turtle Eggs

Trip Start Jan 25, 2009
Trip End Jun 2009

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Cartago,
Saturday, April 25, 2009

This weekend my program went on an excursion to a nature reserve called Pacuare. It's located on the Caribbean Sea.  Our job there was to help study the Leatherback turtles that lay eggs on the beach of the reserve.

We all stayed in a small cabin.  There were 4 bedrooms and one common room.  The first day we arrived around 12:30pm and ate lunch.  The kitchen is in its own separate cabin.  We sat at one long table and served ourselves: rice, beans, and chicken for lunch.  After that we got used to the small area where the cabins where located and the beach.  Then two girls talked to us about the turtles and what we'd be doing.  Both girls were, surprisingly, from Europe.  One from Spain and the other from France.  But both came off as hippies, ha.  I was pretty tired so I didn't quite catch what they were saying.

Here's some back story that i later figured out:  Pacuare is famous for the leatherback turtles
that come to lay eggs.  The eggs of these turtles are known for being
aphrodisiacs.  In many parts of the Caribbean coast it's legal to take
the eggs of the turtles and sell them to restaurants.  However, on
Pacuare reserve and the areas surrounding it, it's illegal to take the
turtle eggs.   But egg poachers still steal them.  There are guards on
the reserve, but poachers still manage to get them sometimes. 

This is how turtles lay eggs:  they come out of the sea onto the beach.  They dig deep in the sand and lay their eggs.  Then they cover up the eggs with sand.  In an effort to save the eggs from poachers, the workers on the reserve, find turtles as they are laying eggs and then collect the eggs and place them in a human made nest in the sand.  A "human made" nest is just a deep whole someone digs with their hands.

Back to my story: Later that afternoon they took us to the beach.  They explained that to hide the eggs, we have to dig a deep hole as a nest.  So, we all practiced.  The holes weren't very wide, but they were deep.  The practice went like this:  I dug as deep as I could possibly reach.  The Spain girl measured it with a stick and then said "that's good, now dig a little more."
After that "practice" was done, we lounged around and then ate dinner.  I signed up for the 10pm-2am shift for that night.  There were 3 of us from the program and the French girl ( her name was Alice, or something) as our leader and some other CR guy.  Let me set the scene...

10pm at night...there is no electricity in the cabins or outside so we have to rely on flashlights.  However, to avoid drawing the attention of  poachers and to avoid bothering/scaring the turtles, we can only use flashlights with red lights on the beach.  But even that light can't be used too much.  So we're walking in pitch darkness on the beach.  To avoid the mosquitos we where pants and t-shirts and bug spray  And we all wear boots to protect our feet since we cant see very well where we are stepping.

So, I couldnt see anything.  All of a sudden Alice said she saw a turtlle. I couldnt see anything, so I just took her word for it.  Then Alice shined her light on it.  It was like out of a horror movie for a split second because at first all I saw was darkness and then the light was turned on and I saw this huge, monstruous turtle shell.  Very big turtle.  One of the guys measured the shell and Alice took down the measurements.  The turtle dug in the sand with her back fins, but she found water a foot in.  Turtles won't lay their eggs in water, so she stopped digging and returned to the sea. 

Of course, it didn't that quickly.  I don't know how turtles have been around for so long, yet not be too intelligent.  The turtle kept digging for a good 8 minutes even though there was clearly water in the nest, which she would have been able to feel with her fins.  I dont know why she kept digging.  Then, in terms of getting onto land and leaving it, it takes the turtles a while to move.  They basically use the front fins to push themselves through the sand...a very long process given their size and weight.  They might not be able to move for a few minutes even though they're slapping their fins through the sand.
We ran into 2 other turtles, one of which i helped measure.  Then, we finally saw one that was about to lay eggs!

I volunteered to collect the eggs...a decision which I later came to partially regret.  Collecting eggs basically involved me putting a bag in the nest, under the turtle and catching the eggs as the fell.  Alice gave me one plastic glove to put on my right hand, which I would use to touch the eggs if they missed the bag and to hold the back part of the bag where turtle fluid might land on my hand.  She said that i should avoid getting fluid on my hand since it could be carrying bacteria...that freaked me out a little bit and kicked up my germa-phobe-ness.  I held the bag with both hands under the turtle.  The eggs came out very quickly, 8 or so at a time.  My arms got tired almost immediately.  Almost 2 minutes in, eggs started missing the bag.  After the whole "bacteria in fluid" info that Alice had given me, I was freaked out about putting my hand or clothes too close to the turtle.  Alice traded spots with me and hurridly put all the eggs into the bag.  It had to be done quickly cause we didnt want to miss any eggs.

After the turtle was done, we took the bag of eggs (which was really heavy) to an area a few feet away where one of the guys had made a nest.  I had to lay down on the sand and count the eggs as I put them into the nest.

Now, there are 2 types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized.  I dont know the average size of a fertilized egg, but it's fairly big and fit comfortably in the palm of my hand.  The unfertilized eggs were smaller and varied in size, some were as small as pebbles.  They just dont get developed as much as the fertilized eggs before the turtle lays them.  Since they're easily crushed, they are put on the top of the fertlized eggs.  I forgot this as I was placing the eggs in the new nest and I'm sure I crushed a few unfertlized eggs. 

Then it started raining.  But I had to finish.  So there i was in the pitch black darkness, lying on the increasingly wet sand counting eggs.  And i had to count out loud so they could help me if i lost count.  Since the one guy didnt speak English, I had to count in Spanish, which made things a little more difficult since I had to stop and think about what number came next.  One of my friends held a jacket over me and the nest to keep the eggs drier. 

The bag that held the eggs got full of water from the rain.  So I was essentially sticking my hand in a bag full of water and turtle fluid.  Yes, this grossed me out.  Finally I finished.

Oh man...I was covered in sand and my right arm was covered in liquids.  I was freakd, afraid I'd get some bacteria like Alice had said.  I later realized it wasnt that big of  a deal.  But i still felt sticky and wet.  :-/

Worse, to keep poacher from finding the eggs, we had to cover up their tracks.  Since the sand was wet, this was even more difficult.  We used big sticks and dragged them along the sand (which required a lot of strength) to cover up the tracks.  Everyone's arms got really tired.

I was going to take a shower when I got back, but there were crabs everywhere.  Really.  At night they came up on land and up to the cabins to sleep.  The bathrooms and showers and are just stalls outside, so the showers were full of crabs.  I could have taken a shower because the crabs were more afraid of me than me of them. But still, i couldnt.  So i went to sleep and took a cold shower the following morning.

The second day was uneventful.  Some of us missed the nature walk to see the birds, so Alice took us on a separate nature walk, where we saw frogs and lizards.

That night I went on the 10pm shift again.  There were 2 turtles that laid eggs, this time I chose not to collect the eggs.  I just helped to dig the nest.  The waves where much high this night.  It was quite funny actually.  Everytime the water came up really high, we'd all run backward quickly to stay dry.  But at one point the water splashed up to my shins, even though I had tried to jump back and out of the way.  My one boot was full of water the rest of the time :(  Highly uncomfortable.

On the walk back we accidentally passed the cabin site.  Our leader, Michael (from England), was new so he didnt realize it and it took a good 10 minutes to figure out where we were as he argued with a guard over the walkie talkie in broken Spanish.  We discovered we were out of bounds of the reservation, an area where the guards coulddn't legally stop egg poachers.  The poachers are not known for being violent, but still I was slightly worried since again we were in pitch darkness.  But, needless to say, we made it back safely.

The next day, we left in the early afternoon and made it back to Heredia around 5pm.
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