The exhausted creature struggles through the last waves near the shore. A fat moon is just rising and it smells like rain is imminent. But she has reached the nesting ground, at last. She herself hatched here, almost a hundred years before.
Tired, she cannot rest, not yet. Poorly equipped for moving on dry land, she laboriously drags her great body from the water and up the sloping beach, her track clearly gouged for all to see. Near the high tide mark, where the sand will still be damp below the surface but her eggs will be safe, she rests a moment.
Backing into her chosen nesting spot, with powerful hind flippers she ejects a wild spray of sand until the hole is the perfect size to hold her eggs. Rapidly, she drops them into the damp nest and covers them. There are nearly one hundred. She turns to drag herself back to the ocean.
The night explodes to bright blindness when a flashlight shoots into her eyes. She freezes – sightless, terrified – hears several noisy humans approach. Too late, she moves to retract inside her shell. One of the humans drives a shovel blade across her neck, killing her instantly. The others swiftly unearth her nest and bag the eggs.
Turtle meat, turtle eggs, and a turtle shell. The poachers congratulate themselves. It is still early and already they have a good haul. Possibly there will be other laying females further down the beach. They set off in search.
Fossils indicate the sea-turtle has been around for over 150 million years. That’s kind of amazing considering the staggering array of hazards facing a turtle hatchling – ants, raccoons, birds, dogs, snakes, crabs, etc. while they are still on land. Scientists estimate that only 1 out of 1,000 survive long enough to swim out to sea.
Let’s put that statistic in perspective. A turtle lays about 100 eggs each time she nests. Statistically, that means she has to nest ten times for one of her babies to make it to the sea.
It gets worse. Once in the water, until the little turtles reach dinner plate size the number of creatures who call them lunch rises exponentially.
But that presupposes the little turtles actually hatch.
Food fads come and go, and apparently the turtle’s time is here. Especially in Central America. Over the past 100 years, the sea turtle population has declined significantly, to the point that some nesting beaches are no longer visited by female turtles. That would not be because of a turtle-mother’s arbitrary decision to ensure the safety of her offspring, but because the breeding population for that beach is now extinct.
Many nesting beaches in Panama are under threat this same way.
What can you do?
Out on the southeast corner of the Azuero Penninsula in a small town called Pedasi, Los Tortugueños Pedasieños are doing what they can in the way of rescue.
A group formed entirely of volunteers stirred to action about two years ago by presentations at the Proyecto Ecológico Azuero (Azuero Earth Project), Los Tortugueños Pedasieños hope to one day create a nursery for turtle hatchlings which will help reverse the current trend toward extinction. To do that, they will need a scientific grant. To obtain the grant, they first need several years of data about the turtles in their area. What kind of data?
- What turtle species frequent the beaches here?
- How many of them come to nest?
- When do they nest?
- What are the GPS coordinates of the nests?
- How large are the egg-laying females?
- How many eggs does a female deposit?
- Has the turtle previously been tagged? If so, the tag information is captured.
How does one obtain this kind of data? Field work.
Margaret von Saenger, an attractive young Panameña who is extremely active with the group, speaks excellent English and handles their publicity, described the field work process. First, the volunteers gather about 7:30 or 8pm at the Earth Project Center. They are encouraged to use their own cars so they will not feel trapped at the beach. “It is very tiring walking in the sand for hours,” Margaret told me, shrugging. “It is not for everyone, but every bit of help we get is needed.”
When they get to the beach, if there are enough volunteers they are split into groups of five or six. Otherwise everyone stays together. Why so many to monitor? As Margaret put it, “It is a very lonely thing to do, walking on the beach in the dark for hours and hours. Having others around makes you feel more secure.”
For the next four hours or so the group patrols the beach, back and forth across about 2 kilometers, watching for turtle sign. Since lights can discourage the turtles from coming in to nest, the volunteers are encouraged to walk by moonlight, even though they have been given red flashlights to use. (Red light supposedly does not distract the turtles.)
“Sometimes there are no turtles. Last week, for instance, it rained all night and we didn’t see a single turtle.”
But when they do see a turtle, what happens then?
“Well, first we hang back at a good distance being careful not to alarm her so she can do her thing. We don’t want her to see us as a threat.”
After the turtle climbs up the beach and selects her nesting site, the volunteers wait until she has dug the nesting hole, then they move in. They take photographs from the front, the side and the rear. Some measure her shell, others capture the eggs in Ziploc baggies. Out come the red flashlights, the eggs are counted, the data is recorded on a form specific to the purpose.
Meanwhile, although it was not specifically mentioned, I would guess a seriously alarmed, well-photographed and thoroughly datafied Mama Turtle has gotten herself back to the water as fast as her flippers will take her. The volunteers re-nest her eggs, with care to conceal from potential poachers that the Turtle Angels have visited. This time, there WILL be babies. The triumphant volunteers resume their patrol, hoping to rescue more potential hatchlings.
At the end of the month, the data for each monitoring event is summarized, and a report filed with one of the scientific agencies monitoring turtle activity around the world.
More volunteers would make possible more monitoring events. The events must necessarily be at night. Most of the volunteers work, and they find more than one night per week walking the sand until 1am and then rising for a 7am job is hard on the health. As Margaret put it, “If we had more volunteers, we could schedule it so that, for instance, I would take a group out on Monday, and someone else could take Wednesday, and so forth.”
As stated earlier, the Givers of Grants require three to five years of this type of data so they can be sure that if a nursery is built, there will be enough egg-laying turtles to justify it. More data faster would reduce the number of years of data needed from the maximum of five closer to the minimum of three, if I understood correctly.
So if you want to help, you can spend a night or two walking the sand in company with other good folks. Before you reach for your wallet instead of your shoes, Margaret said Los Tortugueños don’t really need money right now. She said when they needed a GPS device, someone donated one. When the group needed red flashlights, they were donated. When they need money for printing, someone donates it.
What they need are bodies to walk the sand.
And people to spread the word about the danger these ancient creatures are in.
What about you? Next week monitoring will be over until the next rainy season starts in May of 2014. Can you spread the word? And maybe next year, could you walk the sand?
Here is some terrific information about sea turtles and sea turtle conservation from other, larger conservation groups in other places:
2) 2) SWOT (The State of the World’s Sea Turtles) also has ways to help and educational materials.
3) SEE Turtles say they are “a non-profit organization that promotes conservation travel through wildlife tours that help protect sea turtles and other endangered species. We work with quality tour operators who have passed our criteria to ensure low environmental impact. We’re part of The Ocean Foundation. Contact us for more information on baby sea turtles.”