Print this page
Thursday, 15 November 2007

Sea Turtle Gynecology: Volunteering with Pretoma in Costa Rica

Written by Noel Dunn
Rate this item
(0 votes)

turtlesSpreading a final handful of maggots in the sand, I sit back to survey the remnants of a nest. In front of me there are two worm-filled corpses, a pile of 11 eggs that remain unopened and a large pile of broken shells. I walk over to the shade and pick up four baby sea turtles that are barely alive. 114 of their siblings hatched last night and these guys couldn't make it out of the nest. One is deformed, two have fungus growing on them, and the fourth is barely moving. It’s controversial to release them in the ocean because it’s unlikely they would have made it on their own, but the alternative seems cruel. I place each three meters from the ocean because some scientists believe their initial walk on the sand is how they imprint or remember which beach to return to if and when they lay eggs. Each one moves with a renewed sense of energy towards the lightest horizon, which is conveniently, always the ocean.

campWhen all four have disappeared into the waves, I walk back to the sun-baked and foul-smelling eggs that didn’t hatch. I rip open each one and poke around the partially cooked yolks for eyes and I examine the fetuses for parasites and mark down my findings. After reburying everything, I return to camp - a fairly extensive shack made out of beech wood, rope, duck tape and tarps – advertising what I’m guessing is a failed ¨Tire Kingdom.¨ As I enter camp, the other American on the project is groggily moving from his bed to a hammock.

¨Hey, have the mud wasps built a nest in your underwear yet?¨

I say no and he assures me it’s something to look forward to. Although he stops mid-sentence to sniff my sand and egg yolk covered body. He looks a bit disgusted as he registers the smell of dead baby sea turtles.

On the way to the shower, I smile at my surroundings. Our shack lacks walls and an iguana is sitting comfortably at our dinner table. Someone evidently spilled something in the kitchen because the hermit crabs have formed a thick moving rug on our sand carpeting. The hermit crabs are a great form of permaculture and provide an amazing cleanup service for spills, leftovers and compost – the only drawback is that they tickle both under and over your feet. Just past three banana trees and a dozen purple and orange crabs is our well. crabI sweat as I pull up a bucket of water. It’s during this chore everyday that I think living a Robinson Crusoe-esque lifestyle isn’t as romantic as it sounds. But then I dunk a bowl into the water and pour it over my head. This is a simple and remarkably satisfying shower - maybe I could be Mrs. Crusoe.

It’s three in the afternoon. I’ve had two, two-hour long naps since midnight and if I take another one, my sleep count will be up to six hours for the day. But just as I'm relaxing into a hammock, my coworker interrupts and plops a baby sea turtle in my hand. turtleAnother nest is hatching and he’s trying to show me the new way we’re measuring their carapaces or shells. It’s impossible to focus. Olive Riley’s have large, dark circles around their eyes and the little guy squirming in my hand keeps lifting his head and tilting it to the side. On average, we release 100 of these guys everyday and I fall in love with each one.

turtlesWe place all of the hatchlings in a bucket and walk two kilometers down the beach to release them next to the place their mother initially built her nest. We return to camp in time for sunset. There are six of us at camp and all of us sit in a row facing the ocean, picking insects out of our coffee and share a hand-rolled banana-leaf cigarette to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We may not know each other’s last names but we have found out many of the little known tidbits about each other that normally only come with years of dating someone. The sun successfully sets and the tide is on its way out. Our workday has just begun. It’s muggy and warm but everyone changes into long pants and long-sleeved shirts for protection against sand fleas.

beachOur beach, though beautiful, is full of rocks and has a forceful current, which means it isn’t good for swimming, fishing, or surfing. It is also a two-hour walk from the closest town and by day the five kilometers often feel like our own secluded beach but at night it’s a different story.

Tonight, I’m headed south with my field coordinator, Kenny. Like me, he just graduated from college and is without a home. He has long legs and sets a fast pace. As we race across the sand, we bullshit about how all of us should join – if only because we actually take long walks (3-6 hours) on the beach nightly. As we speak, the waxing crescent moon moves behind a fierce grey cloud and the black sand beach looks like nothing more than a silhouette. Somehow we can still easily make out the turtle tracks less than 50 meters in front of us. Our steps become faster and lighter as we approach.

turtleA heavily breathing sea turtle is nesting, her back flippers pulse before each egg falls into the sand. Less than a meter away four people are discussing the fate of her eggs. Legally, the entire beach is protected and all sea turtle nests are property of our local conservation group. Unofficially there is no enforcement and we compete with poachers looking for turtles every night using the popular childhood rule ¨finder’s keepers¨ as guidelines.

I’m listening quietly as my coworker tries to persuade the hueveros or poachers to give us the nest even though they found it first. The two men are incredibly nice and even sound sincere as they sympathize with our cause.

¨The thing is, ¨ they say, ¨we only want one nest.¨

taggingThey do agree to let us measure and tag the turtle but first the conversation turns to fishing advice. I stop paying attention. I'd like to throw a tantrum that could rival the whiniest of two year olds. Instead I silently list the reasons why people poach turtle eggs. Years of tradition and rumors of them not only making baked goods last longer, but sex as well. And of course money – a local told me a dozen turtle eggs sell for just over a dollar.

As we walk away, Kenny’s shoulders are stooped and his gait alludes to his disappointment. Tomorrow he will drag around beach wood and hammer together useless furniture to vent his frustration. No matter what we do, the poachers get to some nests before us. What’s worse is that if the MINAE, Costa Rica's forest rangers, were walking with us, like they are suppose to, they would have the power to arrest them and the nest would have been ours. But there is a lack of follow through when it comes to conservation laws, and Kenny and I walk in silence until he makes fun of me for sneaking up on a log. A few weeks ago, I was unfortunate enough to approach and try to tap what I thought was a new and unusual looking piece of driftwood. I was less than a foot away when the four meter long trunk, which was actually a crocodile, scampered into the ocean.

turtleLuckily, a sea turtle saves me from Kenny’s relentless ridicule. She is clumsily plowing over sticks and branches. After some awkward maneuvering she uses her back flippers to dig a nest. This is my favorite part to watch. Despite all of her difficulties traversing land, digging in the sand is done with graceful movements that are surprisingly dainty. I settle in behind the turtle, digging an extra channel into her nest. When she’s ready, I place a gloved hand under her cloaca and wait for the first egg to fall.eggs I join the turtle in a trance-like state and count the eggs just before placing them in my bag. Bats chirp as they circle above us.  Kenny and I take the 146 eggs back to our hatchery. Kenny digs a nest with delicate movements that rival the sea turtles’. He glares at me when I tell him he’s a good turtle mother. After he’s done we’ll eat dinner and take a quick nap before our second patrol at two am.

It’s silly and ridiculously idealistic but I can’t help but think of our nests as reverse sand castles, temporary homes to some of my favorite treasure. My thoughts are interrupted when I hear Kenny grunting as he punches down the sand. He sounds a lot like the female turtles as they loudly exhale and use their entire bodies to pack the sand above their eggs. He really is a good sea turtle mother.


Details: All of the photos of turtles and hatchlings are Olive Ridleys. I worked on the Pacific side of Costa Rica with Pretoma. Their website can be found here:

©Noël Dunn

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

Related items