Hello, my name is Mr. Hill. Please join me as I travel to Costa Rica to study sea turtles!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Day Eight: Early Afternoon

As you may have noticed, I didn't post yesterday. We had the usual morning duty and afternoon nest excavations, but nothing in either that was new or compelling enough to write about. Maybe I've been here for a sufficient amount of time now that the work has become somewhat routine? I remember having a similar experience in South Africa. Waking up early in the morning to jump into the land cruiser to see giraffes and hippos and lions and rhinos and lions was, for the first few times, beyond exciting. But then I became accustomed to the experience, much as I have to my experience down here with the turtles, and it began to feel typical, comfortable, almost habitual. Funny how that happens. And yet, I'm always mindful every night I'm on the beach to say to myself, 'It's early February. You're in Costa Rica, not at school. You're patrolling for leatherback turtles so that you can watch them nest, and it's all with eye towards helping the leatherbacks increase their numbers' so that I don't forget just how extraordinary this opportunity is.

I had the earlier of the two beach patrol shifts last night -- 7-11:30 p.m. Kim, my partner on the shift, and I had no action on our section of the beach -- even the nests where we might have seen actual hatchlings or least their tracks, seemed to have taken the night off. In fact, had an Olive Ridley not made her way ashore during the second shift, no one would have a chance to work a turtle during the two-shift, 10-hour patrol. The cool thing about last night's Olive Ridley nesting? The biologist let his Earthwatch volunteers work the turtle all by themselves -- one counted the eggs and the other measured the length and width of her shell. (A side note: this particular turtle happened to be wider than she was long. Olvie Ridleys have a very high-domed shell, so the wider-than-long characteristic is not necessarily out of the ordinary.) I was pleased to hear that we volunteers have become so adept at our turtle skills that the experts are now willing to let us play a significant, instead of a token, role in the collection of the data. Yep, I'm a little proud of us!

My final 24 hours here will include another early shift of beach patrol tonight (with Tera, star of the Skyping sessions and the project manager) and then an early-morning, two-hour stint in the hatchery. Before either of those duties occurs, however, the entire crew here -- biologists and volunteers -- will gather at a viewpoint for a Costa Rican sunset and then wend our way to Keke's for our final dinner here. Because the turtles don't know that we're all leaving tomorrow, we really can't become too sentimental/corny/mushy about the end of our time in Costa Rica, though we'd be remiss if we didn't take a moment to celebrate the work we did and the companerismo (camaraderie) we shared. A few brief words, smiles and or hand shakes and or hugs all 'round, a final casado (chicken, beef, or vegetable), and then back to the turtles: all as it should be.

A few more answers to a few more questions:

1. (from Jack Hogan) How do you know when there's a turtle on the beach? If we don't see the turlte emerge from the water (and we often don't), we see see a very wide track in the sand, leading us to the place where the turtle has decided to nest (or, if it's a false crawl, not to nest). Hard to miss these tracks, even if you're night vision isn't all that great: the leatherback track is often 3-4 feet wide.

2. (from Ola) What skills must you use when observing the turtles? I'm going to rephrase the question slightly, Ola: 'What skills must you use when looking for and then observing the turtles?' When looking for the turtles, the 'skill' we use most is...PATIENCE. As you may have noticed in earlier posts, long stretches of time -- sometimes entire shifts -- go by when we don't see a turtle, so we have to be patient each time we hit the beach. When we actually work a turtle -- when we watch her nest, lay, and cover -- we have to make sure we stay behind her head (so that we don't spook her) and do our work (counting, scanning, measuring) in such a way that we don't bother her while she goes about her business. We have that window when she's in her hormonal trance to collect our data, so we have to be somewhat quick and always efficient. Further, the egg counter has to make sure he or she gets close enough to see the eggs but not so close that he or she causes the nest to collapse. Finally, because tourists love to watch the leatherbacks lay eggs, we often have to do our work surrounded by 10-15 people, and many of them want either to get too close to the turtle or for us to answer questions they have about what they're seeing. Negotiating all of the tourist activity while doing what we need to do with the turtle can sometimes be quite the juggling act!

3. (from Will Laird) Are leatherback populations in Costa Rica expected to increase? That would certainly be the hope, Will, but researchers won't know for another leatherback generation or two if the populations are increasing and at what rate. Poaching has all but been eliminated here -- a big plus. Declaring this area national park (which happened, I think, in 1994) -- also a big plus. The biologists following the trends here seem to feel they've been successful at stabilizing the population: it's still way too low from their point of view, but they think they may have arrested, at least for now, any further decrease -- a huge plus. But just what effect their work here is having on future numbers is anyone's guess at this point. One of those 'only time will tell' situations. Is enough being done to help the leatherback turtles? What more needs to be done? In the last 20+ years, quite a bit has been done around here to help the turtles, but no, there's not enough being done yet -- there's always more to do in this kind of work! Tera, the project manager, would like to see more of the area in this part of Costa Rica (and in similar places in other countries down this way) declared national parks. She would also like to see stricter zoning ordinances in place so that people can't build too close to the beach. She figures the next big obstacle to tackle will be the fishing indsutry. People interested in increasing the leatherback population are already figuring out how best to educate fishing communities about the dangers their ways of fishing pose to the turtles. As you can imagine, some of those "ways" go back generations, so trying to persuade some of these communities to use methods safer for the turtles will be a challenge. It's heartening to me, as I hope it is to you, that there are people more than willing to accept that challenge.

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