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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day Four: Early Afternoon

Unlike the night before, when we saw no turtles, last night we saw three, and all of them were leatherbacks.

As we were arriving at the spot where our beach patrol shift began, the biologist in our group had a call on his radio that there was a "tortuga" near marker 14. We rushed up the beach and arrived just in time to see the leatherback covering her eggs. No counting of the eggs, obviously, but we did scan and measure the leatherback. (Many of these leatherbacks have a microchip in each of their shoulders -- metal tagging stopped several years ago -- and we scan each shoulder to find out which turtle we're working with at that moment.) Almost as soon as we finished recording the data, the biologist in our team noticed a red light flashing farther up our sector, so we quickly packed up and headed towards the source of the light.

When we arrived, the ranger there pointed to another leatherback who was putting the finishing touches on her nesting pit. We watched her use her back flippers to create a pretty deep trench about 4-5 inches across in thee pit. The most remarkable part of this digging process? The leatherback can turn her flippers into little cups so that she can not only slice into the sand but also bring it up out of the deepening trench and throw it behind her.

As she neared the end of the trench digging, I slid into place, on my stomach, to begin my duty as egg counter. As soon as the first egg dropped, I placed my one hand on the flipper that was covering the eggs and held it to the side so that I could see the eggs. In my other hand I had a counter, and every time an egg dropped into the trench I clicked the counter. I had to be careful not to get my body too close to the edge of the pit, and I also had to make sure I didn't lean on my elbows: both actions could collapse the side of the egg trench, and, for obvious reasons, I wanted to make sure that collapsing didn't occur -- not so easy at it sounds, given my, um, bulk.

Did my holding the one flipper to the side bother the turtle? If it did, she didn't let on: at no point during the time she and I were hand-to-flipper did she try to fight me. Perhaps she didn't even know I was there, since, when the egg laying begins, a turtle goes into an 'hormonal trance' and remains in that trance, more or less oblivious to what's going on around her, until she's finished laying.

The laying takes about 10 minutes on average, and I knew she was finished when started to use the flipper I was holding to begin convering her eggs. At that point, I pushed back away from the pit, got up, and helped the other two in my group scan and measure the turtle.

Luck would have it that as we were in the midst of "working" this turtle, we got a call that a third turtle had come ashore at the south end of our sector. Because we could not leave our turtle, the biologist in our group radioed another group and asked them to "work" the third turtle. They were more than happy to oblige because the two Earthwatch volunteers in that group had yet to see a leatherback.

During a later sweep of our sector, we were fortunate to find this third turtle finshing the covering of her eggs; as a result, we got to watch her make her way back to the water and then swim out to sea. Given everything these turtles go through, it's hard to imagine they have any energy left to get themselves back in the water, but they do, and they do so surprisingly quickly! 8-10 days later, she'll be back for another nesting, and she'll have, on average, about 15 nestings during the season which runs from October to March. No wonder she'll then take 3-4 years off before she nests again!

The second turtle (mine) laid approximately 89 eggs (I write "approximately" because I may have over-counted -- easy to do, given the position one's in when counting the eggs and the erratic way the eggs drop into the trench); the third turtle, approximately 56. The average number of eggs per nesting: 60-65.

Once one has seen multiple nestings, I suppose one becomes used to, perhaps even blase about, seeing leatherbacks lay their eggs. But I won't be here long enough to have that happen to me, and I was quite happy to hear from the biologists that we volunteers should have another 2-3 nights like last night before we pack up and head out on Monday.

As I was lying there counting eggs, I thought, 'This process has been going for over 60 million years That's 6-0. Million. 60,000,000.' Try wrapping your head around that idea! Pretty overwhelming; pretty awesome; pretty cool.


  1. Mr. Hill, you have often mentioned the biologists with whom you work. How involved are the local Costa Ricans in the process of helping these turtles reach maturity?

    - Julian Fox

  2. Hey Mr. Hill-The whole experience sounds pretty amazing. I was just wondering how important Leatherbacks are to the ecosystem as a whole. If they were to go extinct, would certain species of fish or vegetation rapidly increase and would that mean harm for their old environment?
    Sam Bresnick

  3. Mr. Hill,

    Like 5 years ago, when I was in florida, a sea turtle bumped into my leg, while I was swimming, and I tried to touch it. My grandmother was screaming at me "no its dangerous they can bite your fingers off!" Are these leatherback turtles aggressive? If you were to touch one would it swim away or try to bite you?

    Thanks, Hope you are having fun.


  4. Dear Mr. Hill,

    I think what you're doing is great. Keep up the good work! Although you're working for a brief period of time, you are making a difference for a lot of turtles and your work is greatly appreciated! :D

  5. Dear Mr. Hill,

    How do the life expectancies differ between sea turtles in the wild and sea turtles raised in captivity?

  6. This is all so exhilarating, Mr. Hill!!! I wish I was there to watch with you. So cool. Your blog makes us all feel like we are right there with you. Cannot wait to see photos. Perhaps you can come to Environmental Science in the next couple of weeks to talk about your trip. Amazing, amazing. Thank you for sharing all of the amazing details.
    ~ms. bell

  7. Dear Mr. Hill,

    As I've been reading your posts I've begun to wonder how you view the impact you're having in the future of the leatherback turtle. In so long as you're there volunteering your time and energy along with other volunteers, you have a direct impact on the future of the species and the "project," but as soon as you leave you cease to have a direct impact on the project. What I'm getting at is, what do you view as the role of an organization like Earthwatch and how do you think providing these experiences to people without scientific backgrounds helps advance causes like protecting the leatherback turtle?


  8. Hi Mr. Hill!

    Your work with leatherbacks and other sea turtles sounds amazing. It seems like what you are doing requires a lot of patience, but the reward is tremendous. Leatherbacks are hard-working reptiles, but how much sleep or rest do they actually get? One more question: When were the first sightings of leatherbacks around the globe? I had not realized the importance of leatherbacks to tropical regions until now, and I very much appreciate the information you are providing us with.

    We're proud of you at Collegiate, Mr. Hill!

    - Brandon Aguirre

  9. Hello Mr. Hill

    What skills must you use in order to have a fun and fulfilling experience observing the turtles?


  10. Thanks for the update Hill!! the whole thing is very exciting and interesting. I just met someone who was at Playa Grande over new years and who watched the turtles lay eggs. It was a bizarre encounter as i thought turtle-nesting observers were few and far between. I guess not.