Here are the first news and impressions from Caletas beach!
Playa Caletas is a 5 km long beach with dark sand, washed up driftwood and a mostly rough sea. During low tide, rocks are exposed on some parts of the beach (which in a few spots creates convenient tide pools) and during high tide, the waves reach up to the vegetation leaving practically no beach to walk on. Swimming is too dangerous because of the strong currents. The beachfront shows some sporadic palm trees, but no expected lush tropical greenery as the hinterland of Caletas is wetland. Wildlife is quite abundant and I just tell you the ones I have personally seen already: Boa snakes, raccoons, skunks, Iguanas, hermit crabs and bigger red-blue coloured crabs (who cares about the correct name…), lizards, wasps… okay I’m getting to detailled now 😀
The weather is a mix of sun, clouds, rain and thunderstorms. Just as to be expected in the tropics. But it is hot. I don’t know if I forgot how hot the tropics are during my 11 months stay in Germany, or if this here is just extraordinarily hot. Sometimes there is no wind, no breeze. Just sun. The dark sand heats up quickly. At 8 am you are full of sweat already. There is NO fan anywhere near camp. Some assistants built their own fans out of cardboard to stand these conditions. I took a bed in the back of the sleeping cabin which allows me more privacy and less people running through, but the big disadvantage is that there is no window. So I am kind of sweaty at all times. But I feel that I’m getting used to it. On some days I really managed to wear long pants. That’s great. I will beat the heat 😀
Caletas is part of a national refuge for marine life. There is no town close-by, no civilization, just a beach camp in the middle of nowhere. It is wild. No idyllic beach paradise with crystal-blue water, coral reefs and dense jungle as in Malaysia. But I will fall in love with this place, just because it is very special and it makes you feel all the natural forces at once. I just miss to be able to go snorkelling or to just float in the calm sea.
Caletas is rustic. I knew that from the beginning and it was one of the main reasons why I chose it. There is the Rancho which covers the main hang-out area and the kitchen, a toilet, a shower, and the Cabina (sleeping cabin). The Cabina hosts six bunk beds. The mattresses are old and have a “butt pit” each, I’ve been using two of them and I can still feel the hard wood on my butt each morning. But it is nothing to complain about. It’s fine.
The toilet is a “real toilet” which we flush with sea water, but only if it is “brown” as they like to say here, because each day buckets of sea water need to be brought up and it is a shitty job to do. The shower is a squared cabin with – again, a bucket of water to pour over yourself. For showers, laundry and dishes we use some kind of groundwater from a self-made well. Drinking water is brought in with a car every now and then when we need more. The kitchen hosts a gas stove and a self-made oven which we fire with collected wood from the beach.
There is NO fridge. A fact I wasn’t aware of, since even the rustic tent camp in Boa Vista had a fridge. That is another thing which adds to the continuous hot feeling. No cold drinks! 😮 Vegetables and fruits are stored in a plastic container and need to be used within a few days. For god’s sake, we get fresh fruit and vegetables every Monday.
I don’t tell you all this so that you pity me. It is great. I don’t miss cold drinks that much. The coke I am drinking while writing this is great, but not as great as I expected it to be after not having it for almost two weeks.
I have five assistants in total, four females which are native english speakers but from all kinds of countries, and one guy from Nicaragua which can only speak Spanish. I’m glad he’s there because otherwise I couldn’t practice my Spanish at all. But his presence has even more advantages: 1) he is the only guy in camp so he is in charge of all the heavy carrying and construction jobs 😉 2) he has been a poacher in Nicaragua before he started to work for their conservation. He has a huge knowledge of Olive Ridley Turtles and their nesting patterns and behaviour; he can predict when it will be a busy night and when not, since it is all a combination of tide, moonlight and weather. However, he hasn’t told me these secret guidelines yet. Also, his predictions are not always a hundred percent right, but I have been more than surprised about their correctness a lot of times already. My female assistants are great as well. Some of them have never worked with turtles before but they learned so quickly after just one week of being there, and no one has ever complained yet about working too much or too hard. Yesterday two more volunteers joined us, so that makes eight people in camp. However, it seems too few for the amount of work which is lying ahead of us.
Ideally, there should be four night patrol teams each night. An early and a late patrol of three hours each with two patrol teams each: one is heading to the south (3 km one way) and the other one to the north (2 km one way). Then, there is morning census to check for any nests or turtle activity which we could not cover during the night patrols (remember that we have 12-hour long nights: a lot of time for sea turtles to come up). And since recently, there are three shifts of hatchery guarding which add to this. So if everyone is to do only one shift per night, I would need 13 people. The consequence? Less night patrols but at least two per night, and sometimes double shifts.
During the day, there are a few chores around camp as well which include cleaning, getting water and cooking. In the past week we had a school group of 18 people which we had to entertain during the day, so it was a very stressful week. Now after they have left there is more relaxation and sleeping time for us during the day so it might be easier to do more work at night. But I felt wasted. I really needed this day off. I hope I can get a lot of sleep tonight.
The main nesting season has just started. We have had a few nights with no activity at all, but on most nights we had between two and five nests. Two nights ago we had our first very busy night with around 10 nests. Unfortunately, many of those got poached before we found them. It was crazy. There was a group of about five poachers on the beach who spread out onto different parts to wait for the turtles. As they had basically five groups patrolling the beach and we had only one, of course they found most of the nests before we did. Poachers use white lights which they keep turning on and off and shining around like crazy. But you never actually see the person as they always run away into the bushes when we approach. Collecting sea turtle nests is illegal in Costa Rica so they have some degree of respect to not poach a nest in front of our eyes or to openly confront us. Apparently, there is a kind of peaceful coexistence with the poachers. Whoever is first gets the nest, and this is accepted by both sides. But I’m still freaking out if I’m out on a beach with minimal light usage and know that there are poachers surrounding us. And of course I freaked out when I saw all those poached nests. This was the most intense I have ever seen, as poaching at my other sea turtle projects was a threat but not a daily and obvious one. Here, it is not supposed to happen daily either. Apparently, the poachers knew that it would be an good night for sea turtles so they considered worth the trip to come out to the beach. I really hope this was an exception, otherwise it will drive me nuts sooner or later.
When we find nests, they are either intact, depredated by raccoons or skunks or poached. Depredation seems to be the most common danger at the moment. Raccoons sometimes even gather the eggs right when the turtle is laying, just as we people would do. The beach is long, Olive Ridley Turtles are quick nesters (they need around one hour in total) and there is usually only one group patrolling at a time. So it needs some luck to directly encounter a turtle and gather the eggs while they are being laid. When the turtle has left already, we use a stick to locate the egg chamber within the nest bed. Olive Ridleys are tiny! They are the smallest species of sea turtles with a carapace length of around 70 cm. I was kind of disappointed when I saw them the first time. But they are quite cool. Because they weigh less than other species, they bounce up and down after covering the egg chamber to pack down the sand with all their force, which is funny to watch. Apparently, Olive Ridleys are less easy to disturb so we don’t have to approach them as carefully as Green or Loggerhead Turtles. Also, the eggs are less delicate than other species’ eggs, so we just put them in a bag which we carry on our back, then finish our night patrol before we return to the hatchery where we let them “roll” into the nest to imitate the female dropping her eggs into the chamber. I still have problems with this less cautionary handling, and I guess more caution is never a bad idea.
The hatchery had been up when I arrived, but it was not ready to be used. Poles had to be replaced, the fence had to be fixed nearly everywhere (new fences are expensive so the old ones are reused until not even strings and nails can hold them together anymore…) and the sand inside the hatchery had to be turned over and cleared from any organic material. Good that we had the school group over which helped us doing all this, and all in all it was three days of hard work in the sun and heat. Three nights ago we finally relocated the first nest to our hatchery! And by now, we have already eight! Now, the roof still needs to be done to generate bearable temperatures for the embryo development.
The hatchery here involves more work than at my other projects as it needs to be guarded all night long even though there is no hatching to be expected. This is because of the raccoons who can easily break into the hatchery (for example by climbing over the fence). Hatchery shifts are a pain in the ass. So far, the school group has covered them and we could focus on night patrols. But now we have to do it. So one person stays in the hatchery for three hours. Three hours of being constantly awake and watchful, all by yourself in the middle of the night. I haven’t had a hatchery shift yet but I guess I will be terribly bored and tired, and maybe also scared like hell when I hear unknown noises in the dark. But I guess it will be an even more amazing feeling when the hatchlings come up, after all this work involved to guard them.
THE COORDINATOR JOB
So how is it to be a coordinator? It is great. I love it when volunteers and assistants call for me to ask for my opinion or permission, or to communicate some problems or ideas. My assistants are all proper grown-up conservation addicts which do not need a lot of guiding and help. Neither it is a typical boss-employee relationship, we are more of a team with one person who has got the last word in the case of disagreement. I don’t even have to share a lot of my turtle experience and knowledge with them as they were trained pretty well, are mentally totally on top and learned quite quickly. Sometimes I am the one who does the worst mistakes, just out of clumsiness and nervousness. Also, a few things are different for Olive Ridley Turtles (which I have never worked with before) so I had to learn the work protocol and the specifics just as my assistants did. I hope that once the hatchery work is fully running I can contribute more with my wisdom which I collected over all these years 🙂
I know this has been a long post but I hope I could give you all an impression of my life right now. After this day off, I am ready again to fight against raccoons, poachers, the heat, and other obstacles on my way of having thousands of babyturtles safely released into the ocean. Yeayyyyyyy!