Here are some new stories from my life as a sea turtle camp coordinator and the beautiful wilderness of Playa Caletas!
Oh yeah, that is the amazing number of nests we have been able to save in our hatchery to date. It has been 40 days since our first relocation, which also means: THE FIRST BABIES WILL COME UP WITHIN THE VERY NEXT DAYS! We are all very very excited, especially my female assistants who have never seen sea turtle hatchlings before! We got everything ready and I got hopefully everyone prepared for a massive hatchling invasion, a loooot of cute babies, stressful releases and the most nasty excavations. Me, personally, I am so excited about the hatching rates of those first nests, as they are totally unpredictable. Those rates will reveal how well we are really doing with saving the turtles out here, and if we need to improve our relocation / hatchery / temperature management. The first wild hatchlings of this season have apparently made their way to the ocean already (from the nests we left in-situ before the hatchery was up), as there were some hatchling tracks found on the beach during morning Census, and a single late starter which unfortunately got eaten by an overly enthusiastic camp dog 😮
So the hatchery is 3/4 full, and we’ve started to mince in between the nests, trying to walk on the gridlines only and never lose balance. We have had two or three weeks of continuously high activity, with a few peak nights during which we would end up relocating ten nests or more. Then, we started to limit the number of nests to four a night since we were worried about running out of space before the first hatchlings come up (then we will fill the squares of the hatched nests with fresh sand and use them again). But somehow, turtle activity has slowed down in this past week, which is quite surprising as we should have started into the nesting high season now. However, looking at nesting data from past years it seems that even in the high season there are real slow nights with only one or two activities. I hope the turtle activity picks up speed again soon. We are all kind of spoilt now by busy night patrols with more nests than we could carry, and turtles which slow us down so we cannot even cover the whole beach during our three hour shift. Now, there are around two or three nests a night, and zero to one nests per patrol shift. Come on turtles, I want to fill up those remaining 50 squares before the hatching season is in full swing!! 🙂
CRAZY CALETAS STORIES
There are some funny things happening sometimes. Here are just a few I have personally witnessed.
1. The stupid poacher: One morning I was on morning Census duty, and it happened that those damn turtles chose to come up during low tide in the three hours between the end of our last patrol and sunrise. The poachers had been more intelligent, or simply more lucky?, than us and had been on the beach at the right time (however, poaching is still quite under control with our poaching rate remaining less than 10 %, and poachers being found once or twice a week). So on this very morning, I found a picture-book poached nest. And a big black rubbish bag next to it. Out of curiosity I had a look inside and was very surprised when I found the “poached” eggs in this bag! I looked around me, unsure about what to do, trying to find the poacher hiding in the bushes who must have ran away just when I turned up. But why would he be so stupid to not run away WITH his theft? I came to the conclusion that he simply must have forgotten it here, and so I took the rubbish bag and brought the eggs back to camp.
As I wasn’t sure for how long those eggs had been out in the bag, and how they had been handled, it seemed too risky to relocate them to the hatchery and use up our much needed space. So I decided to make a nice little in-situ nest right in front of camp. Up to date, a few other nests have joined and have not been depredated – despite being basically unprotected – so maybe we will have some semi-wild hatchlings in about a month 😀
2. The perfect night patrol: Another noteworthy story is the record patrol during which I and a volunteer collected six nests! (five nests per patrol shift had been the record so far…). But the crazy thing about it really is that this patrol would have never happened if Melvin hadn’t befriended some poachers the night before! The story goes as follows: I sent Melvin out on patrol by himself, which is totally safe for him as a local guy and according to him, totally manageable (to tag the turtle, measure her and collect the eggs at the same time). This night, a lot of poachers were around, and three of them found Melvin sitting behind a turtle, hiding the patrol equipment behind his back. As they thought he was a poacher, they started a nice little chat about their yield and revealed that they would come back the next day at 8 pm.
When I heard about that, I instantly set up a patrol for 8 pm even though it was the craziest low tide, thus really unlikely for turtles to come up, but I wanted to show presence and make sure those guys don’t even get a single nest.
So we went out at 8 pm, the beach was wide and flat, it was heaven to walk on, just like a road, the sea was calm and the waves were rolling in quietly, a full moon was lighting up the whole scenery and turning the patrol into a picturesque stroll on the beach. But this stroll ended soon when we found the first tracks leading aaaaaaaall the way from the tideline to the vegetation, and a turtle digging her egg chamber. Once we were done with this one, we saw the next one crawling up the beach just 3 meters away, so we stood still and waited. Then two more nests followed. Me and the volunteer carried two egg bags each, one on the back and one on our belly, when the volunteer pointed down to the water where the fifth turtle was just about to come up. So we stood still again and waited for her to start the nesting process. Just right before camp, Melvin waited for us sitting behind the sixth turtle.
When we got back to camp, I made everyone who was around help us digging the hatchery nests. I wish I had a picture of this! Six people aligned in the hachery with their headtorches on and an eggbag on the side, digging holes in the sand.
It seems that turtles do not care too much about low tide under specific circumstances. Melvin keeps saying that the moon has a much bigger influence on the nesting activity than the tide. And even though I know I should not believe everything he says, I must tell you guys that all nesting turtles on that patrol were not facing straight up to the vegetation (which is the most common direction for them to face) but to the south-east, towards the moon…
3. Skunk alarm: One night we got ready for patrol when we found a letter from the previous patrol team, saying that a skunk had depredated three eggs from a hatchery nest! The first thought of all of us was not “oh no, nest A9 has three eggs less now…” but “oh no, now we have to start with hatchery shifts!”. The first month we were able to focus on night patrols since the hatchery roof secured the holy area to a certain extent. Raccoons couldn’t get inside anymore, but skunks are tiny and can squeeze through all kinds of gaps and holes. Once hatching season is closeby, the nests start to exert a stronger smell which attracts the skunks. The very same nest got depredated once more in the same night, and fortunately we had one person spare who reacted and started a hatchery shift right away. Now, we do 3- to 4-hour night patrols plus 1- to 2-hour hatchery shifts each night. Sitting in the hatchery, keeping yourself busy, snacking and shining white light around is not the greatest fun on earth, but it will gain popularity and excitement once the hatchlings come up. Then, the hatchery shift means not only guarding it from skunks (which do even enter when there are people and lights in the hatchery!!!) but watching hatchlings emerging from the sand, getting them ready for the sea and finally releasing them.
4. Weird turtles: There are a lot of weird turtles in this world, and us humans will never fully understand their way of thinking (or not-thinking but stupidly following messed up instincts). It happened to me a few times that I literally “fell” over a turtle which had decided to nest right on the tideline where we usually walk. In this case, you don’t see any tracks so you end up lighting up the potential rock or log in front of you (which we need to do a lot) and find that it is a turtle. Then you collect the eggs with the waves hitting your bump and the patrol equipment being at risk to get washed away with the next bigger wave…. One turtle we found covering and her eggs were rolling around in the waves behind her, as they got washed away while she was nesting.
Another turtle kept us waiting for a long while… We were already late for our return from patrol, as the turtles only started to come up on our way back to camp in the last half an hour. This turtle, once she had spread her hind flippers to indicate the start of the oviposition, made nesting movements for 15 minutes without dropping a single egg. We sat behind her, waiting patiently, wondering if she would just be “fake nesting”. Then, when she finally laid her very first one, she took five minutes everytime before dropping the following egg. This was the slowest turtle I had ever seen! When after 40 minutes of sitting with her, the volunteer had only counted 16 eggs, I decided to tag her quickly and abandon her in her misery, leaving the nest in-situ for the sake of our sleep.
SILENCE AFTER THE STORM
Since Training Week at the end of June, we have had school groups and volunteers constantly. The maximum number of people at camp was 12, which is the official maximum the Cabina can accommodate. Then, a week ago, everyone seemed to leave within just a couple of days, leaving behind the heart of Caletas: me, the four girls, and Melvin. As one of us is usually gone for his/her day off once a week, it leaves five people at camp. This means a lot more work, but also less night patrols. Now, we can only do two patrols instead of four. This means we miss a lot more nests and turtles, which ends up in more poaching and depredation.
And it feels so quiet! But at the same time familiar; I feel in these past days we even became better friends and a better team altogether, functioning well in all regards of daily life. I really like this tranquility, but I am well aware that it is good to have new people coming in every now and then, getting to know the craziest, funniest or most challenging characters and getting a break from your “family”.
After the first volunteers had evaluated their stay at Caletas, there were a few things for me and my team to improve and to work on. Some of the criticism we received was understandable and we worked out how we can do it better for the future volunteers to come; however, some of the criticism was totally unforeseen. All in all, I thought I had things totally under control and had always taken the right decisions, but it seems I still have to learn and change a few things to become a marvellous coordinator 😮
The weather has stayed pretty dry, sunny and hot. Rain is occasional and well received if it does not happen during night patrols. However, we have had one crazy storm and unfortunately, we happened to be outside, far away from camp, when it began. We were on our way back from the neighbouring beach when we found ourselves under rain so hard that the drops hurt on your skin, and thunder and lightning so close that you don’t dare to look up or around you. I got myself prepared to get hit by a lightning anytime, and people saying at my funeral “at least she was having some great last weeks, doing what she really loves to do”. Before I could feel a big relief to have kind of safely returned to camp, I heard Melvin saying “The hatchery is broken”. And there it was: One side of the hatchery fence had fallen down to the ground. It was a mess, and due to the late hour and the continuous rain we had to leave the hatchery half broken over night. The next day, we got some new sturdier posts and a lot of string and nails to fix and repair the hatchery. To stabilize the poles even more, we have been connecting them to some additional shorter poles all the way around the hatchery. I tell you guys, this fence is basically just a whole patchwork consisting more of string (holding the pieces together) than of the initial plastic mesh. If this fence is to last another season… I don’t even want to think about the potential of a second hatchery downfall.
With these images I will say goodbye for now. Be assured that I love my life right now and every challenge I need to take is worth it. In the meantime, get yourself ready for THOUSANDS of hatchling and excavation pictures on my next post! Whoop whoop! 😀 😀 😀