Caletas has been booming in those past couple of weeks. The hatchery has exploded in terms of hatching activity, the nesting activity has stayed continuously high, two new assistants arrived, and all in all you can feel that the turtle high season has begun. We are busier than ever before. Now I tell you the details:
BIG TURTLES AND FAST POACHERS
So turtle activity has been high – or let’s say reliable with about – let me guess – between ten and twenty nesting events a night. It is nearly guaranteed those days to see a turtle and to stumble over a couple of tracks during your patrol. However – our hatchery has been nearly full with close to 195 nests (!!!!!) incubating at the same time, so we had to limit the number of relocated nests to three or four a night. That means if the first patrol teams came back with three nests already, the later teams were not allowed to collect any more nests. Their main job then was to record data and to tag the turtles, while leaving the eggs on the beach. Most of those nests got depredated immediately afterwards up to a few hours later, but it is quite easy to accept the natural course of events if you know that there are two hundred nests already which receive full-time care and protection.
The high activity was very convenient for the training of my two new female research assistants who arrived on the 2nd of September. Unlike my first assistant team who had to go out for nearly two weeks under supervision until everyone was trained in analyzing tracks, finding nests, recording data and tagging turtles, it took me only four night patrols to have the new girls fully trained. They saw all kinds of turtle events and experienced all kinds of different situations, so I have a good feeling now to let them go into the “big, wide world” full of turtles, raccoons, skunks and poachers, because I know they are confident in what they are doing.
The high nesting activity finally calls the attention of more and more poachers – this past week we have seen poachers on the beach nearly every night, and not only one or two guys hanging out and trying their luck on a boring Saturday evening, but various groups of poachers spreading along the beach. Some were quiet and invisible as usual, but we also had a few creepy and annoying guys around who would make us feel a bit uncomfortable – probably just to slow us down, deter us and make us go back to camp (a good strategy to find the nests first?). One guy has been showing up on a quad, driving down the beach with looooots of noise and white lights, and every time he sees a track he stops, runs up, takes the eggs, runs down and moves on. Obviously – a poacher on a quad is the most frustrating for us, since he is much much faster than we are with our tired slow feet on the soft sand, so he steals all the nests before we can reach them. However, this same guy ran away from us the other night; he was sitting with a turtle waiting for her to finish digging her egg chamber when he saw us and heard Zuri barking at him (good dog! good dog!). He jumped onto his quad and drove off – leaving us the nesting turtle.
So I really prefer this type of poachers: who run away once we approach, because sometimes we are lucky and the turtle just started the nesting process, so we can still collect the eggs. But there is also the other type of poachers, the more rude and possessive ones, who just sit down with the turtle, mark their territory and stay. And as we are given instructions to let them be and to ignore them (and I’m happy about that cause I wouldn’t want to fight about a turtle with some creepy guys in the dark), we just pass them and move on, recording the activity as a poached nest.
SMALL TURTLES AND TIRING RELEASES
So the hatchlings started to come up. We had been ready for them from 40 days of incubation onwards, but they chose to let us wait for another week and emerged after 47 days, on the 21st of August. The first “hatching event” was a bit disappointing, since only three guys (or girls…) emerged that very first morning. However, we knew that a bigger group would be coming in the consecutive night, and so it happened. Since then, we had on average three to six nests hatching a night. Finally, the hatchery shifts involve some actual work (not only sitting there and guarding the eggs from potential intruders, which after that one skunk never ever came again) and keep us well busy.
Once a group of hatchlings has emerged, we count them and place them in a bucket. We then store the bucket until someone from patrol comes by and takes them far out, a few hundred meters away from camp and always to different sectors of the beach (to avoid predators learning where they get well fed each night….). If there is no patrol scheduled for the next three hours, the hatchery guards or people who are occasionally around release the babies somewhere close to camp.
So one thing I tell you: Olive Ridley hatchlings are terribly slow! Regarding the fact that they are only listed as vulnerable and thus not as badly threatened as most other sea turtle species, I wonder how Olive Ridleys have been able to do so well when their hatchlings are easy food for predators on land and in the sea. Green, Hawksbill and Loggerhead hatchlings seem to be much faster. Especially Green Turtles literally run down the beach and releases take one or two minutes only. Olive Ridleys, for the same distance, take ten to twenty minutes. So releasing two or more nests during patrol can take up to one third of our patrol time, leaving us less time altogether to find the big turtles and to collect the nests.
The worst thing, however, is when we have to go back out again to release hatchlings after we have come back from patrol. So instead of going to bed after three hours of work, you spend another half an hour on the beach, waiting for those lazy little bastards to make their way to the ocean, hoping and praying that they get sucked into the ocean with one gentle wave rather than being washed up onto the beach over and over again. Because of the risk of predation, we need to make sure that all of them made their way to the water before we leave. It would be stupid to take all those efforts to produce healthy baby turtles and then let them die on the beach. So you need to be patient with them, for sure. But regarding predators on the beach, it seems quite safe so far. I have just seen two raccoons approaching the scene (but they never came close to the hatchlings) and two crabs which were semi-successful, as they got to grab one of the slower hatchlings but then we could still chase them away in time, leaving the hatchlings with a shock but no bigger injuries.
Another crazy thing about Olive Ridley hatchlings – even though I don’t know if this is dependent on the species or on other factors here in Caletas – is that quite a few of them like to emerge in the middle of a hot, sunny day. In the other projects, we never had to check the hatchery during the day unless there was a big rain downpour (creating the temperature drop hatchlings usually wait for before breaking through the surface…), so I was quite surprised at first when they told us here to check the hatchery 24/7. Now I know why, since we had a few nests and single hatchlings emerge between 10 am and 3 pm which is the deadly hot time of the day :-o. So far, we found all of them in time before they got dehydrated and overheated.
So there is one night I need to tell you about. We got warned by Maddie that even if we happen to have a lot of space in the hatchery, we should not collect more than six nests a night, since it might occur that the nests collected over two or three nights hatch at the same time (some incubate for more, some for less days…), which would mean: a lot of releases and a lot of nest exhumations the following day. And I think in general we barely ever collected more than six nests, and on many nights we collected less than that. But now I know what Maddie was talking about:
Three nights ago it happened that we had twelve nests (!!!) hatching in one night. I thought I go crazy.
So we went out on patrol at 10 pm – I had slept for about one and a half hours before that – and took one nest with us to release. When we came back to the hatchery three hours later, there had been another five (!!!) nests which had come up during that time. Since we had been the second and last patrol that night and it would be another four hours until the Morning Census person gets up, we went back out and released those (you know, hatchlings waste a lot of energy when crawling around in the bucket, which they should use for swimming away from predators). This took us about an hour. When we then came back to the hatchery to return the empty buckets, another four (!!!) nests were waiting to be released. By that time, I sent the girls to bed and sacrificed myself to do another release. However, I woke someone up to help me as I could have never handled 300 hatchlings on my own. By the time those guys were released, it was 4 am and time for my hatchery shift, wow! During my one-hour hatchery shift I had two more nests emerging. When the Morning Census person got up at 5 am, he unfortunately only took one of the two hatchling buckets with him (…why?… whyyy???) So once I found out about this, I went out a fourth time and released the very last nest of that crazy night. After all, the lonely release in the early morning enabled me to have some private time with the babies and take a few pictures. So it wasn’t that bad after all. I finally went to bed at 6:30 am, tired, stressed, and frustrated, knowing that a big exhumation day is coming…
Hatchlings come with a lot of additional work. So on one side you want to have as many as possible, but on the other side it just exceeds our capacities.
DEAD TURTLES AND NASTY ALBINOS
So we have to exhume nests the next afternoon to avoid them being infested with maggots. So that same afternoon, I made an exhumation schedule, involving all of our manual forces, starting at 2 pm and ending at 6 pm. I planned three exhumations per hour and per team. After all, it all went really well, and the last team got to finish right before dinner. So I will speak more detailled about nest exhumations once I’ve got a good amount of pictures and nasty stories together.
All in all, we seem to have a great hatching success of close to 90 % (I haven’t really calculated it at all, but that is just a guess from the numbers and exhumations I have seen).
I make this guess because we tend to have a lot of nests which come with less than ten dead units (undeveloped eggs, dead embryos or dead hatchlings inside the nest). Some nests are overwhelming and have one or two dead units only. Usually we still find a lot of stragglers inside the nest, on their way up or stuck inside the egg chamber in between the smelly, half rotten remainders. Those guys are generally weaker and sometimes deformed and have less chances of survival than those who emerge on their own in a big group. However, they count as hatchlings and thus raise the hatching success (but be aware that the emergence success is really what counts – as this is the percentage of eggs which turn into healthy, strong turtles with a good chance of survival). Then, of course, there are a few nests from time to time which have a pretty bad hatch rate of around 50 to 70 %, and dozens of whole eggs to open and examine. It is hard to find out the real reason for such bad hatch rates – it can be hot temperatures, bacteria and fungus, or simply bad genetics.
I have exhumed two nests so far which came with a lot of whole eggs, and an usual amount of weird and deformed albino embryos which died in the later stages of development. The creepy thing about albinos is that most of the time, their heads are ill developed and they look like little mutant monsters, with only one big centered eye, no forehead, no mouth, or whatever. And another creepy thing about them is that sometimes they are still alive and moving in your hand when you take them out of their eggshell. Usually they die within the next couple of minutes, and they would have never hatched in time and made their way to the sea… I will get you some pictures soon, if I don’t happen to be the one dealing with the blood and slime and eggyolk… 😀
Last but not least a not turtle-related story. We all know that snakes are around in Caletas, but we haven’t seen any in those first two months. For three days, however, a beautiful Boa Constrictor had chosen our Rancho as her temporary chill-out and hunting place. One night, we saw the Boa lurking on a wooden beam, and on the other side – the Boa was well hidden from its view – an Iguana, one of those which are frequently hanging out around camp. We knew that the Boa might hunt for the poor Iguana soon, just waiting for the right moment, but everyone went to bed or on patrol and did not bother about watching the spectacle. Later that night when I got ready for patrol I was walking around in the Rancho to get my stuff together, until five minutes later, the girls came running from the hatchery, asking me if I noticed any difference in the Rancho. I looked around and – Holy Shit! – I saw the Boa hanging down from the ceiling right next to me, entangled in a string of some decoration craft, holding the dead Iguana tight. Apparently, the Boa had jumped onto the Iguana to catch it, fell off the beam and got caught in the string. So that is a quite strange and funny example of how human structures affect wildlife 😮
Me and Melvin took down the decoration craft, placed the snake-Iguana-something on the floor and cut off the string around the Boa. Immediately she opened her mouth and swallowed the Iguana’s head. However, we couldn’t watch the whole spectacle as we had to go on patrol, and when we came back, there was only the last bit of tail looking out of her mouth.
That shall be it for now – next week I am off to Nicaragua before I return to camp to get ready for the arrival of my other new assistants. I’m excited for my new team, more work, more challenges, more turtle stories and more exhumations.
Bye bye 🙂 🙂 🙂