Hello to everyone! Here is the Caletas Update from last month.
TIME OFF IN NICARAGUA
After two and a half month staying in Caletas and having one night off per week (most of which I would still spend at camp, but at least I can sleep for the whole night, if the others let me 😉 ), I got sent on a week-long “holiday” in Nicaragua. Well, the reason for this was that I needed a new tourist visa for the next three months, so I had to stay out of the country for at least three days. I was allowed to leave together with Melvin, who is from Nicaragua. Even though I loved the idea, it made be a bit worried because it meant that we would leave four of the girls alone at camp for a couple of nights, with one patrol a night, hatchery shifts, a lot of day chores, and possibly a lot of releases and exhumations.
However, it seemed to go pretty well, and as there wasn’t a lot of nesting activity during that week and a well manageable number of nests hatching each night, the workload didn’t exceed everyone’s capacity.
All in all, I hoped that my time in Nicaragua would have been more relaxing. I did get a lot of uninterrupted sleep, which felt amazing, and I loved having some sort of infrastructure and civilization nearby – which meant getting cold drinks or ice cream anytime I want, quickly stopping by at shops whenever I need something, wearing jewellery and dresses, feeling fresh and clean and beautiful throughout the day. I got reminded of how “normal” people live their lives and how I live my life when I am in Germany, and it was a good temporary feeling 🙂
So the first day we spent travelling, crossing the border and getting to Melvin’s home village. We stayed there for two full days, visiting all sorts of people, viewpoints, beaches, driving around with his dad’s brandnew motorbike (which was way too big for Melvin, hahaha), buying stuff and enjoying the village life. Then we moved on to San Juan del Sur for a day, which is one of the most touristy places in Nicaragua. There we spent the day shopping around and eating.
The next morning we left early for Managua, the capitol, because Melvin needed to get his new visa from the embassy (whereas I could just get it at the border). We spent a long time looking for a cheap clean room, and more time looking for a shopping centre which would suit my expectations (I had a huge shopping list, since Nicaragua is supposed to be a lot cheaper than Costa Rica). Shopping was awful, and even more so for Melvin who accompanied a woman for the first time in his life – he had to discover that spending two hours looking for hotpants in her size until she finally decides that the ones she found are not worth the price of 15 dollars is NOT fun. However, I got most of the stuff I needed in the end and we just made it in time for the 7 pm movie – his first time visiting a cinema. The next day we spent travelling again and we arrived back at camp just in time to say goodbye to the last remaining first-term research assistants. Now, it was only four of us, but in two days we would get more new assistants.
MY NEW TEAM
My new team arrived in three steps: two girls in early September, one guy and a girl after my stay in Nicaragua and another guy at the end of September. It feels very different to have some more guys at camp, and I mostly notice it because there is less hard work to be done. While for us girls, some of the daily duties at camp belong to the “outdoor survival”-category (not fun at all but it needs to be done to be able to persist) for them, it is more just exercise for free in a big natural gym. They carry the heavy drinking water containers, buckets filled with clean damp sand for the hatchery and buckets of seawater for the toilet flush without any complaints.
Five new assistants come with a lot of training, explaining, supervising and controlling in the first couple of weeks. The training consists of a camp introduction, a turtle theory presentation, a detailed look at the work protocol for patrols and hatchery work, a nest digging and finding practice on the beach, a couple of exhumations until all development stages were seen and understood, and finally a loooot of night patrols until every possible situation, difficulty and nesting event category was encountered, sufficient nests were collected and relocated and at least two turtles were succesfully tagged. Sometimes this meant that I had to go out with the same person for six or seven nights in a row, when turtle activity was low and we were just not fortunate enough to encounter the females while they were dropping the eggs. However – now – finally, I have been able to send them all out into the wide confusing world of sea turtles. I’m happy to take a rest from training, but I must say I enjoyed it a lot, and I still enjoy it everytime I am asked for advice or help.
THE TWO-NIGHT GREEN TURTLE ACTION
So Olive Ridley turtles make up more than 99 % of the nesting activity at Caletas. To get a Leatherback or Hawksbill turtle is nearly impossible, but it is common to have one or two Green Turtle females in the season. So we have desperately been waiting for Green Turtles in those first three months. Last week she finally came. It is a story of misfortune, confusion, desperation, hard work and two sleepless nights, but after all, it has a happy end.
So me and Zach were in our last minutes of night patrol on our way back to camp when we came across fresh tracks. While following them up, I realised that those are bigger than usual and yes, they looked very familiar and symmetrical (whereas Olive Ridley tracks are asymmetrical!). Then I saw that big turtle sitting in this deep big body pit, moving all of her flippers. I felt so fortunate to be the one finding the first Green Turtle of Caletas this year! After analysing the situation quickly, I concluded that the is covering her nest already. So we checked for tags (she was previously tagged on tjis beach!), measured her and noted everything in the book. Then we let her finish up covering, admiring her beauty and size (oh yeah I had forgotten how amazing those creatures are! Olive Ridleys are adorable and cute, but nothing can beat the big ones…) and started poking for her nest right when she left. I knew that In Malaysia they used long thin metal sticks to look for the nests, whereas we just had washed up driftwood sticks to use. However, it must be possible to find a Green Turtle nest with those limited resources as other project participants in past years had done the same. After poking around for a few minutes, I decided it would be best to get Melvin, the master of finding nests. However, Melvin arrived and said that he had no experience with Green Turtles. He tried his luck but stayed unsuccessful. After half an hour of poking, the boys decided to start digging up the camouflaged area until the eggs were found. They dug deeper and wider, and more and more and more (while I kept poking around) until each of us was exhausted and desperate. Zach decided to bring the collected Olive Ridley nests back to camp while we asked for more help and shovels. The girls came and together we dug up an enormous hole, so big and so deep that twenty Olive Ridleys could get stuck in there. At 5 am (after four hours of searching for the eggs!) I decided to give up and to call this nest not findable. We all were really frustrated and disappointed, and I just didn’t want to accept our enormous failure. After sleeping for a few hours, I decided that we should go back and keep looking for the eggs. After one more hour of doing so we finally gave up.
The following night I went on patrol again, and at the very same part of the beach right next to the gigantic dug up hole, about two hours before high tide on our way back.to camp, we found Green Turtle tracks. We saw the female from the very beginning, so we sat down and watched her doing her bodypit and excavating the egg chamber, being unbelievably happy that we would finally get some Green Turtle eggs – after all this hard work and frustration from the night before. Lea collected the eggs while I measured, took a DNA sample and checked for tags – it was the same turtle. Slowly I realized that the reason we hadn’t found those damned eggs was because – simple as it is – there weren’t any eggs to find! The turtle had made an aborted nest and I was not good enough to distinguish that from a proper nest. I have to defend myself however: yes I have been working with Green Turtles several times in Malaysia and yes I have seen a lot of them and a lot of nests, but after having seen hundreds and thousands of tiny Olive Ridley Turtles, you forget how Green Turtles function. Furthermore, the Green Turtles here are actually called “Black Turtles” as they are a distinct subpopulation with very different traits. For a while, researchers were even unsure if Black Turtles would form a whole new species. So I felt terrible to have let my team work so hard because I couldn’t analyze the situation correctly, but noone seemed to be angry with me. Now everything that counts is that we got our first Green (or Black) Turtle nests in the hatchery! A special story – and I can’t wait to see her back for her second, third, and hopefully many more nests.
OTHER TURTLE STUFF AND SO ON
For a few weeks, turtle activity had been terribly low while at the same time there were a lot of poachers on the beach. So we would only get one or two nests each night and sometimes zero. We ended up walking a lot (no turtles means no interruptions) and digging up human excrements buried in a fake nest bed (and we only started to dig because the dog was sniffing something!). As we had so many nests hatching, our hatchery got pretty empty and was left with only 120 nests and 80 free squares.
While such things can be frustrating, I knew that the nesting activity would be picking up again soon – as it is always fluctuating – and so it did. For a good week now, we have had a lot of activity and collected at least four nests a night. Yesterday, we collected eight and had to leave a lot of later nests unprotected on the beach. We do not collect unlimited numbers of nests each night to avoid too much workload with releases and exhumations later on, and to not get the hatchery full so quickly (because then we need to limit ourselves even more). Poaching activity was zero in this past week, which was awesome because we had all those turtles just for ourselves and didn’t need to run against time.
We have had more rain as well, ith thunderstorms nearly every vening and hour-long rain afterwards. This is great as the nests in the hatchery get more water and cool down a bit, which will hopefully result in an even better hatching success. So far, our hatchery does pretty good with an average 85 % hatching success (the best of all three Turtle Trax hatcheries!). However, one side of the hatchery seems to get more sun than the other side. The generally lower hatching rates, shorter incubation periods and the temperature data suggest that on this side, temperatures move around the lethal upper limit for sea turtle nests during the last bit of incubation (when a lot of metabolic heat is generated), and that the nests produce a lot of females. As soon as we discovered this, we decided to put additonal shading over that side. So now the nests are more shaded but more roofing also means that less rain is coming through – however, the rain is highly needed to cool down temperatures and to keep up a good moisture content. The sand in the hatchery is already a lot drier than on the beach as the occasional inundation during “high” high tides is missing. So do we start watering those nests now to imitate that occasional inundation and to achieve a similar level of rain than without a roof? – The roof itself is highly needed as the high nest density in the hatchery results in an overall warmer environment. And it will be more required with ongoing climate change.
How much manipulation of nests and interference with the natural forces is healthy for a conservation project?
I cannot answer you these questions right now, but you see that there are so many things to consider to create a well functioning, successfull hatchling factory. And hopefully there will be enough research done to know how to achieve a hundred percent hatching success – my personal aim for the future 🙂