A full hatchery (once again), busy patrols and rainy days, as well as the presence of two more sea turtle species at Playa Caletas indicate that now in October, we have been in the very high season of turtle activity.
GREEN TURTLE MADNESS
By now we have three Green turtle nests in our hatchery. After her first rather surprising visit we wanted to be totally prepared for her return. However, she came two nights earlier than expected which ended in a bit of chaos. Once again, I was the lucky one on patrol to find her, when she was only bodypitting. We didn’t bring any phones but were well aware that each of the assistants wanted to see her (and requested to be informed, unlike last time), as most of them had never seen a Green turtle before. So Melvin sacrificed himself to run 1.5 km back to camp and another 500 m to get the other patrol team on the North beach – and then all the way back. Meanwhile, I was sitting all by myself behind Mrs. Green in the dark night, feeling well protected by her and so fortunate to enjoy some “personal turtle time”, and started collecting the eggs while a couple of red lights were running on the beach towards me. Everyone still got to see her nesting and took lots of pictures, except for Melvin who was nearly unconscious from running so much and couldn’t really enjoy the moment – even though it was his first nesting Green turtle as well. Back in the hatchery I dug the nest – three times as the sand kept collapsing, wow I had muscle ache for the next couple of days! – and let someone else place the eggs inside.
12 nights later she visited us a third time. She was kind enough to announce her third nest by two false crawls early in the night. This time, I stayed back in the hatchery while everyone else – once again – grabbed their cameras and ran 1.5 km along the beach to witness her nesting (yes, she’s always coming back to the same part of the beach). Melvin came back with the eggs as soon as she had stopped dropping them, and I could finally go to bed. As Mrs. Greens clutches have continuously decreased in size since her first nest, I think that she is done for the season. Too bad, because Green turtle can lay up to nine times. However, there might be a second female arriving anytime.
Leatherback turtles are the biggest species of sea turtles and thus probably the most fascinating one. Every sea turtle lover wants to see a Leatherback once in his/her life! While they are really common in the Western Atlantic, throughout the Carribean, and form part of a quite healthy, “just vulnerable” subpopulation, in other parts of the world like in the Western and Eastern Pacific, they are nearly extinct.
Caletas, in the past, had a significant amount of Leatherback nests each year, but after a quite sudden decrease in 2007, there were only a couple of activities recorded each year, and there hasn’t been any activity recorded since 2011.
The more shocked I was when a few mornings ago on Census, I discovered these huge tracks on the beach, which were so big that they could have only been from a Leatherback. At first sight, it totally looked like a nest to me, and even though there were poaching marks around the camouflaged area, it seemed untouched. I felt happy and angry at the same time – there had been a Leatherback on the beach, but that b**** had come up in those few hours between the last night patrol and my morning census, escaping my usually perfectly scheduled beach monitoring times. I panicked and ran back to camp to wake everyone up. Melvin then looked for any signs of an egg chamber and consulted someone with more experience.
After half an hour, we all decided that it must be an aborted nest, just as it happened with our first Green turtle sighting. So we got all excited about the upcoming night during which she might return – but she wasn’t found any more, and other Leatherback experts concluded that what we found that morning must have been a nest. However, they said, it is nearly impossible to find the eggs if you don’t actually see the turtle dropping them. I know I would have made my team look for them anyway by digging up another huge crater on the beach, but I had let myself convince too early that it was aborted.
There is hope though.
Leatherbacks nest several times a season and four years ago, there had been 9 nests on this beach. Mrs.Baula 2011 could have finally come back after a four-year break, to produce one of the last Eastern Pacific Leatherback hatchlings this coast might see.
MORE MORNING SURPRISES
Despite all this excitement about other species, our tiny, adorable Olive Ridleys have managed to impress me as well in these past few weeks.
Especially my first Morning turtle of Caletas, which was also my very first, proper morning nesting female of my life!
We were coming back from night patrol around 5 am when she first emerged from the sea. As it was close to camp, I ran back to get my camera and then waited for her to nest in the sunrise. But she aborted her effort and went back to the sea before it was light enough to take pictures. What a disappointment! But whatsoever, I had a feeling that Mrs. Morning would try again in a few minutes, somewhere else on the beach. So back in camp, just before going to bed, I had a last hopeful look around the beach to see if I could spot her somewhere near. And just in this moment she moved her body out of the waves! She came up right in front of the hatchery, did her bodypit, then her chamber, and nested. While doing so she got tagged and measured by my patrol partner while I focused on taking pictures and enjoying the colours of her carapace and the mimics of her face; she covered, camouflaged and went back to the sea. So now, I can show you those pictures and a few videos of each of her nesting stages 🙂
Click on these following links to see the different nesting stages of a turtle:
RAINY NIGHTS AND BUSY PATROLS
It seems that the proper rainy season has finally started in October. I say “finally” because Costa Rica has been waiting for these continuous rainstorms since June, but not so us who have to live in a camp with a leaking roof and work outdoors and walk the beach for three hours under whatever weather conditions. For a couple of weeks now, it has been raining nearly every day, sometimes all night long, sometimes just for an hour, with “proper rain” rather than scary thunderstorms. Everything in camp got wet and stayed wet, the wood started to smell, people washed their clothes by letting them rinse off on the laundry lines, we started to sleep in until 10 am on overcast, cool days and happiness culminated during the few sunny afternoons. The most annoying about the rain is that it likes to come during patrol times. Everything, including yourself, is full of wet, sticky sand after a while – which just feels disgusting – and your clothes underneath the rain gear are soaked by a mix of sweat and water dripping through. I can’t imagine how miserable a proper, month-long rainy season would feel like. Nevertheless, since we finally got a new roof for our Rancho a few days ago, staying in camp during rain is a bit more enjoyable.
Patrols have been fairly busy this past month. We have been relocating five to seven nests each night and so finally managed to fill up our hatchery again. I also have the feeling that predation rates have been lower, and poachers were barely around (probably a consequence of the unstable weather conditions, nobody walks voluntarily in that rain), so we were able to collect the majority of the nests which had been laid as we found them untouched.
Now we had to limit ourselves again to four nests a night; any more nests we find during patrol are relocated to a different place on the beach or simply left as they are.
With the rain came longer incubation periods of the nests (from 46-47 days to 48-50 days). This is great as this most probably means that our hatchery produces a few more males (which are highly needed nowadays and in the future) and that the temperatures are unlikely to exceed the lethal temperature of 35 Degree towards the end of incubation. Our temperatures so far have been slightly hotter than the mean pivotal temperature (generating a few more females) but were still moving in the well acceptable range.
The longer incubation, however, does not necessarily bring better hatching rates. The majority of the nests still have good success rates of between 85 and 97 %, but from time to time, we still get a nest with only 60 % with a looot of undeveloped eggs to open and to analyze.
Click on this link to see…
THE GRAND FINAL
So I had written this whole blogpost on my phone in Camp and just waited for my day off today to upload it. But Mrs. Baula thought this blogpost isn’t interesting enough yet, so she wanted to add something to it…
Yesterday, activity on the beach was slow again for the first time in ages. We walked the North part of the beach once and returned to camp for a little break before going out again. Just then, one of the assistants came running towards us with the words: “Guys, there is a FUCKING LEAHERBACK in Sector 39!”
First, I didn’t understand what was going on. How could there be a Leatherback tonight if there had been a nest or aborted nest or whatever it was just 5 nights ago, and if we thus expected here to come back in a few days time? However, that’s how it was, so we all started to run. This was a 2 km beach run at midnight against time, packed with a lot of excitement and questions and fear that she would have left before we would reach her. When I arrived at the scene, she just finished covering with her hind flippers and started camouflaging with her huge front flippers. Yes, Leatherbacks are huge. And they look amazing (I didn’t take any pictures, sorry, maybe next time if there is one). But I was more stoked about having her on this beach, here in front of my eyes, in 2015, after four years of zero Leatherback activity, rather than about their pure size. I have seen so many pictures of Leatherbacks by now that I totally knew what to expect, especially after being gently reminded by the tracks I found the other day. I was just really happy to have the whole team together, everyone being happy and speechless and feeling rewarded for all the hard work and the countless nest relocations and hours of work and tiredness…
I was happy that the near impossible had happened. So we watched her camouflaging, took a DNA sample and a flash photography of her head (for photo identification, as our tags aren’t big enough to apply on her for re-identification). Maddie, the project supervisor, had visited for a few nights and had been the lucky one to find her on patrol. While the assistant had been running back to camp to inform everyone, she had collected the eggs, which – only being 74 of them (plus 30 much smaller, unfertilized eggs, which is normal for Leatherbacks) – filled three of our eggbags! I was really happy that Maddie had been in camp that night, because she knew how to handle the eggs and how to dig the nest, and probably didn’t freak out alone on the beach with Mrs. Baula, as anyone else of the team would have!
So back in camp, we had to be creative and find a suitable spot for the nest, because our pre-made squares are too small for a Leatherback nest. Maddie ended up digging the nest in the walkway, 70 cm deep with a shovel (!), and four assistants placed the eggs very carefully inside. With Leatherback eggs, even more care needs to be taken than with Green turtle eggs, and usually the relocated nests still have a quite low hatching success.
But whatever – the Caletas hatchery now has a Leatherback nest in its walkway and hopefully at least a few beautiful Leatherback hatchlings by the end of December!
So Leatherbacks do not necessarily return to the very same beach each time like Green turtles do, but they can. Again, in 2011, there were 9 nests found on this beach, of which 3 had been successfully relocated to the hatchery. So hopefully, Mrs. Baula will come back in a few days time. If not, I will try to be happy with what I’ve got already 🙂