Okay, enough with “Sun, Sand and Surf”-Happiness, enough with “look at these adorable cute babyturtles I am playing with” and “I am so fortunate to live a life like this” – lately, Caletas has been full of challenges and throwbacks.
I tell you the real story now – stories about
- a turtle facing extinction which likes to play games with us
- communal living and working in an isolated place which turns out to be just as rough as the wilderness that is surrounding us
- skunks, rain, broken headlamps and tired muscles
THE UNTRACEABLE BAULA
Once we figured out that Miss Baula is a resident of Caletas beach, we have had “Baula nights” every nine days. That basically means that a few people from the other Turtle Trax projects come over for the night to help us out with patrols, and that I set up a crazy patrol schedule to cover the whole beach during the whole night to make sure that we do not miss her.
During those nights, we keep walking for four hours without giving the Olive Ridleys too much of our attention – we collect data but leave their nests untouched, so that we are not in delay for our Leatherback search.”Search teams” set off every hour and a half, so we have two to three teams at different parts of the beach at the same time – to find her as soon as she comes out of the water.
It is crucial to encounter Leatherbacks at the right time if you want to relocate their nests – because if you don’t find the turtle while she is laying, it is impossible to find the nest within the camouflage area. Leatherbacks, however, are fast nesters, and Miss Baula is an especially talented secret nester as well.
Despite all efforts, we missed her both on the 16th and on the 26th of November.
On the 16th, the very first search team set off early in the night, facing heavy rain and extreme darkness. When the second team set off just about 80 minutes later, they found the Leatherback already walking back to the ocean.
First we were sure that she must have aborted her effort, as it seemed impossible to us that she had nested just within an hour time or that the first team had walked right past the area without seeing her. So we continued patrols until the morning but she was not seen again. I was totally frustrated at first.
Now, thinking about it, an in-situ Leatherback nest is not so bad at all. Of course, it is great to see the hatchlings and release them, but relocations of Leatherback nests are a sensitive matter. The eggs are so sensitive to movement and handling that relocated nests generally have much lower success rates than in-situ nests. As their nests are untraceable for us turtle lovers, they are so for poachers and natural predators, so they can incubate quite safely.
However, there is one danger for in-situ nests at Caletas – erosion and inundation. Within two months time, the nest area could get heavily eroded as the beach morphology changes so much and so quickly all the time. But fingers crossed that this does not happen, and a few hatchlings will make it so the sea. We triangulated the estimated location of the nest so we might be able to check on it when it is supposed to hatch – but if we don’t find any obvious signs of hatching in the near-by area, it will remain a mystery what happened to the eggs.
On the 26th, we were totally ready to encounter her. The night before she had announced her visit by two false crawls – both times she was found by our search teams just as she came out of the water. So a perfect case scenario, but Miss Baula decided to not nest under supervision.
As we were kind of short on people, we focused doing patrols on the South part of the beach – as this was demonstrably her favourite spot, according to data from 2011 and the most recent findings. I should have known that turtles are totally unreliable and unpredictable, but I don’t want to blame myself for having missed her.
Who would have guessed that Miss Baula decided to come up at low tide on the North part of the beach – when all patrol teams were walking South at that time. So again, we found her tracks and the nest bed, next to a few very disappointed faces.
That lady frustrates me. What else can I do to find her, it involves just so much luck. But then again, if you see the bigger, sad picture from a conservationist point of view – even though a few hatchlings might hatch out of those nests, the Eastern Pacific Leatherback population is a hopeless case. It is nice to see the hatchlings and to get the data, but whether we leave the nests in-situ or relocate them – we will not be able to save the population from extinction (anymore).
As sad as it is – let’s not drive ourselves too crazy about that one last remnant Leatherback at Caletas and keep focusing on the tiny adorable Olive Ridley’s – because they still have a chance to cope and to not become a critically endangered species.
CHALLENGING CAMP LIFE
So there your are, in between a beach and a wetland, a two-hour walk away from town and the next store and a one-hour walk away from Internet, cold drinks and some kind of civilization. You are given six research assistants which are all very special characters, from different nations, different cultures, of different ages and backgrounds. Some can only speak English and some can only speak Spanish – and I feel torn in the middle of those two worlds translating all the time and trying to create some sort of intercultural understanding.
You get to live and work together with people who do share the same love for the environment, the outdoors and turtles, but who you would probably never befriend and spend time with otherwise. Not all turtles lovers love each other, necessarily. You see those people 24/7 for 90 days in a row. The ever same people, the ever same problems, the ever same conversation topics – please don’t judge me if I just speak out the truth – you do get sick of each other sometimes.
Then there are these little problems evolving – people not cleaning up after them, not doing their chores, staying away from the group, sleeping all day long, saying something slightly offending, having a slightly offending look on their face, storming off, annoying each other, bitching about each other, complaining about each other, ignoring each other, blaming each other. Then there are misunderstandings and communication problems.
“Danger Zone” was born. It is the campsite area at the other end of our camp, past the toilet, where we sit down when we need to talk about problems.
Okay, I don’t want to be unfair, I had great moments with this team, they are all pretty awesome and interesting, funny, entertaining characters. Some work harder than others, some make me laugh harder than others. That’s how it is. We have had many happy moments, of course.
But yeah, in those past weeks, me and my team seemed to be more challenged by the communal living than by the hard work. But nobody got murdered and everyone left with a smile on their face and many many wonderful memories 🙂
What I want to say – getting new assistants after three months is something exciting and something to look forward to. Only Zuri and Melvin stay with me at Caletas all the time – lucky me, that I am very much in love with both of them.
ROUGH WILDERNESS LIVING
How many buckets of sand, exhumation contents, well water and sea water have I carried so far… How many unhatched eggs have I opened, how many dead, deformed embryos have I thrown into the sea, how many drops of dirty sweat has my body released… How many times have I dreamed about ice cream, chocolate bars, a fridge and a microwave. How many kilometers have I walked on the sand and on gravel roads, how many times did I hear my alarm ringing after only two hours of sleep, how many times did I get up with sore legs, weak muscles and a tired expression on my face.
Yes, sea turtle work is hard. You work six days a week, several hours a day, and as a camp coordinator it feels like you work 24 hours a day. I am sick of the ever same food we eat each week: oats, bananas, lettuce, rice, beans, pasta, tomato sauce, carrots… We have to use “luxury products” carefully, and it seems we constantly run out of stuff. Suddenly the sugar is empty, then the flour, two days later the pasta… It is nearly impossible to keep up with what is running out, and then we have to wait for the next car to come in to bring the ordered extras.
I feel totally ready to take a two-week holiday in a five-star all-inclusive coastal resort (fuck, I wouldn’t even care if it’s not turtle-friendly…)
But I still love this job so much, and I want to continue doing it for the rest of my life it is possible – but even with the job of your dreams, you need a holiday from time to time 🙂
Just when we thought the rain is over at the beginning of November, we had a crazy week of torrential downpour rains each night, and very rainy days. Clothes were left out for three days on the washing line as not even underwear or quick-dry towels would really dry, the sand was so saturated with water that the camp area was one big muddy puddle, mattresses started to smell, the wood started to smell, people got wet lying in their beds at night, everyone felt miserable – until the sun finally came back a few days ago.
Penelope, our resident kitchen skunk, has found her way into our hatchery. Actually, we have no idea if it is the very same skunk which is eating food remainders from the compost and eggs from our hatchery. But she broke in a few times now, always finding the tiniest holes which we aren’t even aware of, digging down to the eggs on the side of the egg chamber, eating one, two, three or ten. The next day, we fix the fence and close the hole, and a few days later, she finds a new one. I am indecisive if I should see her as our cute bushy resident skunk or as the problem animal she might have become.
After receiving a lot of compliments for our phenomenal all-time Caletas record 87 % hatching success, we have had our first totally unhatched nest in the hatchery. It had 109 eggs and mostly all of them where without any signs of development. They were incubating right next to one of the Green turtle nests, so hopefully there was nothing in the sand which could have spread and infested the “holy” Green turtle nest as well, and I hope this is not to be repeated.
Then, both of my headlamps broke just within one week. I brought two with me as I already assumed that one would break after a few months being exposed to seaspray, sand and rain. But both of them, come on! Headtorches are maybe the most important personal item at Caletas, as you need it at night to find the bathroom and your way back to bed, to look for hatchlings and skunks, and to find tracks and work with the turtles. Right now I am using a torch which I have to hold in my hand all the time – what a disadvantage of you need both hands to do your work! Fortunately I was able to order a new headtorch from the new assistant who arrives in a few days time… I am still waiting for my phone, camera and computer to break down, what a miracle that they are all still kind of doing well…
PERSONAL BAULA TIME
On the 7th of November, our first real “Baula night”, I was lucky enough to encounter Miss Baula excavating her egg chamber at the very southern end of the beach during my patrol. As it was close to high tide and we were walking in a safe distance from the waves, we saw her before we even saw the tracks. We literally walked right up to her before we realized that this big black thing in front of us was NOT a log. Luckily enough we did not scare her off and quietly sat behind her. We called the people at camp, but as it takes around 40 minutes to reach the southern end of the beach, and people had to wake up, put on clothes and grab their cameras first, I knew we would be alone with her for a while. So it was up to me and my patrol partner to catch the eggs and measure her.
I lied on my belly behind her and started collecting the eggs. As Miss Baula is a complicated lady through and through, she had one of her huge hind flippers resting in the neck of the nest, making access for me difficult and not allowing us to watch the eggs falling out of her cloaca. So I collected the eggs “blindly”, while my partner held the egg bag open for me. It felt great to spend that very personal, intimate time with her, being so close to her body and taking full responsibility for getting the work done properly.
She dropped 74 normal eggs plus 34 smaller, unfertilized eggs into a 70 cm deep and 25×35 cm wide egg chamber, just as it is usual for Leatherbacks. We watched her covering and camouflaging for a while before the rest of the people showed up, starting a crazy paparazzi action. Now our personal time was over, but I was so happy that everything had worked out perfectly and that I got the chance to do something I had never expected doing when I arrived at Caletas.
My very personal reward, however, soon turned into a further struggle.
We carried the eggs back to camp, escaping the waves at high tide, struggling with the pure weight of those big-sized eggs inside the bags. We held the bags in our hands to move them as little as possible and to not risk them bouncing up and down on our backs. Finally back at camp – the eggs were already 1.5 to 2 hours “old”, the real chaos started. I wanted to have the nest perfectly dug in the perfect spot, so when Melvin started doing it the way I did not want it to have, I opted for grabbing the shovel from his hands and doing it myself. Five minutes later, the nest chamber was perfectly dug and ready to be filled, when it collapsed. So I started to dig in another spot, but found an old half-rotten wooden post in the sand which I could not get out.
I looked around me in desperation. There are not many options to put a Baula nest in our hatchery walkway. The last option was to put it in the most inconvenient spot close to the door, where foot traffic is the highest. My assistant took over digging the nest as he saw my desperation and tired muscles. I had a hard time staying calm and polite when the egg bags were kept being moved around (which could be so harmful by now for those eggs!), people were walking in and out of the hatchery, a temperature logger was nearly forgotten, we couldn’t distinguish between normal eggs and unfertilized eggs, and a stressed-out research assistant placed the eggs into the nest with shaking hands.
The eggs got buried by the sand around 2.5 hours after their deposition. I was torn between being very happy and very stressed out. It will be interesting to see the hatching success of this nest, as it will show how sensitive those eggs really are to handling and movement. However, I want to have a third Baula nest in the hatchery where everything runs smoothly and the relocation is an easy matter. We will see if Miss Baula gives me another chance.
GREEN TURTLE COMEBACK
Miss Green seemed to have left us as she did not return to nest after two false crawls and an aborted nest about three weeks ago. One random night, however, we encountered her coming out of the water, leaving big, beautiful, symmetrical tracks on the beach. What a surprise comeback! She did again two false-crawls, but on her third emergence she nested. It was her fifth time and we have four of her nests relocated to our hatchery.
One of those nests already hatched about a week ago. Unfortunately, this happened on my day off which I spent in a nice cheap Cabina in beautiful San Miguel. Before I headed off that same day, I prepared my assistants for the upcoming event as I had noticed the nest being caved in – a clear sign that the babies are on their way up! All of the assistants were VERY excited, which was fantastic to see. The next day they showed me the pictures and told me what happened in detail. The nest had a very good hatching success of 88 %, and about 90 Green turtles were safely released in the early night. The next nest is going to come up soon – I better make sure to be in camp that night. It will be wonderful to see Green Turtle hatchlings again, and the excitement and joy of my assistants.
Rewards for our hard work are in every corner, every single day, if you are able to open your eyes and find them. A faithful dog running and splashing around with you in the water, the warming afternoon sun and a stoking sunset afterwards, a nest with over 95 % hatching success, a baby turtle opening its eyes, the warm soft sand underneath your feet, people complimenting you for your work and your achieved successes, cool wildlife sighting such as a snake feeding on an Iguana in the Rancho, giving a turtle two perfect picture-book tags, finding that same turtle again on the beach three weeks later, finding the egg chamber within the nest bed after just one or two tries, a funny joke and communal laughter, fried plantains, the occasional cheese, seeing your body in a good shape, and spending every day with someone you are totally in love with.
I spoke honestly about my frustration and about the hard times this camp is giving me sometimes – but I am ready to take any challenges as long as the few rewards are enough to let me forget all this by the end of the day.