Here I am again, with the December news from Caletas!
The month started with a nice relaxing 6-day “holiday” in Nicaragua to get a new tourist visa for my last 90 days here. Me and Melvin followed the same schedule than last time: three nights in his home village Ostional, one night in touristy San Juan del Sur to get some shopping done and one night in busy Managua to get some more shopping done.
I enjoyed life with fans in the room, comfortable mattresses, rural scenery, all kinds of animal encounters, cold drinks, ice cream every day, motorbike cruising, and I also got to see an Olive Ridley Arribada (where thousands of turtles come ashore to lay their nests at the same time, so you stand at the beach and see 20 females around you at once, whereas in Caletas you’d see 20 females in one week time) which unexpectedly happened while we were staying in his village!
AND THE BAULA STORY CONTINUES…
So you all read about my frustration about Mrs Baula. We kept encountering her when she just did a false crawl (so went up and down the beach without even starting to dig a nest) and then we missed her the same or following night when she finally nested.
The day we left to Nicaragua, she was supposed to come back. Once again, people from the other projects had planned to visit Caletas to help out with patrols, trying once again to gather her eggs and bring them to our hatchery. Usually, Leatherbacks return every nine or ten days after their last nest. That’s what Mrs. Baula had done as well, so far.
But she always finds another way to trick us, to escape from us. So this time, she returned after eight days already, totally unexpected, on our last night in camp. I got woken up by a phone call from the patrol team that saw her on the beach, but she false-crawled again. “No worries”, I said, “she is one night too early and probably just noticed that, so she will come back tomorrow to nest.” We followed our regular patrol schedule and tried to not drive ourselves too crazy. Anyway, we would have been way too few people that night to turn it into a spontaneous “Baula night”. The patrol team continued and 2 hours later, I got another phone call saying that they came across her nest when they were returning to camp.
Wow. That lady. I don’t need any more words, right?
Just when we returned from Nicaragua, it was the eighth night again, so we were ready for her to return, with a few extra people again. And yes, suddenly Mrs. Baula likes to nest after eight nights instead of nine or ten. Me and my patrol partner found her bodypitting on the beach. Excited as I was, I instantly called the other patrol team which was on the beach to join us. They ran, and just when they sat down with us to wait for her to start nesting, I saw something big and black at the water’s edge. Oh yes, it was Mrs. Baula who had aborted her nest, probably just when the other patrol team came running towards us. And how does the story end? She nested the next day, within an one and a half hour-time frame when nobody was there to see her in time.
And this time it was even worse, as she nested so close to the water that the next high tide completely washed over it already. So this nest is lost for sure. We didn’t even try and triangulate it. The fourth nest we had to leave in-situ was a complete fail. However, her other three in-situ nests seem to be save from tides and erosion, so me might get some hatchlings out of those.
So now I think I got it: Mrs. Baula is a hypersensitive animal. Even though we do not actively scare her or disturb her, she senses us. She senses our presence and she doesn’t like that. So whenever we see her early in the nesting stage, she will leave again. When no one is around and the beach is quiet and dark, she comes up and nests as quickly as she can. We will only get her eggs when we find her in the right moment, that is when she is excavating the egg chamber or dropping the eggs. That’s when sea turtles are not disturbed very easily as they enter into their nesting trance.
And I tricked her.
It was the eighth night again. However, I did not set up a Baula night. I planned patrols as usual, told everyone that a Leatherback might be seen tonight but that we collect Olive Ridley nests and release hatchlings just as usual. And something told me that with this approach, Mrs. Baula will think that we don’t give her any attention, so she will feel safe and secure to nest.
And so it was.
No false crawl, no abandoned nest this time. She came up and nested right away, and our patrol team found her when she was excavating. She dropped the eggs and we brought them to our hatchery.
Unfortunately though, we had huge issues with digging the nest. Now that the rain has been lacking for about six weeks and the sand in the hatchery is incredibly dry, our nests kept collapsing. We spent up to an hour to dig Leatherback nests in our hatchery walkway. Our fifth attempt finally worked and we buried the eggs. The sun had already come up. Probably much too late to achieve satisfying results regarding that nest’s hatching success, but you know what guys, I was so happy that I tricked Mrs. Baula that I didn’t really care. She nested seven times already, and three of her nests are in the hatchery.
HATCHING SUCCESS ISSUES
So up until mid November, our hatching success showed a phenomenal average of 87 %. Then, the success story ended out of the sudden. For about three or four weeks, our hatching rates were terribly low (okay, not “terribly low”, but maybe around 60 % altogether, which is not satisfying at all!). We had maybe ten nests which did not hatch at all, so all eggs were undeveloped. The others had mainly success rates between 40 and 70 % , and only very few of them would still show the usual 90 % .
I was desperate. The worst thing is that we never found the source of the problem! First we thought it was temperature. Of course, temperature is always the first thing to think of when hatcheries have problems. At that time, we experienced a sudden weather change from heavy rains every day to continuous sun and dryness. So either the nests had “drowned” in the heavy rain or they couldn’t cope with the sudden dryness and temperature rise. But the temperature loggers we analyzed showed PERFECT conditions. Also, most unhatched eggs were totally undeveloped, that means that the embryo couldn’t even start to develop. So something must have gone wrong at the very beginning already, during the egg collection or within the first hours of incubation. But what could it be? Sand contamination? Wrong relocation practices? Maybe even turtle genetics, so something which is totally out of our control?
We never found the answer.
The bigger the surprise was when our two Green Turtle nests which hatched during that time showed PERFECT success rates of 100 and 97% !!!
I personally think it might have been transportation issues. At that time, we were in the very high season of nesting activity and would relocate five to seven nests a night. So on patrol you carry various eggbags, some of them are on your back for three or four hours, and every time you come across another turtle you put the eggbags down and a few minutes later you put them back around your shoulder. So it is a lot of movement altogether. Also we would constantly come back late from patrol, people are stressed and tired and quickly dig some kind of an egg chamber. So the eggs are out of the sand for longer, and are maybe handled a bit less “gentle” than usual.
Whenever we got a Green Turtle nest though, we came back to camp right away, knowing that Green Turtle eggs are much more sensitive to movement and handling. So it seems we did everything just right with those eggs. They got relocated within an hour and this paid off. (I just loooove Green Turtles! They are so easy to work with as they are super predictable. And as long as you follow the basic precautionary rules, your work will be successful).
In the end, Olive Ridley eggs cannot handle everything.
But who knows really what happened with the Ridleys during that time. It just shows again how difficult (and interesting, and challenging) it is to work in hatcheries, and how many microfactors we might not even be aware of affect the incubation process.
DRY SEASON = LOW SEASON ?
So all the other Turtle Trax projects closed down in December. Caletas is the only one which is still running until the end of March. The dry season suddenly started in mid November, and since then we have had two days only with very light rainfall. It is sunny now all day long. It is nice, it feels like being in holidays. Sometimes. Because it is also terribly hot. There is no way you can chill on the beach or work outside between 10 am and 3 pm. The well is about to run dry, but for now we can still enjoy the weather without having to suffer from freshwater limitations.
Dry season also means that the turtle low season starts. And we can definitely feel that now. Long ago – and nearly forgotten – were the times where we’d walk for three hours on the beach and not encounter a single turtle, and that for various days in a row (that was in June, early July..). Now we’ve been facing that “problem” again. On average over the last few weeks, we’ve been getting one or two nests into the hatchery a night. Sometimes none.
This is especially annoying as I am getting a whole new team at the moment, so about every two weeks, I have one or two new assistants which I need to train. How do you train someone if you see barely anything on patrol, and if you can’t show them how to identify an aborted nest or how to tag a turtle? We also have some volunteers at the moment, and assistants who go out with a volunteer are some sort of patrol “leaders” who are responsible for good practice and correct reliable data. So I want my assistants to be perfectly trained before I send them off with a volunteer who has never seen a turtle in his/her life.
Recently, though, the activity picked up again. A few nights ago, we all were pretty stoked when we were able to relocate NINE nest to the hatchery, and all of them were brought in at the same time. Long ago were those times, I thought! But sea turtles keep surprising me. On one night, they all invade the beach within just three hours, and the next night, there is one lonesome false crawl on the whole 5 km stretch.
Relocations have become a real pain in the ass. The sand in the hatchery is extremely dry as it hasn’t seen any water for 6 weeks straight (whereas the sand on the beach is a little bit moist by the occasional inundation). Before we are able to dig a nest, we have to pour one or two buckets of seawater over it. Carrying buckets of water up to the hatchery in the middle of the night, after an exhausting patrol and a day with exhumations and water chores (where you have to carry buckets and buckets and buckets…) can be really annoying.
Another thing we had to learn about the dry season: it is REALLY DRY. I always heard about bush fires in California and in Australia, but I never realized how easy it is to start one of those yourself. Our burn pile, where we burn our toilet paper and plastic, is located close to the beach vegetation. And that was no problem at all. In the rainy season, you don’t get a fire started unless you pour kerosin over it. A few days ago, nature reminded us of the fact that things are different in the dry season. We had cleaned up camp a bit and burned all kinds of leaves that we had collected from the ground. Half an hour later, an assistant saw that the fire had spread to the bush vegetation in the surroundings, so they all jumped up to put it out with water and sand. That was in the afternoon. Five hours later, me and my partner came back from night patrol. In the distance we had seen a campfire which seemed to be pretty close to our camp. Nothing to worry about usually, since tourists those days stay quite frequently on the beach overnight. But getting closer, we realized that it was the vegetation right in front of camp which was burning, AGAIN, and no one had seen it! So we ran up and down the beach to gather seawater. That was the first time in my life I had to put out a wild fire! Okay, job done, everything is wet, nothing is glowing or smoking anymore, let’s now relocate our nests to the hatchery. Coming out of the hatchery, the fire had started AGAIN! I couldn’t believe it.
Now, after that lesson from mother Nature, we moved the burn pile 🙂
So Christmas without lights, decoration, christmas markets, warm punch, christmas cookies, gloves and jackets, shopping tours, christmas trees, freezing cold weather, family and good food is no real christmas for me. Everytime the costarican radio played some song with “white christmas” in it I started laughing. What a joke! Then, you don’t even have Internet to stay in touch with the rest of the world who wishes the other rest of the world a happy christmas.
Despite the non-existent Christmas feeling, I had a wonderful Christmas though! On the 25th, we walked into town to buy some treats in the local supermarket for a dinner which was sponsored by Turtle Trax (very kind!): chicken, cheese, fruit juice flavours, avocados, tortilla chips, coke and icecubes. Yes, the three “C” that are always wanted in Caletas: Chicken, Cheese, Coke. Back at camp we prepared the delicious dinner and had a very nice evening together.
Two nights before, our first Leatherback nest in the hatchery had caved in, showing us that there were some hatchlings on their way to the surface! That was super exciting as we had been a little bit worried that the eggs might not be fertilized at all (which is common for heavily depleted populations such as the Pacific Leatherbacks) or that the relocation had caused too much damage after all to the eggs.
Then on Christmas Eve, at around 8 pm, Melvin discovered three heads sticking out of the sand. What a sensation! It took two more hours until we all could witness how 42 SUPER ADORABLE LEATHERBACK HATCHLINGS EMERGED FROM THE NEST. Later in the night, five more came up. We released them all together. What a Christmas present! When you’re far away from everything and everyone, Nature gives you the best present. 47 Leatherback hatchlings were released that night from Caletas beach, for the first time in four years. Everyone was so happy.
The next day me and Melvin were in charge of the exhumation. We were all hoping for some live babies which were still stuck in the nest, as the red-light pictures from last night kind of sucked. And yes, we really found one! Everyone grabbed their cameras and took selfies with the adorable lonesome survivor. Lonesome? Ha!
We found eight live hatchlings inside the nest. What a surprise, how amazing! Three more had died unfortunately. So all in all, our Baula nest with 74 eggs had produced 58 hatchlings, of which 55 were successfully released into the wild sea.
The majority of the unhatched eggs did not show any kind of development, so just egg yolk. But we also found two not fully developed embryos and an unfertilized egg.
I have to say that I am surprised about that success rate. I have no experience with Leatherbacks, but all kinds of sources suggested that hatching rates of Leatherback nests in hatcheries are quite low, and so I didn’t expect much.
Now, the difference between that first and the second nest will reveal interesting details, as the eggs of the second nest were moved around more and put into the ground later. The difference in hatching success will probably show us how sensitive the eggs really are, and where the “limit” of acceptable handling is.
BAULA NEW YEAR’S EVE
We expected Mrs. Baula back on the 29th, but she was nowhere seen. Well, maybe she comes back one night later this time, so let’s not give up hope yet for an eighth nest from her. And we really found two false crawls of her that night! Mrs. Baula was not seen, but her false crawls indicated that she wants to nest at least one more time. She did not come back that same night, so we all knew that she would return on New Years Eve. What a date to choose though! To celebrate the end of the year, we had not planned any patrols, just hatchery shifts and a morning census. I wanted to give everyone a night off, and a nice evening with the whole team.
“Whatever”, I thought, “I need to find that lady, and if it means that I celebrate my new year on the beach, sweaty and sandy, just me and her”.
We had another nice group dinner (with Chicken, Cheese and Coke 😀 ), but afterwards me and Melvin got ready for patrol. I did not want to make my assistants and volunteers patrol after I had promised them a relaxing nearly work-free evening! So we went out, our first patrol together in weeks, and I really enjoyed walking with Melvin on the beach I love, doing the job I love, letting my team enjoy themselves without us. And just after 20 minutes of walk we saw her tracks.
Melvin crawled closer to check what she was doing. She seemed to be camouflaging already, what a shame! We hid behind a log, out of her sight but close enough to be able to watch her big black body moving. But what is that? Suddenly she stopped moving and stayed at the very same spot for a few minutes. She was digging! We got super excited as this meant that we would most probably be able to collect her eggs.
However, Mrs. Baula wasn’t really happy with whatever and she kept aborting, camouflaged a little bit, moved up and around a little bit, and started digging in another spot, always changing the direction she was facing. Me and Melvin did not dare to move, we were lying behind the log, whispering, holding each other, trying to not loose her out of sight. In the distance, there were some early fireworks starting into the sky. It was a perfect moment.
For about an hour we were lying on the ground, waiting for her to start dropping eggs. Melvin kept checking on her. And then, finally! She had started to drop her eggs.
We quickly sat behind her, got the glove and three egg bags ready. Her nest was 80 cm deep and too deep for Melvin to reach the eggs which she had already dropped! So we dug another pit for us to sit inside to reach further down into her egg chamber. Eventually, I had to collect the eggs which were on the bottom as my arms are a little bit longer than Melvins’. My face was pressed against her left flipper while I was reaching down with my right arm. Then Melvin collected the remaining “easy” eggs which were falling out of her cloaca. As soon as she started covering, the rest of the team arrived. I watched her covering calmly with her huge hind flippers (Olive Ridleys need to jump up and down to compact the sand of their nests, but Leatherbacks stay perfectly calm while covering), took a deep happy breath and then returned with the egg bags to the hatchery.
Maybe it was the last time for me and Mrs. Baula. Maybe she will not be seen again, after eight nests. Maybe she will never be seen again. I am ready to let her go, after those most recent satisfying experiences. I made my piece with her. She is an amazing animal. She gives us beautiful healthy babies. Me and Melvin were the only ones of the 2015 Caletas team who saw her dropping her eggs, and I even saw her twice.
Back in the hatchery, the nest was already dug by an assistant who had stayed back. Melvin put the eggs inside, it did not collapse once. No chaos, no stress, no shouting, no running, no sweating, no digging in frustration. The perfect Leatherback nest was created. It took us seven tries. Now, this time, we did everything right.
And I realized that this nest will hatch in my last week in Caletas. What a terrifying thought. Two months are left. Now I can already start counting the days.
But I am happy. In those 6 months being here I learned a lot more about turtles, the world, people and myself.
Now I am ready for 2016! Happy New Year!