by Tom Cochran (July 2014)
Most, if not all, readers of this newsletter are avid supporters of all things "green" and support sea turtle conservation in particular. There is much more involved in this work than most realize. I am going to describe a day in the life of tortugueros (turtle workers) to give you an idea of how much effort it takes to help our precious turtles survive and continue to rebound from their endangered status.
The day begins about 9 a.m. at Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA). They head out to the beach with a full load of gear: signs to mark new nests, a container for any new hatchlings that may be found, bags to collect the hatched eggs, and all of the other incidentals that may be needed. The walk down the beach involves looking for new tracks from nesting mothers that may have laid, looking for nests that may have hatched, and checking nests that are due or overdue to hatch. When a new nest is found, the species is identified and a sign is filled out and placed at the nest. The sign lists the species, date laid and the nest number, along with the "Don’t Touch!" message. If a nest is found to have hatched, it is dug up. The eggs are separated into hatched, unhatched and unfertilized, and those numbers are recorded for entry into the database and reporting to the government. Any unhatched eggs that appear to have a developed embryo in them will be reburied. Quite often babies will be found still in the nest. Some become stuck under rocks, some are too weak to make the climb, and others just didn't make it out with the rest of the clutch. Those are placed into the containers to be released that night when their chances of survival are much greater. During the daylight hours they would have a slim chance of survival; there are too many predators that find the babies very tasty.
The nests that are due to hatch are checked to see if the process has begun. Once the hatching starts, it typically takes about two days for the hatchlings to reach the surface and burst through the sand to begin their journey. If a nest is found to be at the point that it will be hatching during daylight hours, that nest is also dug up and all of the babies placed into containers for nighttime release. These are the ones you see during the scheduled releases, along with any found at the bottom of previously hatched nests. Digging up a nest is hard work; the nests are quite deep and it is often difficult to reach the bottom. Should you come across a patroller in the process of doing this, please give them plenty of space to work. Crowding can cause the nest to collapse in upon itself, creating even more hard work. If any help is needed, they will ask for it.
Once the morning patrol has covered the entire area, they will head back to the center to eat, sleep, complete reports, and whatever else is on their individual schedules. This is just the first part of their day; there is much more ahead requiring many more hours of work.
If there were any hatchlings recovered that day, they will typically be released around 7 p.m. that night. The release time will be made public to help raise awareness and hopefully to garner more support for the program. If you've never seen a release, you should try to do so; it's an amazing sight to see all of those babies scrambling for the sea.
Nighttime turtle patrol begins around 9 p.m. and lasts until about 5 a.m., depending on the time of the season—a full eight-hour shift after having already put in a number of hours that morning. Night patrol focuses on nesting mothers and hatching nests; both activities happen mainly at night.
Each patroller is assigned an area for that evening. They will begin by again checking nests that are due to hatch, while always keeping an eye out for mothers coming out of the sea to nest. When a nest does hatch, the first priority is to be certain that all of the babies make it to the water. This is not as simple as it may seem. They all burst out in a very short period of time and move quickly, not always heading directly for the water. There is often a crowd of people who gather to see this miracle, and they can help to make sure that any misdirected babies get headed the right way. If you are lucky enough to see this happening, please follow the directions of the people responsible for the well-being of the turtles. Their only concern is for those babies. Do not move your feet; you would feel terrible if you accidentally stepped on a newborn! After the nest is finished hatching, it will be dug up for all of the reasons described previously.
Nesting mothers present a different set of challenges. First, she is watched to assure that she is heading to a safe area. Any observers are kept at a distance and total silence and stillness is required. The mothers are quite nervous during this time and will scare very easily, resulting in her returning to the sea to try again another time. Once she has picked a safe spot and has begun to dig her nest, it then has to be determined that she is not digging on top of an existing nest. If she is doing so, she must be coaxed to move to another location. Sometimes this can be accomplished easily, using the red light to get her attention; other times she physically must be convinced to move. A nudge in the preferred direction works at times; other times it is necessary to be more physical and actually pick her up and move her inches at a time. These turtles can weigh 300 pounds or more when fully mature, and their flippers are hard and coarse. Imagine straddling a 300-pound turtle, grasping the front of her shell, and trying to move her bit by bit while being whacked in the shins with those flippers, which are also flinging sand in your face. It truly is hard work, but these people love what they do and would have it no other way.
When she is content with her spot, she will clear out a large area before beginning to dig the egg chamber. Watching them use those rear flippers gently to scoop out the sand and create a perfectly round chamber is nothing short of amazing. The process is mesmerizing. Like any mother, everything must be perfect. If it is not, she will abandon that nest and either head back to sea to try another time or move a short distance and immediately start again. I once watched a single turtle dig eight nests in succession before giving up. The sand was too dry and kept collapsing into the hole. That poor girl was exhausted; we could hear her labored breathing over the surf. She did lay successfully the following night. When the chamber is completed to her satisfaction, she will begin to lay her eggs. At this time she goes into a trance and is unaware of her surroundings. This is when the turtle people will approach her to get her tag number for entry into the international database and will measure the length and width of her shell. If conditions are perfect, they will also clear away a bit of sand so observers can actually see the eggs drop. It's a truly magical experience. During this time you may notice what appear to be tears coming from her eyes as if she is crying. This is actually Nature's way of removing excess salt from her body, nothing more. When she is finished laying her clutch, she then will begin to cover the nest, resting occasionally. The whole process is exhausting to her; these are sea creatures and are not built to be on land. After the nest is covered to her satisfaction, she slowly will make her way back to the sea, never to see her babies again. It is then up to Nature and us to make sure those babies get to sea and continue the cycle.
There are other duties to be carried out as needed. Predators such as coatis, raccoons and dogs are a constant problem digging up nests. Nests found to be laid too close to the water line or in precarious places have to be dug up and moved as quickly as possible. Approaching storms present other problems to be dealt with. The list is almost endless.
As you can see, there is a huge amount of time and effort involved in ensuring that these gentle creatures continue their recovery from the brink of extinction that Man has caused. The work is hard but the rewards are gratifying. Simply knowing that you have had a part in helping this recovery is enough. But there is more: seeing a mother slowly disappearing into the ocean after a particularly difficult nesting; cleaning out a nest and rescuing a group of babies from the bottom that otherwise would not have survived; and simply sitting on a quiet beach scanning the waves for that glistening shell coming out of the water. The rewards are truly special and I am most pleased that I am fortunate enough to have experienced all of them.
I hope this has been informative and hopefully has encouraged some of you to get involved in sea turtle conservation in some way. Maybe some of you will even volunteer one day and we can work side by side on the beach, helping babies start their journeys and mommas start a new generation.
To adopt a turtle, which benefits CEA's Sea Turtle Program, click here. For information about volunteering for CEA, click here.