On our last day in Parismina, our timing can’t get any better. A hawksbill nest is due to hatch today and so in the glowing light of late afternoon, we join Carlos at the hatchery. A small crowd of locals and tourists gathers to watch as Carlos removes each hatchling from the nest, counting them while Tess puts them one by one into a bin. There are 116 quarter-sized hatchlings. Carlos carries the bin out of the hatchery and places it on its side about 35 meters from the surf. Tess helps each hatchling out of the bin and we all watch in wonder, eager to snap photos as our little celebrities scramble to the sea. The odds are not in their favour, but we’ve done what we could. Buena suerte, tortuguitas.
It’s our third day in Parismina and we’ve taken it easy to ensure we are ready for our second night patrol. We have just finished dinner when I get a phone call from ASTOP coordinator Vicky Taylor. She’s distressed. Turtles have been dragged off the beach and left upside down at the far end of the patrol area near Laguna Perla. Tonight’s patrol guides, Irvin and Ruis, and two police officers are rushing there to apprehend the poachers and rescue the turtles. They’ll travel by truck to save time but will not be back to lead the patrol. Vicky asks if I mind stepping in as patrol leader with Tess and Kate. Although I haven’t lead a patrol in four years, I am excited for the opportunity and assure Vicky that we will handle anything that comes our way. Little do I know that this would be one of the most interesting nights I would ever have on the beach!
At the Leatherback Shack, I check our equipment and we start our patrol promptly at 7:30 pm. We take a break at the 3 km marker just as we had the night before. The sound of breaking branches and voices catches our attention and a man appears on the beach only a few metres away. We say nothing and our unexpected companion doesn’t either. He turns and returns to the shadows. A few minutes later, three men emerge from the darkness and head north on the beach without saying a word. We head south to continue our patrol but Kate looks back and notices someone flashing a light near where we had been sitting. I flash my light back and the mystery person responds. Suspicious they are poachers, we decide to backtrack and find out who this person is but once I arrive at the location where the light was flashing I don’t find anyone and get no response when I call out. I turn, join Tess and Kate, and we continue down the beach.
We reach marker 3.3. The tracks of a turtle emerge from the sea but do not return. We suspect the turtle was lifted by poachers. Drag marks through the vegetation to the road behind the beach confirm our suspicions. Clear pock marks from the previous night’s rain confirm that the turtle was taken after we had passed by on the previous night’s patrol. Later we find out that this is one of the turtles that Irvin, Ruis and the police officers are saving at Laguna Perla.
At marker 3.6 we observe a half moon and a few moments later, at marker 4.1 we encounter a turtle and a local by the name of Carlo. Carlo is one of only two people in town who own a vehicle and had driven Irvin, Ruis, and the two police officers to Laguna Perla. We learn that he has been waiting for their return and watching over the turtle. Her behaviour indicates that she has just covered the nest and is now in the process of disguising it. Carlo insists that she has not laid any eggs so we hang back and watch, not wanting to disturb her. A second turtle begins to emerge but returns to the sea without leaving the surf zone.
I look north and see a third turtle emerge and head up the beach. She reaches a small embankment next to the vegetation and begins to dig a body pit. Our first turtle is still mucking about and I’m more and more convinced she is disguising a nest and not preparing to lay her eggs. Before I can have a closer look, two tourists from Italy and their guide Albert approach the third turtle. I take some time to explain what is happening and ensure they do not disturb her while she prepares to dig her nest. Kate and Tess arrive to tell me that the first turtle is now heading back to the water so we all run over and I check her for tags. She is not tagged but it is too late to tag or measure her as she is beating a hasty retreat to the water. Albert and the Italian contingent keep an eye on the third turtle while Kate, Tess and I return to the first turtle’s nest to try and find the eggs. Again, Carlo insists she did not lay but I begin to dig anyway. Progress is good and eventually the hole is as deep as my arm is long but I still haven’t quite located the eggs. Kate suggests digging a little to the right and sure enough, we find the eggs.
Tess and Kate put on gloves to handle the eggs and I excavate a little body pit for Tess so she can reach them. After a little instruction, Tess removes the eggs from the nest one at a time and passes them to her mother who counts them and places them in a plastic bag. I head over to check on our other turtle and she has started digging the nest chamber but will still be a few minutes before she starts to lay the eggs. Unfortunately, Tess and Kate are still busy removing eggs from the first nest when the time comes to collect the eggs from our new turtle. I enlist the Italian team and provide details of what will happen and what they will be required to do. Eager to help, they put on their gloves and I dig a body pit for the egg handler and get her settled into place. Kate and Tess continue to collect eggs and are just putting the 101st and final egg into the bag as our nesting turtle begins to lay her eggs. They join us. Everything is going smoothly now and we are enjoying the experience of watching an endangered marine turtle nest on the beach. I note that our turtle is not tagged so I prepare the tags and tagging pliers to ensure I’m ready once she finishes laying. She has produced a total of 91 eggs and begins to fill and disguise the nest. I successfully tag her front flippers and measure her carapace length and width while Kate records the data.
We now have 192 eggs in two plastic bags and the hatchery is over 3 km away: too far to walk with the eggs. I decide to relocate the eggs and make two artificial nests. Irvin, one of the guides working with the police to save the lifted turtles, jogs up looking for tags. Having rescued the lifted turtles, they are working a nesting one a little further south. I hand him our last two tags and he runs back to tag his turtle while I finish relocating the eggs and checking the data sheets. The police, Irvin, and Ruis return just as we wrap up and we all pile into Carlo’s little pickup truck for the journey back to town.
The little truck bumps along the dark beach road around coconuts, palm trees, and hanging vines. Our spirits are high. We have accomplished a lot on this second night on the beach. Irvin, Ruis and the police have successfully located the lifted turtles and set them free. They also encountered another turtle on the beach and collected 134 eggs to be taken to the hatchery. We successfully relocated 192 eggs and ensured that two turtles nested and returned safely to the sea. Without our presence, the outcome would have been very different for these turtles.
It was the best of patrols. It was the worst of patrols…For Tess and Kate, it was the first of patrols so it could actually be both!
It is 7:15 pm and we are at the Leatherback Shack preparing for the start of our 7:30 to 11:30 patrol. As required, we are wearing long pants, long sleeved shirts, close-toed shoes, and we have plenty of water. Our leader and guide for the night is Raphael, a 13-year veteran of the project and as we will discover, a great host and ambassador of ASTOP and Parismina. Our patrol begins and we walk south along the beach toward a lagoon known as Laguna Perla located 5.2 km from the Leatherback Shack. Markers are placed every 50 metres along the beach as a reference for patrols when recording data on turtles and nests. We use these to gauge our progress, which is slow but steady.
It is now 8:00 pm and we sit down to take our first break at the 3 km marker. We rest and Raphael shares a story of a strange spirit he encountered one night while on patrol with volunteers. He also tells of an unexplained large illuminated object that flew from the coastal forest and into the ocean a few hundred metres off shore. Both stories may stir up some uneasy feelings in volunteers but we are not fased, which is likely not the reaction Raphael had hoped for. We continue south and observe a “half moon” — a track from a turtle that emerged from the sea, crawled up the beach, decided not to nest, and returned to the water. These tracks are often crescent shaped, hence the name half moon. After examining the track and determining that it was from a green turtle that safely returned to the ocean, we continue on our way with a little more hope and expectation of our first marine turtle encounter.
Tess is very curious by nature and always looking to get her hands on something interesting to examine. She absent-mindedly grabs a coconut on the beach to have a closer look and before she can do anything about it a generous quantity of coconut milk poured out and onto her shirt. Tess learns that coconuts can rot and that rotten coconuts smell like rotten flesh! With her nose held high, Tess marches down the beach and her foul smelling shirt wafting the scent behind her. Kate, Raphael and I need little motivation to stay upwind!
We are now at the end of the Parismina beach with Laguna Perla behind us and the Caribbean Sea in front of us. It is 9:00 PM and Tess heads to the ocean to rinse off her shirt. Unfortunately, the salty sea water does little to reduce the potent smell of rancid coconut milk. Putting it back on becomes a real challenge as we decide it is time to head north and complete our final pass of the beach before the end of the patrol. Heavy rain begins as if a tap was turned on and the only person with a poncho is Raphael. We are now soaked to the bone, Tess stinks, and we have yet to see a turtle. We continue, digging deep to keep our spirits up and our minds focused on the task at hand because there are turtles out there somewhere and we are determined to find them!
By 10:15 the rain has subsided, Tess has wrapped the sleeves of her shirt around herself and draped the shirt down the front of her body to create a contemporary, stylish Gwen Stefani crop top look with her foul smelling shirt. I look ahead and see what appears to be a turtle emerging from the sea. I crouch low to get a better look at the dark profile against the backdrop of the crashing waves and there is no doubt. We have our first turtle! It is a green turtle and we wait quietly a safe distance away to ensure she is not disturbed by our presence. She makes her way up the beach and approximately half way to where the beach merges with the coastal vegetation, she begins to turn and head back to the water. Our turtle has decided that this is not the right place or time for her to nest. As she slowly makes her way to the water, we approach for a better look. Tess and Kate get really close. They touch her carapace (shell) and marvel at her size and single-minded focus to get back to the sea.
10:45 and the rain begins again. We walk another kilometer and observe two figures standing on the beach up ahead in the distance. Neither one is using a light and they appear to be looking at something on the beach. We approach cautiously and discover that it is the 10 pm shift and they are watching a turtle dig a body pit. Marine turtles dig a body pit prior to digging the actual egg chamber to help them get the eggs deeper into the sand, which will ensure the nest is not too hot during incubation. This turtle, like the former, ultimately decides she will not nest and makes her way back to the water. Again, Kate and Tess approach, touch, and watch with great interest as turtle number two merges with the waves and eventually disappears into surf.