A Stellar Night on Patrol

It’s 2 a.m. on January 20, one hour before high tide. The new moon has set, and only stars light the sky. The Sea Turtles Forever (STF) patrol team, dressed in dark clothes, walks onto Lagartillo Beach where resident patroller Martin Gomez is waiting for us with his nightly report. A female green turtle has just come ashore and started to dig a nest. He cautions us that there are some locals fishing near a campfire on the far south end, probably looking for an opportunity to take unattended turtle eggs. Martin, a former poacher, recently asked to become part of the STF conservation team, partly because STF pays more than he would earn poaching, and mostly because STF has been so successful in outwitting the poachers during the last 5 years of patrols. Turtle eggs are a traditional local food, but most are sold on the local black market as a natural (although mythological) aphrodisiac.

We turn off our headlamps, and walk in the starlight until crossing the turtle’s track from the ocean to the beach. Marc Ward, STF President and skillful field biologist, tells us to wait while he checks on her activity. These green sea turtles, an endangered species, are very sensitive to artificial lights and disturbance, so he uses caution in his approach. Reporting back, he tells us she has dug her nesting body pit and is starting to excavate an egg chamber in the sand with her rear flippers.

We wait about 20 minutes while sitting under the cover of a buttonwood tree (checking the area first for snakes and spiders). Our eyes have adjusted to the starlight, and now we are in awe of the bioluminescence igniting the waves. As a wave washes onto the beach at our feet, little stars of firelight glow and then fade as the wave retreats. I look up just in time to see a shooting star race across the dark sky, under the Milky Way.

Marc checks the turtle again and signals us to approach because she is just about ready to lay her eggs. She is roughly three feet long, dark green, with a large humped carapace. I marvel at her shell, which has its own array of stars – barnacles that have attached during the past 20 or more years as she migrated hundreds of miles between nesting areas and feeding grounds, perhaps after hatching nearby. Martin deftly digs his own body pit behind hers so he can lie down and catch the eggs as they emerge from her cloaca. Normally, they would drop into her egg chamber, about two feet deep, before she would cover them with sand.

We are able to use our dim red light headlamps now, because she is well into labor, and does not react to our presence. Her off-white, leathery eggs drop in groups of three or four, and we place them in a clean bag for transport to a new pit that Martin has excavated, away from the turtle tracks and hidden from any poacher. Two metal tags on her front flippers sparkle in our lights, placed by STF staff during a previous nesting episode. (Each female nests 3 or 4 times per season, every three to four years). From the numbers on her tags, we know her as “Hope,” tagged three years ago when she previously nested nearby. This is exciting documentation of our little-known population of endangered Eastern Pacific green sea turtles.

The eggs, beautiful round orbs, are counted(65), weighed (about the same as a kiwi fruit), and measured (diameters less than 2-inches), before we bury them nearby. We carefully disguise the site to look like the natural beach surface, and record the location with a GPS and physical description so that STF staff can check on the hatch, expected about 55 days later. Over the years, the STF team has learned how to rebury the eggs to produce a better-than-natural hatch rate, even up to 100%. Oblivious to the removal of her eggs, Hope finishes her ritual by flipping and packing sand over her empty nest chamber and body pit for about 45 minutes, and then pushes herself slowly back to the sea.

We continue our patrol down the beach, searching for more tracks as the high tide wanes. Old-timers have told Marc that 40 years ago, there were hundreds of turtles per night nesting in the 6-mile project area. But in the last 10 years, STF finds no more than three per night during the nesting season, often none. In the 1960’s, commercial fishing decimated the nesting turtle populations. And until STF started patrols, an unsustainable number of eggs were taken by poachers. When we reach the end of the beach, the poacher’s fire is dying. Because we found the only turtle that night first, they have gone home, knowing that all they would find now are her tracks with an empty nest chamber.

So far this season, the tally is poachers = 21 nests stolen, STF = 72 nests saved. When STF patrols first began 10 years ago, brazen poachers got almost all of the nests. Marc was reviled by many locals, and even attacked by five men while patrolling alone. But now, the remaining poachers have lost their upper hand, and operate more covertly and less successfully. After 10 years, the continuing presence of STF patrollers has turned the tide, turning poachers into protectors, and aphrodisiacs into tortugitas. We walk back to the trailhead, and I am in awe of the perseverance, courage, and skill of the stellar STF team. The Great Bear has set in the northern sky, and the Southern Cross has risen high, giving us hope that the green sea turtle population will rise again.

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