Today we went to Ostional beach for our second day of helping to guard eggs and hatchlings during the great turtle laying.
The first thing was saw was a turtle, unmoving, who had laid her eggs low on the beach without digging a hole. It was an agonizing sight because the eggs were fresh and glistening in the gloaming, but we all knew they would not survive. Zaylie begged us to dig a hole and bury the eggs for this turtle, while Sam had to go and sit alone for a while to be with his despair. These children with their deep feelings and desire to protect the helpless stir me up all bittersweet.
Another tough moment came right away as we saw the local people were still collecting turtle eggs to sell.
This beach has a harvesting plan so there is not much poaching, and the turtles who arrive on later days dig up and destroy the eggs of the early arrivals so early harvesting is taking eggs that had a high likelihood of being destroyed. This is a traditional activity for the people who live here, and some of the people who are harvesting are also involved in conservation and protection. (Read more about it here). We have talked about all of this with the kids, but it is hard for all of us to be on the beach and see enormous sacks of eggs being carried away. More than that, even, I would like to know who is buying $150 000 in turtle eggs each year? Where is the market?
Soon after, the kids found an emerging baby turtle. They happened to find the first hatchling, so they counted the babies, and cheered as they made it to the surf. They shepherded 114 turtles all the way to the sea. They spent nearly four hours patrolling and guarding.
Female turtles were also arriving at the beach, moving like exhausted boulders up the beach to did a hole for their eggs. The entire beach is covered with what looks like tractor tracks from the water to the trees, but the tracks are actually the trails the turtles make as they arrive to lay eggs and depart. It is mind-boggling to think how many turtles it takes to cover every bit of sand in tracks. They come out of the ocean for this incredible act of reproduction, and then turn and lumber back to the water.
The babies hatch and scurry into the water and are gone from us into the waves. Some of them will come back to lay their own eggs here.
It occurs to me that for us, it is this beautiful and moving experience, but we are land creatures, and so it seems like this process is the most important part of the turtle. Plus they are threatened, and endangered, these sea turtles, and we are on the beach to scare vultures away, help overturned babies get right-side up, and move hatchlings away from dangers such as pits in the sand and mama sea turtles making a slow motion beeline back to the water.
I saw a female returning to the sea today. Her heavy body was still heavy on the sand in just an inch of water. A wave washed in and around her. It wasn’t enough to lift her up to swim, but as soon as it was deep enough, she stuck her head underwater. It reminded me that these are sea creatures; that laying eggs on land is a one-night event each year, and underwater is her home. I don’t actually know where they spend the rest of the year, or what they eat, or even how they find a male turtle to mate with. For me, I see the land event and think of the importance of reproduction to sea turtle populations, while for her, she labours to get back to her element; my experience of which is less that the blue pencil crayon scribbles we put around continents on maps we coloured in elementary school. Yet sea turtles have been doing this since the dinosaurs.
Of course, watching baby turtles emerge from a small scrape in the sand is a wonder. They are cute, and they seem to come from nowhere in particular—they rise up from the sand like King Arthur’s Sword from the lake. And they are peppy. Most of them pop out and head off on their quest right smartly. When the reach the water, they switch from an alternating crawl to a two-flipper breast stroke, though the highest waves are less than an inch tall. It seems like they are almost unbearably eager to GET GOING. It reminds me of old videos of troops heading off to the Great War. And we know, in both cases, the survival rates for these troops just isn’t good. For the baby turtles, it’s about one in one hundred.
I found my own nest to watch and guard, and I estimate there were 80-90 babies that emerged. I felt pride and ownership for my turtles. I felt responsible for their safety. I kept the vultures away, along with the help of a local boy who had a great strength for throwing sticks to scare the vultures. But there was a danger I hadn’t appreciated before. Suddenly, the crabs, whose sideways dancing antics usually amuse me, became evil hatchling beheaders.
I had seen a few headless hatchlings the day before, but I had blamed the black vultures. This morning I found a headless hatchling body wedged in a crab hole! And the determined hatchling with one front and one back leg missing who nonetheless made it out into the waves, earning cheers from the kids for having reached safety and the chance to heal—a victim of crabs! I thought they spent their days drawing scribbles in the sand and rolling sand into little balls with their funny claws, but, like gremlins, when circumstances are right, they take the opportunity to snack on passing creatures.
I was a guardian, but there were 30 or so crabs between me and the shore. How could I do it? How could I keep ‘my’ hatchlings safe? I realized I felt hatred for the scuttering crabs.
This is the magic of the arribata. Turtles are reptiles, and reptiles don’t generally inspire much love and passion. Except that here, there is drama and danger, plus defenceless babies! There was a couple who spent hours sitting with the turtle who lay her eggs out on the beach. They waited to be sure she got back out into the water. I saw men carefully placing baby turtles in their hats to carry them past an obstacle. One couple spent time digging the flippers of one weary turtle free of the sand so she could walk more easily after her rest at the water’s edge. I don’t think all of these contributions are necessarily actually helpful, or good ideas, but it shows how involved in helping people are.
The mist of morning surrounds people down the beach to beyond sight, all quiet, careful, watching helping, participating, feeling awe and pride. Our own kids smoothed and curated a runway from the nest to the beach so the turtles wouldn’t get tired crawling over lumpy sand. Today, our kids escorted over 250 hatchlings into the sea. They
scared vultures away from fresh-laid nests. They saved two hatchlings from vultures who ate all the rest of their nest-mates. They feel satisfied with their contribution to increasing hatchling survival rates.
They understand, deeply, the cycle of life and death, of predators and prey, chance events, and the mystery and wonder of life and natural selection. They know that life is as fragile as a leathery eggshell laid in the wrong place, and as tough as a creature missing two legs following instinct into the water. I think they know enough, today.