Although Mother Nature has recently offered some tantalizing glimpses of the impending spring weather, it’s been bitterly cold lately. So cold that I would not have been motivated to take a stroll through the woods even if there had been any critters crawling around. Just as all the snakes have been coiled in their dens and underground caverns, I have been holed up inside, on my couch. It’s a time for quiet reflection, for remembering warmer times and places.
About eight years ago I visited Costa Rica in a quest to find exotic reptiles. A highlight of the trip, and of my life, was the night we visited Tortuguero, a sea turtle nesting beach on the Caribbean coast.
At Tortuguero is found the Caribbean Conservation Corporation , an organization created in the 1950s to protect and better understand the plight of the critically endangered sea turtles that nest in the area. At night, we met with researchers to guide us as they searched for turtles along the moonlit shore. As we marched along the shoreline, my eyes kept drifting to the dark and menacing jungle that began immediately where the sand ended. The forest harbored jaguars, lots of them, and they were patrolling the same stretch of beach. Sea turtles are an important food source for the big cats; they killed and ate dozens of them that nesting season.
We had only the moonlight to guide us. Flashlights disturb the turtles and were forbidden. I squinted in the dark to better make out any turtle trails in the sand before me; these are the telltale signs of a female nesting nearby.
We walked for hours as the waves lapped against the beach and my oversized rubber boots rubbed my calves raw, yet we saw no turtles. The night wore on as we diligently marched and we had covered about four miles by the time we had returned. Disappointed and exhausted, we slumped into anything that would hold us and rested our eyes.
No sooner had our eyelids begun to slowly lower did garbled voices spring from the researchers’ radios. What was going on? I strained to make out the conversation. Another group had located a turtle down the beach. Did we want to go, the researchers asked? I have to admit that I hesitated briefly, I was so comfortable after our long arduous hike, but I quickly got my second wind. As we marched towards the other group, we caught word that the nesting turtle was a leatherback and our excitement soared.
Leatherback sea turtles are one of the largest reptiles in the world. The biggest on record measured nearly ten feet long and weighed over 2,000 pounds, that’s a huge turtle. But their size isn’t all that makes them special. They’ve been documented diving to depths in excess of 1,000 yards (10 football fields), they eat poisonous jellyfish, and their warm metabolism allows them to inhabit the cold water of the northern oceans. They’re truly a unique animal. But they’re declining worldwide.
Leatherbacks are critically endangered. Major threats include accidental capture by fishermen, over-harvest for food, pollution, and destruction of nesting sites. Turtles also eat plastic bags that have made their way into the ocean; the turtles are unable to distinguish between the bags and their jellyfish prey. The mistake is often fatal.
Turtle populations aren’t accustomed to experiencing high levels of adult mortality. Of the many young that are produced each year, only a few escape the hungry eyes of seagulls and large fish. This makes breeding, adult turtles especially valuable, and now, after a long, arduous, late-night hike, one was suddenly before me.
The researchers were working with flashlights covered by a red film; this keeps the light from disturbing the beasts while nesting. A weak beam of light briefly illuminated the turtle’s basketball sized-head; I glimpsed one of her eyes and was in awe. Many years ago, this turtle likely emerged from a nest on this very same beach. For decades she had defied the odds, reached a huge size, and returned to deposit eggs of her own. And I was here to see this feat of nature.
When the biologists gave us the okay, I reverentially ran my fingers along the length of her five-foot leathery shell and gently grasped one of her giant flippers. I don’t know how long we watched her; I lost all sense of time. After the ancient turtle had dropped perhaps 80 eggs, she used her back flippers to fill the nest with sand.
Nesting complete, the turtle made her way back to the sea. Her flippers were made for swimming the open ocean; her awkward motions seemed out of place as she flapped and floundered her way to the water. It was a most inglorious ending to an otherwise graceful event.
As we made our long way back along the beach, I was on a high. It hardly bothered me when someone pointed out some fresh jaguar tracks alongside the footprints we had left earlier. The tracks hadn’t been there when we crossed the first time.
Photo of leatherback sea turtle courtesy of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation / www.cccturtle.org