A Costa Rican Experience

A canopy of pale misty stars shone out of a dark blue sky. The featherlike fronds of palm trees stirred their black silhouettes restlessly overhead. The silver line of surf roared ceaselessly across the horizon onto a black sand beach stretching almost invisibly into the far distance. I followed the vague shape of the person in front, visible only by his tall dark outline seen against the gleaming sea, and his pale training shoes floating ghostlike at my feet as we walked the along the high water line. The sound of soft footfalls behind indicated the continued presence of the rest of our group of five, invisible against the dunes and the brooding jungle beyond.
Occasionally the leader's small torch would flare on for a few seconds, shining a weak red beam onto a log or less identifiable obstacle across our path. I would repeat the warning with my own torch, strangely comforted by the flicker of torches behind as one by one, the team negotiated this impediment to our progress. This was the second night that my wife and I had been out on turtle tagging patrol with volunteers from the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, walking the world famous Tortuguera beach, a 30km stretch of national park conservation area on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Central America. Our leader was Nick, a Canadian graduate of ecological studies, doing his gap year on this wild and inaccessible coast. Two American girls made up our team for the night, both having given up a fortnight's holiday to help as volunteers.
Suddenly Nick halted, and we concertinaed behind him, now tense with anticipation, peering anxiously for signs of tracks- tracks which Nick always saw well before the rest of us. A pair of tracks, one leading up the beach, and one leading down (we soon learned to tell which was which) would indicate the recent arrival, and even more recent departure of an egg-laying female turtle. Interesting, but of no use to us. A single track, leading up the beach, would suggest that the turtle was still up there in the dunes. In this case Nick would leave us on the shoreline, whilst he reconnoitered the situation, following the tank-like trail off into the darkness. His red torch could be seen to flicker once or twice as he found the turtle, and examined its situation. Often he would come back down, appearing suddenly as a disembodied voice to state that the turtle was still digging its nest, and that we would return to it later. Sometimes distant voices accompanied his visit up the beach, and we would learn that the turtle was close to laying, and a tourist group, led by a hotel guide was waiting and watching, dimly seen in the flashes of red torchlight standing silently together almost zombie-like in the thick darkness. Tourists had priority on these turtles, and we would have to leave it alone. Nick was not disappointed on these occasions however. Once the tourists had seen their turtle, they were obliged to leave the beach. Often Nick would call over tourist groups from further along the beach to a laying turtle using a coded torch signal (three flashes), in order to "kill them"- i.e. get them off the beach ASAP. Apparently on nights when the turtles were few, the whole area could be overrun by groups fruitlessly searching for turtles, hampering his own job immeasurably. Much better to get the tourist bit over and done with early in the evening.

The most satisfying result of Nick's investigations up under the dark whispering palms would be if he found a turtle who had finished laying her eggs. She would then spend quite a time 'camouflaging' her nest (actually making it look like a bomb crater!), giving us time to record and tag her. Three coded flashes of the torch, aimed back down the beach to our team, would stir us into action, and armed with record book, tape, measuring bar etc we would climb up to the hapless reptile, eager to record her vital statistics before sending her back to the sea with a shiny new tag. In retaliation, as she determinedly finished her nest, she would flip quantities of sand up into our faces, making our conversations brief, and punctuated by spitting as we cleared the sand from our mouths.
I peered down at Nick's feet as his torch showed a momentary glimpse of an 'uptrack'. Expecting him to follow this trail into the dunes, I was surprised when he jogged quickly forward along the beach. Disappointed, I made out a more distant 'downtrack', which Nick seemed more than usually interested in. He stooped over a grey blur, and I realized that we had found the creator of these tracks, heading back to safety, just twenty yards from the sea. Normally Nick did not bother at this stage, but something clearly interested him with this turtle, and he seized it, heaving on its shell, and turning it away from the sea. We stood watching. Man versus turtle, a heavyweight wrestling match. Nick paused in his efforts, and his laconic Canadian voice floated across to us: "I could do with a little help here!" Galvanised into motion, we rushed into action, record books being desperately scrambled for in the bottom of rucksacks. Carrying no equipment at that moment, I realized that it would be my job to restrain the turtle whilst it was recorded. I fell to my knees in front of the creature, and placed my hands on its head, covering its eyes, and holding it down. I felt its eyelids blink and flicker under my palms as it tried to see which way to go, and I hung on grimly as it began a series of random surges, attempting to scratch me off with its long claw equipped front flippers. Gaining a series of quick glimpses of the sea, the turtle gradually edged down the beach as the recording went on. Everything had to be measured, and read back, in triplicate. It all seemed to take an age. Finally, the tagging was done, and just the curved shell measurements were needed, which was just as well, for I was aware that I was now kneeling in wet sand. Suddenly a wave struck me from behind, foaming past and immersing me up to my elbows. Invigorated by this the turtle leapt forward, throwing me onto my back. Shocked by the cold water, and scrambling frantically to restrain this metre long leviathan, I was only saved from being trampled down by the ebb of the water. In the pause, I rolled quickly aside, and as another wave surged in Nick called out "let it go", rather unnecessarily, I thought, as I staggered to my feet, wet through and shaken. I squelched back up the beach, hearing a low snigger from my wife, somewhere ahead in the darkness. I did not feel the wet however. The night was warm, and my heart was glowing with the satisfaction derived from this most special close encounter with Chelonia mydas , the marine green turtle.

Tortuguera is the breeding beach for five species of marine turtle. The most common, with 800 recorded taggings this year is the green turtle. The most rare is the Hawksbill turtle, seen just 18 times. Other regular visitors (but at other times of the year) are the Leatherback, the Loggerhead, and the spectacular Ridley's turtle, who come ashore in vast numbers during the day for just one week in the year. The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, founded by Archie Carr, is carrying on his great work of developing long term records and statistics on the turtles at Tortuguera. They rely primarily upon volunteers for their workers, with just a few local staff in charge, manning their office and visitor center. Funding comes from various sources, including their headquarters in Florida, the Costa Rican government and Park Services, and by donation. Much of this however, is 'lost in the system', owing to bureaucracy and innefficiency. They are desperate for basic 'at ground level' funding. For instance, whilst observing the rather archaic method of nest marking (for future analysis of clutch success), I observed to Nick that a GPS device (global positioning satellite) would be ideal for this sort of thing. He replied that getting new batteries for their torches was a sufficiently challenging task!

There is a simple and enjoyable way of helping however. Like many organizations, you can 'sponsor a turtle'. For $25 you can "own" a green turtle, name it, and be provided with its tag number. In theory, you can then track its movements and be informed if it is seen again on the beach. (this would be some feat of organization- I will believe it when I see it!) All the details come in an elegant information pack, along with a green turtle photo and certificate of sponsorship. I named our turtle 'Elvis' (yes I know it is a female- but who does not have a female tortoise called Fred!). Why Elvis? Follow this: Chelonia mydas… Midas was the king with a golden touch…. Elvis was 'The King'… Simple! Go to the CCC website for details on turtle sponsorship (http://www.cccturtle.org).

My wife and I had been walking the beach in the false light of dawn for many miles, looking for leatherback hatchlings (it was their time, but sadly, we saw none). It was our last day at Tortuguera. Now the sun rose bright and hot across the sea, bathing the gloomy black sanded beach with a golden glow, turning the grey ghost crabs to orange, and lightening even the gloomy depths of the jungle canopy at the beach's edge. We were walking back, and an 'uptrack' had crossed our path behind us on the way out. Barely believing our luck, we saw two tourists watching something at the forest edge, and joined them. It was a turtle, hurriedly laying its nest in defiance of the rising sun. More than that, it was a Hawksbill turtle, untagged, only the 19th seen on the beach that year. We sat on a log, and watched this magnificent creature as it completed its timeless life-cycle task, before heading back to the welcoming sea. We wished this highly endangered reptile bon voyage and good luck with all our hearts as its shape became indistinct, and then vanished into the pounding surf. Unfortunately, it will need it.

Paul Coleman