Torteguero is a small town that has developed over the past 30 years around the tourist industry. The reason this little village has seen such a boom of development recently is because this area is the nesting cite for four endangered sea turtle species. The Leatherback, Loggerhead, Greenturtle, and Hawksbill, make a pilgrimage from hundreds of miles every year to come nest on the beaches of Torteguero. They are drawn by some mysterious internal magnetism towards these beautiful shores. For this reason, researchers started conservation efforts in the 1970’s to protect these creatures.
The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the organization we worked with, has conducted extensive tagging and has successfully tracked hundreds of migratory turtles for over 40 years. The town is concerned about these conservation efforts because what happens to the turtles directly impacts their economic subsistence. To protect these interests the town enforces various laws regulating tourist traffic on the beaches during nesting and hatching seasons. For example, there are no electronics allowed onto the beach past sunset, and beachfront properties are not allowed to use bright lighting at night (so as not to distract the baby hatchlings’ from their assent to the ocean).
Working at the center over the weekend and assisting in turtle tagging and tracking was an incredibly surreal experience. I volunteered to work the 12am-4am shift. We ate dinner and took a nap from 9pm-11pm. Then we got dressed in all black (so we wouldn’t be visible in the darkness) and headed out. The only light available to us was the moon and the infrared flashlight that our guide carried with him. After our eyes adjusted to the darkness we began stumbling across the beach in search for the turtle. Our first encounter was with enormous markings in the sand that looked like four-feeler tire tracks. These, as we quickly learned, were actually turtle tracks leading to the area where the turtle had begun to make her nest.
We stopped and looked for her as our guide walked towards her nest. My eyes scanned the dark for any sign of an animal. I couldn’t see what had struck my guide’s attention. I began to grow frustrated because I couldn’t see anything moving, anything alive, anything resembling a turtle. And then, suddenly, there she was. I looked down at my feet and saw her lying right in front of me. She was a large panting creature who was speedily scooping up sand with her fins. And before we could catch our breath, she had begun to lay eggs. My friend was given the job of counting the turtle’s eggs and the rest of us measured her and recorded the location of the nest.
Her large eyes seemed glazed over by millions of years of genetic instructions that commanded her every move. She was thorough and precise. After she finished laying her 101 eggs, she covered up the nest with sand, camelflouged it so it was even with the rest of the ground, and then she turned around and left. There was no stopping her once she was done. She was fast. And then, just as she had emerged, she disappeared into the water. I was entranced by her- by her mission, by her exactness. As she disappeared into the ocean, I tried to imagine her swimming back to her home... but I really couldn’t imagine her being more graceful than what I had already witnessed.
Now that her job was done, she would only return to lay more eggs. Her future babies will have to fend for themselves when they hatch in two months. It will take those baby turtles around 20 years to reach sexual maturity, until they too can perform this marathon. That is IF they make it past the poachers, the roaming dogs looking for a meal, the pollution, and the many creatures in the water that are also looking for a snack.
But for now, they are safe in the ground.
Waiting for life.