Liberating Turtles in Hawaii
Imagine walking down a pitch black beach on the Pacific coast of Guatemala at two in the morning, with high swell and crashing surf … during a thunderstorm. Your job is to find the turtles and secure their eggs before the poachers do, or failing that, to acquire them from the poachers.
Okay, let’s step back a bit from the high drama and explain what it was all about. We recently spent a week volunteering for ARCAS in Guatemala, at their Hawaii conservation park. Their work is focused on Sea Turtle conservation and since it is the end of the laying season there was a lot to do!
Note: Hawaii in this case is actually in Guatemala close to a town called Monterrico.
We weren’t entirely sure what to expect when we arrived at ARCAS, other than that we would be patrolling the local beach at night looking for sea turtles and then releasing hatchlings from eggs collected 45-50 days earlier. This is indeed what we did, and much more. All in 30-degree Centigrade temperature and humidity levels up the wazoo (i.e., Alison and Toby were sweaty beasts for the duration of the week).
Sea Turtle Conservation Approach in Guatemala
Guatemala’s current “solution” to fighting poachers is not to make taking sea turtle eggs illegal (as it is in Costa Rica, for example), but instead to require that poachers donate 20% of the eggs they collect to a local hatchery. This is where ARCAS (and other organisations like it) come in. Not only does ARCAS take the donations, but they also use funds to buy the other 80% from the poachers. The going rate is approximately 15 Quetzales for one dozen eggs; a turtle nest can contain as many as 100+ eggs. So we and other volunteers and ARCAS staff members would patrol the local beach in the hope that we might find a sea turtle laying eggs first but, if not, that we could instead find the poachers who had discovered the turtles and buy the eggs off of them immediately after the turtle finished laying her eggs. It is very rare for someone from ARCAS to find a turtle before the poachers do, as many have been learning the ways of the sea turtles for years, if not decades. In fact the term “poacher” is not used to describe the locals who have been doing this for years.
There is a complex set of views on whether it is the local taking/selling of eggs or the injuring/killing of turtles at sea that is the key cause of the decline seen over the last decades. In Hawaii, they firmly believe the off-shore shrimping boats are the most responsible, failing to use nets that can discriminate and free the turtles trapped in them. What is undoubtedly true is that the population here is fully managed by humans. It is highly unlikely that any nest hatches naturally, since all the eggs are acquired from the beach and either passed to conservation agencies or sold on. That seems a real shame.
Additionally, this year there has been an extraordinary number of dead turtles found in Central America. Interestingly, this seems to have caused a decline in the market for sea turtle eggs in Guatemala with buyers showing some concern at the situation. As a result the price has declined, making it more affordable for conservation efforts to acquire the eggs.
How the Sanctuary Works
Here is a beginners guide to the operation of the sanctuary from a volunteer point of view:
Once or twice a night at high and low tide, you patrol the beach for 2-3 hours in the dark. The goal is to find turtles coming in from the ocean, follow them up the beach and retrieve their eggs by digging in behind them as they lay. Using their flippers, they dig an elbow deep hole with a bowl at the base and lay approximately one hundred eggs. They appear to be in a trance as they do so and after laying they fill in the hole, pat down the area and return to the ocean. As you observe them you can only use natural star/moon light or a red torch to prevent disturbing them.
In practice, the locals often find them first. If you encounter the locals, you can offer to buy the nest or encourage them to sell it to the sanctuary. They can use bright lights at times and some will pick up the turtle once it’s finished laying and place it to one side where it continues to try and fill the nest in. Obviously this is discouraged but you don’t confront people late at night, especially on a lonely beach. In any case, the locals are generally friendly and tend to smile politely at your lack of Spanish. There is no feeling of threat.
In one of the two custom-built secure enclosures above the beach, nests are reburied after each patrol and 60 eggs placed into each. All nests are numbered and then left to incubate for 40-50 days. The temperature inside the hatcheries is monitored to ensure that the gender mix of the eggs is controlled.
Hatching Nests and Liberations
Each night some of the previous nests hatch and the babies make their way out. They have to crawl through the sand after consuming the yolk of the egg, a process that strengthens them. They are kept together in a wire mesh circle around the nest and pre/post patrol each nest is collected up and counted. Ten hatchlings from each nest are measured for length of shell, width of shell and overall length. All results are logged of course. After the administration is done, the newborns are taken to the ocean and released about 10 metres above the water line. This is done in darkness since they tend to move towards any light. The process is fantastic to watch as they go left, go right and slowly inch towards the huge breakers without fear… bear in mind they are only about 7cm long. They need the trip across the beach to orient themselves: in that 10m somehow they burn into their mind the location of their beach and that’s how the females can return to the same place 8-1o years later to lay their eggs.
The best time to see the process is early morning or at sunset — the releases at 2am tend to be quite dark. Red light is used to monitor progress and the volunteers keep the locals from stepping into the path of the babies. Everyone likes this part, volunteers, locals, visitors alike.
3-4 days after hatching, each nest is exhumed. All the egg fragments are counted and any unhatched eggs are opened and the developmental stage noted. This is a messy process and sometimes you find a partially hatched, semi-alive turtle which can be a little distressing.
So there you have in a nutshell the volunteer experience as it relates to the turtles. Behind the scenes the staff are daily negotiating with locals to buy nests each morning, ensuring donations (20%) are collected, providing educational support locally and roping in the locals to assist in the sanctuary development in return for staple products.
Finally, here are some of Alison and Toby’s personal stats (the sanctuary stats are obviously much much higher):
- Olive Ridley turtles seen laying eggs on the beach before returning to the ocean – 3
- Hatchlings released to the Pacific – hundreds, maybe 300 or so
- Nests purchased in the dead of night – 3
- Nests reburied in hatchery – 4 (60 eggs each)
- Exhumations made – approx 12
- Injections administered to sick Hawksbill turtle by Toby – 1
- Buckets of water hauled up beach in afternoon glare – at least 30
The Volunteering Experience
In addition to all of the turtle-related activities, the volunteers assist with various chores, such as washing dishes, emptying rubbish bins, feeding some of the animals (two dogs, a handful of parrots, fresh-water turtles, iguanas, caiman, alligator gars), data entry, and anything else the staff might need help with. There is one day off a week.
The living conditions at ARCAS are very basic. We each had a single bed with a mosquito net over it and clean, but clearly highly-used bedding. The showers were…well…not much more than an overhead pipe with water (cold!) pouring out — when they worked, that is. You learn quickly to live with the black sand and mosquitoes, past 16:30 is DEET time.
The support staff at ARCAS were always friendly and helpful, and shared many a laugh at our sad attempts to say things in Spanish (e.g., trying to say “food compost”, Alison said “dead food”). Mario and Dona Mayra smile all day long no matter what you ask them. Lucia the Director is always on hand to answer questions and look after people despite her hectic schedule.
The volunteers were often rather tired during the day (after a night of interrupted and little sleep), and spent much of the free time in hammocks. The course of the day is a little strange and it took us a few days to adjust to the schedule of work, rest, work, rest. Once we accepted the need to actively relax in free moments it became a bit easier. Suddenly we understood why the hammocks were in permanent use. Games of banana-grams (scrabble minus the board) also helped while away the long waits between patrols.
The other volunteers provided us some inspiration in their efforts: Tania who continually showed us the ropes, Katarina who soldiered on cheerfully despite a bout of Dengue fever, Melina who seemed immune to mosquitoes and a few others. Not to forget Jean and Chino the volunteer coordinators who are a wealth of information and enthusiasm.
So how to end…it was rewarding, tough, informative and worth it. We take our hats off to those who manage two weeks or even a month, I’m not sure we would have been up to that. Hopefully we made new friends and more importantly contributed to a worthwhile effort. If only important things like this received more funding.
Discovery #1: Alison is quite allergic to mosquito bites. How is she going to make it through the rest of Central and South America?? Ack!