Wednesday, October 16, 2019

I've Cracked The Shell

Sometimes I just marvel at how fortunate I am to be in such a place.  I never dreamed that we could afford to live on a beach in the Caribbean.  Every day it just seems to get better and better!  Many weeks ago, we discovered some turtle eggs exposed by erosion on our beach.  We had heard that there were sometimes nesting turtles here, but I never really thought we would see evidence of it.

When we found those eggs, I searched the internet to find somewhere to report my findings.  It wasn't easy, and after several emails, I finally found Amigos de los Tortugas Marinas (ATMAR), which is a group that monitors the beaches just to the east of us.  I've gotta say that I did not get much of a warm welcome.  In fact, I was sort of shut down.  I was given dire warnings about not disturbing nests and pretty much that was it.

Fastforward to about a week ago, when we began seeing fresh turtle tracks and nests on our beach again.  It was like someone was setting us up!  Every few yards, we saw more evidence of fresh nests!  So, I tried one more time... sending a couple of the nests we were sure about to Luis, the President of ATMAR.  This time, he actually took me seriously!  He told me to mark the positions on GPS and instructed me to send him photos of the tracks and nest along with the coordinates.  I sent him 5 or 6 and that really got things going!

He sent me some instructional materials, from one of the organisations in the States, so they would be in English, and we set a date for he and the Turtle Facilitator with the DRNA!  Carlos turned out to be the head honcho in charge of turtle research at the DRNA!  We're LEGIT!

Easy to miss, unless you know what to look for!
This morning, we met our two new friends nearby and we took a walk with them along our beach, showing them where we had marked the nests we found previously, and finding SO MANY MORE!!!!

It was like a live classroom!  All the while, we got a stream of information about the nesting habits of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle.  The nests we're finding now are Hawksbill, and July and October are the high nesting season for this particular species.

I felt very proud as Luis spotted our first nest and I pointed out the marker we had left there.  I think I saw a tiny hint of surprise, and maybe even a little bit of admiration flash across his face.  Then it was all business.  Carlos and Luis began pointing things out and explaining what we were seeing.  They showed us what position the turtle would have been in as she laid the eggs, based on the position of the deeper gouges in the sand.  They showed us the sand flung up onto the sea grape leaves, that we had already identified.  They then showed us where the eggs would be.

They marked the nest in their GPS and we continued on.  Every one of the nests I had previously marked along the beach turned out to be true nests.  There were a few others that we had found that we weren't sure about, and Luis confirmed that these spots were probably attempts... and he confirmed how to determine that.

Older based on the yellowing of the egg.
We found old nests and Luis used his stick to find the egg chamber.  He began to dig and at about elbow depth, he reached the nest!!!  OMG this was an awesome moment.  It's one thing to see some sand tossed around, and another to actually see someone pulling the eggs, some hatched, some not, out of the ground!!!

A special stick is used to find the egg chamber.  Takes some practice!

Luis poked around gently on this old nest, to see if he could find the chamber.  All the while, he explained why he was sure the eggs were in THIS spot.  He allowed me to use the probe so that I could see the difference in how the sand felt where there was no nest, and then how different it was when we found the chamber.  A. MA. ZING!!!

He dug the sand out of the hole until he felt the eggs, and brought one out for us to see.  It was indeed an old nest, with very yellowed eggs.  They were hatched already so there was no harm done in messing with them, but we were warned again that this should only be done by a trained person. Got it! No digging up eggs!

Poaching has historically been a problem here, and elsewhere.  Luis has worked for decades to educate the public and discourage poaching, and he has seen some progress.  But it isn't only people who poach turtle eggs... DOGS love them as well.  We haven't seen many stray dogs on our beach, so I think we're OK.

Carlos showing me the signs
After a while, Luis let me take the lead.  He asked me to walk ahead of him and to tell him if I thought I found a nest.  I found them!  Some I wasn't certain about, and those turned out to be possible aborted nests, but I did it!  There will be obvious signs of disruption on the foliage in the area where the turtle has tossed the sand around.  There will be two indentions where her front flippers anchored her while she dug, and there will be sand tossed around the perimeter.  There will also be more subtle signs...  If you feel around in the sand where the mound is located, you will probably find roots that have been severed, and dead or freshly picked leaves and sticks that were broken as she dug.  I was amazed at how quickly I began to see these signs!!!

I can't believe this!  I was even given my own roll of tape to mark the nests!!!  Bruce and I got to mark several of the new ones we found today, but I swelled with pride every time the guys found a nest, only to see that we had already marked it!!!

Carlos is marking the spot on his GPS while I mark the spot with the tape!
We found several holes. Actual egg chambers that weren't ever used by the momma.  
There were a good number of "false digs", where the momma came up and tossed the sand around, only to decide to move elsewhere, or return another night.  We found two small holes that would have been egg chambers, with no eggs and left completely uncovered.  I am amazed that a turtle can dig out this relatively small hole with her flippers!

The older nests are more difficult to find, but Luis is pretty good at it!

Luis and Carlos turned out to be amazing teachers.  I think they realized that we could be valuable as volunteers, so they really began to train us in earnest!  Another old nest was found, and Luis opened it up.  Then Carlos took over and began to hand out egg after egg!  Handfuls of them!  There are usually more than a hundred eggs in each nest.

Carlos kept up a stream of information and answered all of my MANY questions.  I had read the materials Luis sent me, and it was just miraculous to see it all come to life right before my eyes!  The opportunity to participate in this amazing process is just a dream come true for me!

Some hatched, some not.
One has hatched, and the other has not.
Many things have an effect on the nests and the outcome of the eggs.  The temperature of the sand actually determines the sex of the turtle that eventually hatches.  Some eggs are unfertilised, and therefore do not hatch, while others may be fertilised, but still never develop.  It is all so critically sensitive that these eggs are given their best chance to hatch, and then the real danger comes.

Do not try this at home!

Carlos and Luis (and my manual) advised not to do this without gloves.  Of course, I'm not allowed to do this AT ALL until properly trained and issued a permit, but they did all of this so that we could see and learn.  The eggs can carry salmonella or other bacteria, they can also be very stinky!  Today we didn't encounter any stink, but Luis assured me that it can take many days to get the rotten egg smell off of your skin if you come into contact with it.  Noted:  Glove to be worn when digging in turtle nests! After roughly counting the hatched vs non-hatched eggs, they were all returned to the hole... as protocol requires!

Carlos showing me the broken roots and dead leaves buried in the sand.
We continued on down the beach, finding new nests, finding new OLD nests, marking the new ones and the "maybes" as well, so that we can remember we already found this one next time we walk the beach.  After this, we will mainly be looking for new tracks and nests, as all of the old ones have potentially been found, or don't matter.  When their numbers are reported each year, they err on the conservative side.

We stopped at my favorite leaning palms, because that's where Bruce and I usually stop, and because past that point, there is less sand, more eroded beach and therefore, not much chance that the turtles would nest there.  On the way back we talked about things that affect nesting.  Lights for example.  Turtles are very susceptible to light, and they will become disoriented if there are white lights around, causing them to be unable to find a proper nesting spot.  For the hatchlings, a light on the beach can cause the babies to fail to find the water.  They will expend their energy trying to get to the light and could die before ever getting to the water's edge.  There are laws about light pollution on turtle nesting beaches.

Masses of roots under the sand keep the turtle from digging.
Another problem is disappearing habitat.  The beaches are public and subject to the laws protecting sea turtle habitat.  Carlos pointed out some new palm trees that were planted to replace those lost in hurricane Maria.  He told us that the DRNA is actually digging up newly planted palms on turtle beaches, because the extensive root system will keep a turtle from being able to dig her nest.  He pointed this out to us on our walk.

The best habitat for nesting turtles, is the sea grape!  If anything is to be planted, sea grape bushes should be the first choice.  It gives turtles the perfect cover, easy for them to dig beneath and their branches and leaves keep the nests the perfect temperature by protecting them from the searing rays of the sun.

We were also told that while it can be good to clean up the trash and even natural beach trash, sticks, leaves and fallen palm branches, it is not a good idea to pile them on the beaches.  The big piles can become obstacles to the nesting turtles, and to the babies trying to head for the sea.  So much to think about!  So much wonder!

We got to learn so much today from our new friends Luis and Carlos., and what an honour and a privilege it is! Those feelings from a few weeks ago when I was pretty much snubbed, melted away as Luis invited me to come see his operation in Maunabo and to get some training.  Carlos talked about how nice it would be to have someone work this beach, as our area is underserved at present. And we talked about the need for a permit before doing anything other than reporting, which could come next year if I get trained and continued to patrol.  For now, we will continue to patrol... much more effectively!  We will report our findings to Luis, and we will work with Carlos to correct some problems on our beach.  We'll get some signs to place near the nests to identify the sensitive zone in hopes of giving our babies the best chance possible to survive!

What a thrill to know that in a month, or two, or three... we could one morning see the tiny baby tracks heading for the water.  And we will know that our babies have made it!  OUR BABIES... because I've persisted and I've cracked the shell!

No comments:

Post a Comment