For this blog entry, I would like to welcome a guest author. Sheryl rose early for several days running to gather this unique experience with this endangered species (while I remained comfortably at slumber); therefore, it is only fitting that she get the opportunity to share it with you in her own words...
For the past four days I have been participating with DRNA trained volunteers on Zoni Beach looking for leatherback sea turtle hatchlings. We arrive at the beach at sunrise looking for the telltale turtle tracks that start at the clutches and go to the edge of the water. So far this year there are 48 clutches roped off, each one taking between 60-70 days to hatch. Yesterday, nest number 13 showed signs of baby turtles making their way to the ocean.
Abbie, who is authorized by the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA), gently moved the sand looking for the nest and any turtles that haven't been able to escape to the surface. Nadeen and Nancy, other DRNA volunteers, counted 14 different turtle tracks showing the turtles that made it to the water before sunrise. Abbie and Nadeen found five hatchlings still struggling to make it to the surface. Amdry, an eleven-year-old volunteer and one of Abbie's students, and I rushed to the water's edge to fill bottles with salt water. The baby turtles are dehydrated and appreciate salt water showers. Amdry and I worked together to make a path in the sand directly to the water's edge, which included rounding the one foot drop made by the falling tide. The three inch long turtles stimulate one another by scrambling over each other. Amdry showed me how to gently stroke their leathery backs and sides to imitate this activity. If they showed signs of slow progress to the water we would point them in the right direction and give them encouragement. It was incredible! The leatherback turtle's fore flippers are huge and they use them to pull themselves forward inch by inch. Once they made it down the incline and could feel the wet sand under their plastrons they really made tracks to the water.
The other part of my job is to look out for frigate birds. They think leatherback turtle babies are their breakfast and since the sea turtles are on the critically endangered list, we try to help them survive this perilous stage of their lives. We watched the sea turtles bob in the surf and helped them get beyond the small breaking waves. Once free from the surf, the five leatherback sea turtles swam along at the surface, taking breaths often. They are on their way to the open ocean, to eat jelly fish and squid and grow up to be 4-8 feet long and weigh 650-1,300 pounds. In a few years they will return to mate and the females will come ashore on Zoni Beach to lay their eggs.
Amdry and I walked back up to where Abbie, Nadeen and Nancy were working with the nest. As volunteers they record information about the clutch such as when the eggs were laid, if the nest had ever been washed out (the big north swell back in March had waves crashing much higher than the normal high tide mark), how many turtles made it out before sunrise, and how many were left struggling in the nest. They also count the eggs that did not hatch and determine what level of development they reached. A female leatherback turtle lays between 60 and 100 eggs per nest several times during the nesting season.
Just as they were finishing up I noticed some sand moving on the side of the large hole. There was one more baby turtle struggling to survive! Now the sun was shining, so I provided a shaded escort down the beach, trickling water and stroking his back like I had been taught. I entered the water with him and swam for about 30 minutes, watching out for frigate birds. He didn't seem too eager to swim away from me. Eventually I had to let him go out to deeper water where I hoped he would take big breaths, dive deep and avoid the fish that also want to make a meal out of him.
Please click here
to see movies and more pictures of these incredible leatherback sea turtles.