On 01 July the Sea Turtle Conservation Program will begin its seventh season protecting the beaches of Drake Bay from the threat of egg poaching. For the international volunteers and tourists who arrive at the program to each year, one of the first questions they ask is ‘how do we do it?’
Like many similar beaches around Central America, for decades Drake Beach was visited every night during the turtle nesting season by local egg poachers, or ‘hueveros’, from nearby communities. The hueveros succeeded in removing nearly every single nest from the beach and so the turtle population was brought to the brink of extinction. This pattern changed dramatically in 2006 when the Corcovado Foundation began to protect the beach and offered local people the socioeconomic alternative to work with the program as Patrol Leaders and earn a regular salary. Despite these opportunities however, there are still some hueveros in the community that continue to try to take nests, either to eat or to sell on the black market, and so international volunteers and local Patrol Leaders head to the beach every night to defend the turtles’ right to survival.
Throughout the entire rainy season teams of patrollers head to the beach from 8pm until 5am every night, enduring extreme weather conditions such as wind and heavy rain. The walking can be tough on the soft sand and the teams do not use any white light, so as not to deter any turtles from coming out of the sea. It takes a little time for the eyes to adjust to the darkness, especially when there is no moonlight, and so it can be quite a strange experience the first time. The teams walk quickly to look for tracks left behind in the sand by the turtles and find any nests before the hueveros can get a chance. Upon finding a track, which is surprisingly easy to spot in the dark, they follow it up the beach to see if there is still a turtle at the end of it. Sometimes they are lucky and the team gets to witness the magical nesting process, an instinctive set of actions programmed into the genes of every female turtle by 200 million years of evolution.
The Olive Ridley turtle crawls from the sea and selects a spot to nest in somewhere above the high tide line. Next she uses her front flippers and body to clear the area of debris and create a depression in the sand called a body pit. Once she is ready she uses her back flippers to carefully dig a perfect hole in the sand 45 cm deep, without looking, which includes a wider chamber at the bottom for the eggs to fall into. After dropping around 100 ping pong ball-sized eggs into the hole she proceeds to collapse the sand in on top of the nest and compact it down using her full body weight, before finally using her front flippers to cast loose sand over the site in an effort to camouflage her work.
This final step is somewhat in vain though as her tracks are easily visible and hueveros are able to ‘read’ the clues left behind in the sand and quickly work out where the eggs are buried. Fortunately for her though the Patrol Leaders of the Sea Turtle Conservation Program also have the same skills, so as long as the team arrives before any hueveros do, her eggs will be saved by the team.
After taking all of the eggs from the nest and recording data, the team now heads to the hatchery – a secure enclosure with 24-hour surveillance that offers protection both from hueveros and natural predators. Here a local Hatchery Manager carefully relocates all of the eggs to a new hole in the sand and looks after them while they incubate. Fifty days later the nest comes alive with tiny hatch lings climbing out of the sand, which the Hatchery Manager then carefully measures and weighs before releasing them onto the beach. The Program says its last goodbyes to the turtles as they may their way down the sand and into the surf to begin their amazing life journey, hopefully to return again some 15 years later to nest in the protected wilderness of Drake Bay.
Please help the community of Drake Bay and the Corcovado Foundation to continue to protect the endangered sea turtles, and make a donation to this wonderful community-led conservation program.
Global Giving are generously offering a special Bonus Day on June 13, where they will match 30% of all donations made on that day. Please dig deep on June 13 and support our grassroots initiative and help the community in Drake Bay to protect their sea turtles.
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