I spent my week traveling to learn more about sea turtles in order to teach about them in my community of fishermen. Sea turtles are an important part of the ocean ecology, and not all that well understood because of the range of thier travels, the lenght of their life span, and the difficulty in following an aquatic animal in the world´s oceans (especially when they are too small/young to tag). All 7 species of sea turtles in the world are in danger of extintion, and about 5 of the species are known to lay eggs on the coasts of Panama. These include the Olive Ridgley, Hawksbill, Green, and Leatherback, which is the largest of the turtles who´s shell alone can reach 6 feet long.
I started the trip with a visit to San San Pond Sak...which is a wetland park located in Bocas del Toro, very close (3km away) to the Costa Rica border. It is a wildlife preserve focusing on protecting both sea turtles and manatees. While in Bocas del Toro, I got to see and hold my first baby turtle, a leatherback who emerged from his nest a day or two before his siblings....so we only got to see the one baby. Oh boy, was he cute. He had his own paparazzi of people accompanying him to the sea.
(imagine a couple of photos of a turtle baby here)
The egg laying season was finished on the Caribean side...so I went home with my friend and fellow PCV Cassie to her site in Veraguas, on the Pacific side. Together we did some work, some teaching, and went walking the beach in the middle of the night looking for turtle eggs. Sea turtles in Panama face many risks here in addition to the natural risks found in the wild, including:
- human consumtion of eggs (also collected to sell at $1 for 3 eggs for eating)
- dogs eating eggs
- removal of sand from beaches for making cement for construction
- eating turtles for thier meat
- getting accidentaly caught in gill fishing or lobster nets
In Cassie´s community there is a small group of people who walk the beaches to collect turtle eggs and protect them in a fenced area of sand. Your typical turtle nest has 100-120 eggs and is burried 12-20 inches deep. They are at the greatest danger from humans the 1st 24 hours after they are laid when the tracks made by the mother still are visible. Each night there were more footprints in the sand in the middle of the night than at any other time of day.
In my three nights of walking the beach I saw about 8 sets of turtle tracks who´s nests had already been robbed. One night I got up at 12:40am and walked with Cassie. We saw 4 nests that I don´t think were robbed but we did not manage to locate the nests to collect eggs. The rising tide was limiting our time...it was raising a river between us and bed. The river went from knee to belly botton hieght in the time we were out there.
While walking back to the river we encountered a turtle who had arrived while we were down the beach a ways. She was just finished laying and in the process of covering the nest up when we arrived. She was not a very large turtle...we couldn´t measure her as she was not in her egg laying state any more when we appoached. It was awsome to sit in the weak moonlight and watch her finish shuffeling and packing sand to cover and hide her nest. We then walked behind her as she went to sea.
(imagine a photo of a green turtle and me here)
After she departed we used a stick to poke the sand and figure out were the nest was...it took 4 trys to find it as she had already filled it in when we arrived. We then collected her eggs (suffering 40ish bug bites along that tender strip of back that shows when your shirt rides up as a reward for my efforts leaning over the nest). We carried them back to the protected area (including wading the now waist high river) and reburied them at the same depth in the same within the fence.
(Imagine a photo of a dirty happy bugbitten April with a while pingpong ball sized egg in her gloved hand here)
All in all, three nests were collected for protecting in my three days of walking the beach. The turtle volunteer group estimated that 15 nests were lost to poachers or dogs while I was visiting. Add those losses to the following facts and you start to see why this is an important issue for the species:
- 1 turtle hatchling in every 1000 lives long enough to reproduce. This is one egg for every 10 nests. For Leatherbacks the number is closer to 1 in 10,000.
- Turtles don´t lay eggs every year....they sometimes skip 1-2 years between laying.
- A turtle must live 9-40 years before it can reproduce...most species averaging 23-25 years before they reach sexual maturity.
Add all the above together and a turtle must survive to reproductive age and lay 10 nests over the course of years in order to beat the odds so that one of her offspring survives.
We saw and talked to a couple of people who were walking the beach to illegally collect eggs. In some cases they responded with exactly what I expected...denigal that they were out to collect eggs (as if walking the beach with a stick in hand...used to poke and feel for the nest... at 2am is normal Panamanian behavior and had nothing to do with turtles). We also got told that the eggs collected were for personal consumtion and not for sale. There are Panamanians out there who don´t have enough food and turtle eggs can be an addition to the diet...but I think that they are the exception, not the majority.
It is a quiet and secrative war being faught over turtles and thier eggs...but yet there are nightly manuvers on both sides. There are very few confrontations in the night. The local volunteers lack the authority to do anything other than talk and it is hard to do when it is your nieghbor you are addressing. The authorities lack the resouces to be out observing and enforcing with frequency. Thus, at the moment the poachers are winning and the world´s turtles are losing.
Stay tuned...this is surely not my last visit to the turtle beaches of Panama...and I am deturmined to get sea turtle pictures!