April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Turtle trip success!

It is with a glad heart that I write to tell you about our latest and greatest success. And thanks to the generosity of Bhoj, a fellow PCV, we can once again tell the story with pictures!!! Thanks Bhoj!

Before we comence with the happy story telling, I should also say that my trip to teach a workshop to ANAM parkrangers in Parque Nacional Coiba has been postponed (maybe until April) due to an exploding power generator that decided to end its service three days before my workshop was scheduled to start. Living without electricity is normal for me, but the workshop was put off anyway. Darn.

So, on Friday, November 14th at 3:30am we climbed into a full boat (complete with fishing nets and small dead hammerhead sharks...which are delicious) to head to a fellow PCVs community on the Eastern Coast of the gulf. We had arranged for 11 youth and 3 adults from our community to go on this environmental education trip.

When I got into the boat I thought that I would be the first person picked up...that is the schedule that we had planned on Wednesday at the final planning meeting. Well, imagine my suprise when I got into the boat and it was full...the captain picked us up on time...but last. For reasons only known to him, the captain left hours earlier and picked up all th participants earlier than planned and in a different order. Not many people were happy with the change. One of my adult chaperones told him to come back later because she was not ready (she is also one of the most prompt Panamanians ever).

When I got into the boat and found out that she was not there I was very confused. When I finally realized that she was not with us because he went to her house so early, he was headed out into the bay, not planning on going back for her. It took 3 minutes of tense conversation to get him to turn the boat and go get her...luckily she was ready and waiting on the shore.
We arrived to the small "port" about 1 1/2 hours early due to the captain´s choices. Well, rather than waiting around near the water (which also means near more biting bugs) for the bus we had hired to pick us up at 7:00, we started walking. I would expect American kids to do some whining at this point...but these kids are used to such walking and there were no complaints at all. If anything the road was nice, broad, and flat, unlike the island paths. Most of them had never been to this coast of the gulf, even though they live pretty close. They were pretty excited to be traveling in a new area. During the bus ride, the kids realy got excited/scared by the hills and the speed of the travel. It was a pretty normal car ride from my point of view...but that is the important thing...point of view is everything at times.

When we arrived at my friend and fellow PCV Cassie´s school there was a warm and excited greeting waiting for us. We were all a little overwhelmed. But we took a group photo of everyone and got down to the not-so-serious buisness of educational games.

A group of 5 PCVs from all over Panama make up the Captain Planet Team. They visit schools in PCV communities to give environmental education activities, coming complete with costumes and high energy. Since both Cassie and I have small schools, we combined the two for a day with Captian Planet.
After a full day with the Captian Planet team, we went to the beach for a while. The surf at the beach in Cassie´s community is quite dangerous due to a strong undertow current. Our students were quite happy to see the beach. Even though they live on a island the surf never gets that big in the bay and there are no stretches of beach as big as this one on the island, so they were pretty typical tourists.

We did not swim , just frolliced nearby and kept the little kids with us in a line when they wanted to get thier feet wet. Everyone who wanted to be wet managed to get wet and sandy safely...although I did get into some trouble with the other adults over just how wet and sandy they were. Oh well.
After the beach we went to play on a playground. These are a common government project in some parts of Panama, but have not yet reached the island. Yup...that is one of our kids and one of the adults on the monkey bars.

We spent the night on improvised beds in the school, and some wonderful ladies from the community volunteered to cook meals for us. The local kids stayed the whole weekend and participated in all the acitivities...even sleeping on the hard cement in the school with us.

The main goals for this trip included increasing participant knowledge about seaturtles, and fostering a new sense of interest and responsibility in the islanders for local seaturtles. Many of the families on the island make thier money fishing, and thus have the chance to impact seaturtle populations locally. Seaturtles do not currently lay eggs on the island...the beaches usually have rock just under the sand.

With this in mind, we all got up at midnight and walked the beach to look for seaturtles laying thier eggs. Even for the local kids this was a first chance to go looking for turtles...it is not something that they would normally be invited to do with the turtle volunteers. We split into two groups...one went north and one south.

The south bound group that I was with was lucky enough to encounter a large green seaturtle. When we arrived she was just starting to dig the cavity to lay her eggs in. The whole process can be quite lengthy when you include digging, laying and covering time. We got to see almost the whole process. She also took long enough that the unlucky north bound group was able to join us and see her as well.

After she finished laying and covering her eggs, she was escorted to the sea by quite an entourage. It was a great chance for them to see how big she was and to talk about how a turtle usually will not lay eggs before she is 20-30 years old. We used all the waiting and watching time to talk about how many eggs she needs to lay to be a sucessful turtle mom. Normally she will lay 90-110 eggs per nest. She will lay every 2 or 3 years, and every year that she lays she will lay 2 or 3 nests.

Thus, if we say that only 1 in 1000 eggs survive to reproduction age, she needs 25 years to be old enough to lay before she can start her 15 years of laying 300 eggs every other year to lay the 2000 eggs necessary to produce 2 adults for a stable population (one male and one female offspring per female). If she dies before age 45 the odds are greatly reduced that the turtle population will remain stable. It was cool for the kids to realize that that turtle was likely as old as I am...or thier parents are.

We then carefully dug up her eggs and transported them to a jaula, or protective fenced area where they will be protected until they hatch in 45-60 days. Below, Elvis, our nearest neighbor kid gets the honor of retreiving the eggs.

He was quite tired after leaning over and carefully digging out the 79 soft ping-pong ball sized eggs. Boy, did he smile big afterwards. Below he shows off an egg in his hand.

Anivel, another island kid, got the honnor of putting the eggs into thier new jaula nest. I had not seen him take anything that seriously before, he handled them with extreem care.

The next day we played a game about how dangerous a world it is for baby turtles. Scientists estimate that 1/2 of all baby turtles die in thier first year. It is also estimated that only 1 out of 1000 eggs laid lives long enough to be a reproductive turtle. In the game, each group got 5 pages of paper...each page depicted 120 baby turtles. For each danger that baby turtles face before adulthood they rolled dice to see if the danger impacted any of thier turtles. They rolled for dogs, birds, fish, trash, oil spills, fishermen, and many other dangers. Suddenly, the number of baby turtles that they had seemed smaller than they had thought.

After the turtle danger game we goofed off in a pool built by the local "gringo" community. That is Elvis doing a flip that he probably perfected off the side of his dad´s boat.

We ended the day on Saturday by drawing our own board game and playing a turtle facts review game. It is amazing how much kids (and the adults!) can learn when they are having fun...they did really well on all of the questions.

The next morning we were lucky enough to complete my last goal...we saw baby turtles headed from the nest to the sea. That is where I knew that we had really had some sucess: Julian, my nieghbor was one of the adults that went with us, and the moment he saw his first baby turtle his first remark was "Oh, I see how fish and crabs could eat them...they are soo tiny!" He clearly had remembered the dangers in the game the day before, but it wasn't until he saw the tiny hatchling that he really connected the dangers to the reality of why there needs to be so many turtle hatchlings.

We were lucky enough to see 27 baby turtles that morning. Above is Kenya helping with the release from the protective jaula. One of the kids had a camera on his phone...so mine were not the only photos that went home to be shared.
We couldn´t say around to watch all of the turtles get to the sea...the tide was against us. We needed to pass over the sandbars near port before low tide or we would be stuck, so we reluctantly started home.

We PCVs often don´t get to know what the long term impacts will be of the projects that we do, but I have hope that this trip will be long remembered and thought of by those that went. We taught many classes about protecting the enviroment...so maybe just maybe something will come of that. I know that I went home exausted and happy...and the parents reported the same was true of the kids. Now it is just up to the kids to remember how they can impact those baby turtles they escorted to the sea.

This trip was free of cost for all of the participants. To see how we paid for this trip check out our next blog post.

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