Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's Turtle Time!

Turtle season is once again upon us. Leatherback nesting season officially started last Monday, and the prospect of seeing this endangered species come ashore to lay their eggs has caused a stir of excitement on base as night patrols get under way. Monitoring the turtle activity here at Jalova generates a lot of work for everybody and we will all be very busy over the coming weeks ensuring that people are out on the beach every single night. We also have to get used to the shift in our sleep patterns. With turtle walks going until 2 or 3am it’s quite a change from our usual 8 o’clock bedtime!

The turtle work we do is all done in collaboration with the STC (Sea Turtle Conservancy www.conserveturtles.org) and it’s great to know that the data we collect is part of one of the most important turtle research programmes in the world. Our work is dictated by STC protocols and in preparation for the impending season Dr. Emma Harrison came down to our base to give some training to myself and the other staff.

That evening Emma, James and I went out on the night patrol, all hoping we would be lucky and record the first leatherback of the year. There was heavy cloud cover this particular night, meaning the beach was smothered by an inky darkness making it incredibly difficult to see anything. We don’t use lights on the beach as it could disturb or disorientate the turtles. The three mile journey down the beach involved stumbling over many logs, numerous foot-soaking waves and the occasional rain shower. Upon reaching mile 15 of the beach we were all pretty soggy and sandy but as yet no signs of any turtles. We would however duly be rewarded for our endeavours.

Less than half a mile into our return journey we came across a track leading out of the sea onto the beach. Following it, we encountered the amazing creature. Looking like something from a prehistoric age, she was in the process of digging her egg chamber in the sand in preparation for laying. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest species of turtle, growing in excess of 2 metres in length, and I felt dwarfed by the prodigious size of this beautiful female. We counted her eggs and marked her nest and with Emma’s supervision I had my first go at putting a tag on a turtle. Nerve-wracking, but incredibly exciting, it felt good to know I was helping with the vital research needed to further understand and protect these remarkable and rare animals.

-Leo, Field staff