Tortugas

The motorised, blue fishing launch cuts easily through the light chop of the water in the Padre Ramos estuary. The broad, ragged rim of Volcan Cosiguina lies before us, spent and burnt out after its violent eruption 180 years ago. Behind us the perfect cone shape of San Cristobal, the tallest volcano in Nicaragua and still active, exudes a constant stream of grey smoke and gases. Bordering the estuary is the green and glossy mangrove forest, the largest one in the Americas, full of wildlife and an important ecological site and wetlands conservation area. We arrive at a small sandy beach amongst the mangroves, it doesn’t look very promising but as we walk inland we see a two story brick and timber building and the smiling face of Aida. She is a swarthy Spanish beauty, all dark hair, dark eyes and perfect olive skin and leads the turtle protection project we have come to volunteer for. We are warmly welcomed and introduced to her colleague Daniel from Costa Rica and Isela the cook who we soon find has a talent for producing a variety of tasty meals from a simple kitchen with only two burners and no fridge. It’s off season so we have a whole dormitory to ourselves. It is light and airy and has a covered balcony overlooking the ever changing landscape of the estuary and those verdant mangroves.

This project in the far northwestern corner of Nicaragua is run by ICAPO (Iniciativa del Carey Pacifico Oriental or Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative – http://www.hawksbill.org) which is actively involved in the conservation of the endangered hawksbill in nine countries. Once the nesting and hatching season ends in September attention is turned to the upkeep of the property and doing what they can to patrol the ocean side beaches for the last few nesting Olive Ridley turtles. We help out on two separate night patrols when Olive Ridleys are most likely to come ashore. It’s a tiring hike along to the beach along sand covered paths, made all the more tricky by low branches and the vast number of crabs who venture out of their sandy burrows to hunt in the darkness. They don’t seem very bright having either a kamikaze attitude of rushing straight towards you, claws aloft in silent fury, or simply sitting, zen-like in the path. Either way it’s quite a dance to pick your way through them without hearing a sickening crunch. On reaching the beach we turn the flashlights off so as not to disturb any turtles who may be coming ashore. Walking here is easier on the firmer, wet sand by the shoreline and despite the darkness I feel safe and confident. It is truly magical. There is no moon and no light pollution. The occasional flash of a torch and a few pinpricks of light from the distant village of Jiquilillo a few miles up the coast, but other than that it is beautifully dark. I can make out the shapes of my companions, the different shades of the wet and dry sand and the dark line of trees which border the beach. The sound of the surf is reassuringly rhythmic and constant and the sliver gleam of the surf shifts and changes like a watery will o’ the wisp. At intervals we sit to rest and wait and I lean back, gazing upwards trying to make sense of the sky. Some of the formations I recognise, but mostly I am happy to lose myself in the melee of sparkling confusion, of incomprehensible light years and wishes made on shooting stars.

I am brought back to Earth by the call to move on. We are accompanied by Manuel a local man who has a constant stream of chatter and a knack for seeing turtle tracks in the night-time gloom. Occasionally he will shine his torch like a searchlight towards the incoming tide looking for a glimpse of the white under belly of a turtle. There are others doing the same thing, but for a different purpose. Turtle eggs are a delicacy and some believe an aphrodisiac so they fetch a good price in the market. It’s easy for the local men to exploit this opportunity, needing only a flashlight, a bag and patience. It’s interesting to me that during the Hawksbill nesting season men from the villages are employed by ICAPO as gamekeepers of a sort, to seek out the nests and protect the eggs until the team collect them. They are paid for each nest they find and there is an end of season prize for the “careyero” – Hawksbill man – who has saved the greatest number. However, for the Olive Ridleys there is no organised system as there is for the Hawksbills and ICAPO doesn’t have the funds to patrol the beach whilst the Olive Ridleys are nesting unless they have paying volunteers. So, some of the local men, including some of our Careyeros choose to make a living through illegal poaching. On our first night patrolling we found one of these poachers and he happily chose the easier option of selling the eggs to the project rather than making the trip to market. He receives the market value which is about £1 per dozen and we get to save the eggs, it’s a win-win situation. I counted the white, soft-shelled eggs in to a bag and for the 93 eggs our poacher got about £8 – not a bad nights work considering the average daily wage is £6. When we got back to the house we prepared a sack full of sand to re-nest our precious cargo. I tried to mimic the nest their mother would have made by tunnelling vertically up to my armpit and then scooping out a roomy chamber, in to which I carefully placed the eggs. Covering them over and tamping down the sand finished our work for the night.

Sadly we won’t get to see “our” brood hatch which should happen in about 45 days, but we have been lucky enough to witness 3 releases from another project further down the coast. As they hatch the dark grey, palm sized baby Olive Ridleys are transferred from their sandy sacks in to workaday washing up bowls. As several nests may hatch in one day there can be several hundred hatchlings released at one time. About 5 metres from the tide-line the bowls are gently tipped up, spilling these vulnerable creatures on to the sand to begin their treacherous journey. Their instinct to reach the sea is strong and all bar a few make a determined bee-line to it.

Those that head in the wrong direction are gently turned towards the water and like clock-work toys they propel themselves along with their tiny flippers. It’s a long way for a newborn, using its muscles for the first time and they take short rests in between their heroic attempts to reach the sea. When they arrive at the waters edge the lucky ones are scooped up and carried straight out to deeper water, but others can be washed back up the beach to be deposited back where they started. It’s a cruel seaside game of snakes and ladders. It’s a wonderful sight to witness these brave little turtles begin their life and though I am excited and elated by these events I am also afraid for them and deflated by the knowledge that only 1 in 1000 will make it to adulthood and the possibility, in 25 years or so, to mate or to make it back to this same beach to lay their first batch of eggs.

With luck on our side on our second patrol we got to see one female who had managed to dodge threats such as sharks, pollution and fishermen’s nests to return to the beach to lay her eggs in the dark night. It was extraordinary to be so close to her and to watch something so ancient, natural and instinctive. Unfortunately, a young man found her before we did and had claimed the nest for himself. As soon as she had finished laying he picked her up and away from the nest to leave the eggs uncovered and easier to filch. Calmly she continued to act as she would have done over the nest, moving sand to protect her brood, but to no avail. When she thought all was safe she made her way slowly back to the ocean. Although our ICAPO colleagues talked with the poacher he would not agree to sell the eggs. I am stilled puzzled by this and maybe the complexities got lost in translation. He was a Careyero and knows that the consequences of a dwindling turtle population will ultimately affect the income and way of life of his fishing village – turtles, particularly Olive Ridleys feed on jelly fish, jelly fish eat fish eggs, so if there are less turtles there will be more jelly fish resulting in less fish. May be he’d already made a deal elsewhere or simply fancied turtle eggs for his next meal, who knows? It was hard to see him walk away with those eggs which are so precious to the balance and ecology of our oceans. I was left with a mix of feelings; awe and excitement of having seen such an event and a sense of failure and sadness at not having realised our goal of saving eggs.

In these quieter off season months Aida and Danny focus their energy on other projects which we helped with, such as collecting rubbish from around the house which had been brought up by the tide. We completed a thorough record for the Ocean Conservancy to enable them to monitor the types and quantity of rubbish that is washed up on shores around the world.

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We also collected mangrove shoots and a huge tub of estuary mud with which to fill small grow bags in to which we planted the shoots. When established they are replanted to help with reforestation and the maintenance of the hawksbill’s habitat.

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It felt good to contribute to all these activities and I learnt a huge amount but the highlight came on our last morning. We rose at 5am to a salmon pink sky and exotic dawn chorus and ate a simple breakfast in the burgeoning light. Soon after, David, Aida and I were speeding towards the narrower channels of the estuary in a small fishing boat. We joined another boat with two skilled fishermen and in tandem we slowly patrolled the waterways. Once they spotted a breaching turtle it was quickly and expertly encircled with a special net and gradually hauled in. Despite a couple of unsuccessful attempts, during the two hours when the tide was right, two juvenile turtles were captured.

We transferred these pre-historic looking creatures, one by one, in to our boat where I held a wet cloth over its head to keep it calm and still. We weighed each one, measured the shell and clipped metal tags on to it’s front flippers. I also got the opportunity to use forceps and a razor blade to cut a tiny skin tag from the neck that is sent to America for analysis. Very little is known about the “lost years”, the period between the hatchlings taking to the water and returning to nest a couple of decades later, so any information gathered helps to build a fuller picture. And then with a heave, one weighed over 30kgs, we picked them up and released them back to their watery home.

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It was the most amazing experience to be with and to touch these survivors. Despite their bulk, their seemingly impenetrable shell, tough flippers and millions of years of evolutionary adaptation they are so very vulnerable. Projects such as this one make a massive contribution to the wellbeing of our planet and it was a privilege to be a small part of it.

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