Releasing Sea Turtles, 1 in a Million
Update OCT 24 2012. I’ve added the video referenced in the article!
Undisclosed Pacific Coast Location
It’s early enough that even the guard isn’t at his post yet. After about 10 minutes of driving through a series of shallow ponds wrongly called a road, we’re at the access gate. We’ve already ignored one “No public access” sign, what’s a unmanned guard shack? It’s not as bad as I think, the driver has already called ahead. We pull up to a government run ranger station and I unload my gear quickly while the others check in with the park rangers.
“He’s writing an article.” Fingers point at me. I am?
Clearly my status as a reporter has been slightly (or grossly) overstated but I’m carrying a bunch of gear which always lends credibility. I’m really here to get video of baby turtles for my client, who will use the footage to support conservation efforts. I’m not about to blow it on account of a lack of clarification.
I keep my head down and look busy unpacking before anyone asks any questions about my credentials.
A gentlemen appears carrying a 5 gallon bucket and dryly states:
“…But there’s a problem.”
“The tide is up and you will get your shoes and pants wet.”
Before he’s done speaking my shoes are off and am unzipping my pants into shorts (I suspected this might happen so I wore convertible pants). I prefer the beach barefoot rather than have shoes full of sand anyway. The same gentlemen who shows such concern for our shoes points to his bucket: “Here are the turtles.”
I take a quick peek and am shocked to find 100 wriggling newborn Olive Ridley sea turtles. It seems rather unceremonious, but I trust no harm is being done.
The sun has been up for a while but the light is still a little flat (not much contrast), our portly guide charges ahead of us with his 5 gallon bucket. I hang back a bit trying to get some “dramatic” scenes of him leaving a trail of footprints in the sand. In retrospect though, there is nothing graceful or dramatic about a middle-aged man wearing rubber boots trudging through wet sand carrying a bucket. Try it you’ll see what I mean. Plus the footage ends up all foggy anyway since my gear spent the night in air-conditioning and the sea breeze instantly condenses on the lens.
Our guide draws a line in the sand about 20 meters from the water line. The turtles need a bit of space to get their bearings so they can make their way back later in life. They are removed one by one from the bucket (wearing latex gloves so as not to contaminate them). They come out flapping oversized flippers with amazing ferocity, desperation even. They are painfully cute. Once on the sand they don’t head straight for the water but sort of wander around in fitful burst before finally heading towards the surf.
It’s quite difficult to keep the camera steady and the two inch turtles in manual focus while not interfering with any of them. I manage to get some nice footage while narrowly avoiding a wave or two splashing onto the camera.
As amazing an experience as it is, my version is a bit anesthetized since I live it through the view screen on my camera with a head full of settings and trying to keep things in focus. It’s something I’m glad I got to see since most folks aren’t allowed.
The babies are on their way to a sadly low survival rate in the water and our guide turns his attention to a nest he’s spotted. He expertly digs up the rubbery eggs and puts them in a plastic grocery bag (again it seems somewhat unceremonious). He carries the bag gently—no swaying allowed—to the nursery.
Fenced off and laid out in a grid, dozens of transplanted nests await their moment protected from any number of predators. After drawing a diagram for our edification he recreates a nest with the requisite shape and reburies the eggs.
The term translates to exhumation. I’m instantly not a fan of the word. Too many negative implications in English. It means digging up a nest that has recently hatched to find any stragglers. We find a few survivors while as tallying up the ones that didn’t make it and the eggs that stopped forming in different stages of development. It feels like the icky part of biology class or Discovery channel. I get footage that probably won’t be used.
Back out on the beach we find a disturbed nest. It might have been an animal, but after closer inspection: “People…people stole the eggs.”
Fortunately there are people who save them as well. People who work crazy hours without enough pay or the equipment they need. Volunteers too. What I saw isn’t really allowed in order to protect the turtles, but I just can’t help but think that if it were allowed it might be helpful to the cause. What might someone pay to have a one in a million experience?