Saving the Sea Turtle

Giving the Sea Turtles a Chance

 – by Jack Ewing

The female sea turtle emerged from the sea and awkwardly pulled herself up the beach with flippers that looked better suited for maneuvering around in the sea than dragging a hundred pounds of dead weight across the sand. When she reached a point where thousands of years of accumulated instinct told her that the beach looked right, the female began to dig with paddle-like rear flippers. The digging continued until she could reach no deeper. After positioning her backside over the hole she began to expel the flexible, white, leathery spheres shrouded in thick mucous, each about the size and shape of a golf ball.

Sea Turtle Laying Eggs
Sea Turtle Laying Eggs

The eggs plopped into the hole one by one until no more remained inside of the reptile. The female began scooping the sand back into the hole covering the precious eggs that would assure the future of her species. She positioned her hard bony under plate over the mound of sand and using her flippers, raised her heavy body into the air and quickly let it drop with a resounding thud, repeating the process until the nest was firmly packed.

Near exhaustion, the Olive Ridley Turtle began her labored trek back to the water’s edge, stopping frequently to rest, until at last she was swallowed by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

Sea Turtle returns to the sea.
Mama Sea Turtle returns to the sea after her arduous, species sustaining efforts.

For many thousands of years this scene has been played out upon hundreds of beaches with millions of turtles of many different species. Later come the coyotes, raccoons, coatis, and peccaries to dig out the nutritious white blobs. The ever present and persistent ants take their toll. In some places jaguars kill the adult turtles and eat them. Depending on the weather and temperature, the eggs that escape the predators hatch sometime between 45 and 60 days later.

Baby Turtle's dash for the sea.
Sea Turtle hatchlings going to sea.

The hatchlings drag themselves out of the nest hole and up onto the beach, zero in on the movement of the waves, and begin walking toward the surf. The first to hatch are usually able to evade the crabs waiting in ambush and traverse the 30 meters (100 feet) or so to the water. Once in the ocean they must evade the many species of marine creatures waiting to gobble them up. But after those first few a passing hawk, frigate bird or vulture will spot one of the hatchlings and swoop down to snatch it up. Other birds follow. All of the mammals noted above and even the white-faced capuchin monkeys sometimes take part in the feast. Almost none of the remaining hatchlings survive. Maybe as many as ten of the original hundred tiny turtles, each less than half the size of a hockey puck, succeed in entering the sea. With luck one female from every ten nests will grow to maturity and return to lay her eggs on the same beach ten to twelve years later. What she does in the meantime, nobody knows for sure.

That was when things happened naturally, before the arrival of Homo sapiens on the scene as a primary actor in the process. Now, maybe one nest in a hundred has the opportunity to hatch naturally. Human poachers efficiently detect and remove all of the eggs before any other predators find the nest. Few nests escape their careful search. The eggs in one nest can be sold to a local cantina for $30 to $40, more than the poacher could make working eight hours a day at an honest job. In the bar the eggs are opened and dropped into a glass; tomato sauce, lemon juice, Tabasco and rum are added, and the whole mess is swallowed raw. It is considered the “manly” thing to do. Most cantinas call the drink “Poor Man’s Viagra”. The truth is that scientific evidence shows that any effect on sexual potency is purely psychosomatic. The tragedy is that this myth could eventually bring about the demise of the marine turtles.

The first hatchery on Barú Beach was a project of the owners and employees of Hacienda Barú initiated in the year 1984. One weekend there was a grand festival in the village of Hatillo, and all of the poachers went to the party. We took advantage of the situation to patrol the beach for turtle eggs. Luck was with us. That was an extraordinary weekend for turtles, and we got over 30 nests, 3000 eggs. We knew more or less how to make a hatchery and did the best we could. We apparently did something right, because we released over 2000 baby turtles into the sea that year.

Hatchling sea turtles on their way to the ocean.
Baby marine turtles journey to the ocean.

Over the next 30 years we have released over 200,000 baby turtles.

Many people ask to accompany the park rangers on their nocturnal patrols in the hope of seeing a turtle laying her eggs, and many who have done so have seen turtles. Occasionally you will walk several kilometers in the dark and the rain for hours and not see anything. For people who go on these walks with the rangers we remind you that this project is funded entirely with private donations and strongly suggest that each participant make a donation of $15 all of which will be used in the operation. Anything you can give will be greatly appreciated. Arrangements for the beach patrol can be made through the Hacienda Barú reception office.

Sea turtles from nest to sea.
The Sea Turtle’s struggle to survive.

Baby turtles are hatching now, and will be all during the months of September, October, and November.

Don José a model of campesino fitness.

Costa Rica’s Amazing Campesinos

How to Walk Up a Hill

I still remember my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Lamb. He had been stationed in Japan after World W ar II and was married to a lady from there. He used to tell us stories about his time in Japan in the 1940s with great affection for the Japanese people, and his wife would sometimes come to class and explain about Japanese customs. One of his stories has stayed in my memory until today.

“The Japanese are truly amazing,” he told us. “Americans know that it is impossible to carry a 55 gallon drum of gasoline on your back, but nobody ever told the Japanese they couldn’t do it. I have seen workers walking up a hill carrying a full 55 gallon drum. Their minds aren’t hampered by the limits we place on our own minds.”

In Costa Rica the word “campesino” refers to country folk. People from San Jose generally look down their noses at them and consider them to be inferior human beings. One time my wife had taken our son to the hospital in San Isidro for a bad sore throat. The young

doctor who attended to them was from San Jose and doing an internship in San Isidro. She was obviously not happy living there. When she found out where we lived she told Diane that it must be horrible with nobody but campesinos for neighbors. I have never agreed with this assessment, and after 42 years of living on Hacienda Barú I have developed a great appreciation for the abilities and talents of the Costa Rican campesinos.

Campesino 50 year marriage
50 Year Marriage – Costa Rica is known for longevity of both life & marriage.

When we first moved to Hacienda Barú, back in the 70s, there was a large diesel generator, with a Caterpillar engine, that had to be loaded on a truck and delivered to its new owner. We got word that the truck was coming the next day. That night my son Chris asked if there was a front-end loader coming to load the generator. I told him that there weren’t any loaders anywhere near here.

“Well, how are you going to load that generator, then?” He asked.

“I’m just going to tell Telmo (the foreman) to load the generator on the truck,” I explained. “But I’m not going to tell him how to do it. I’m sure he and the other workers will figure out a way.”

The next morning the truck arrived bright and early. It backed up to within three meters of the generator, and Telmo and two other workers placed three thick planks with one end on the ground in front of the generator, and the other end on the bed of the truck. They placed some pieces of tree trunks under the planks to add support. They then levered the generator up onto the planks and up to the truck bed using one heavy iron bar and a couple of 2 x 4s. The driver tied a rope to one end of the generator, and wrapped the other end around a tree that was growing beside the cab of the truck. As Telmo and the workers levered the generator up the planks he took up the slack to keep the big machine from sliding back down the planks. The whole process took less than half an hour. It was so simple, I never would have thought of it. Chris was amazed and full of admiration for the ingenuity of Telmo and the workers. Nobody ever told them that you couldn’t load a half-ton generator on a truck without a front-end loader, so they did it.

I used to think that the campesino belief in doing things by the tide and the moon was pure superstition, but I soon found out things will go much more smoothly if you follow their advice. “If you cut a bunch of bananas or plantains when the moon is waxing and the tide is high they will ripen evenly and be very sweet. But if you do it when the moon is waning and the tide is low they will ripen unevenly and be dry and starchy” a man named Daniel told me. This is definitely true. I have tried it both ways. Any campesino will tell you that you should brand cattle, castrate calves, pigs, or horses, prune trees or cut palm leaves for thatch on the waning moon. The waxing moon is for chopping weeds.

One day I was walking up a hill with a campesino named Jorge. I prided myself on my physical condition and quickly out-distanced my companion. Looking back I could see that I was about 50 meters ahead of him so I stopped for breath. Jorge was just trudging along at a slow steady pace. He caught up to me sooner than I thought. I took off up the hill again before he reached my resting place. This time I tired sooner and Jorge caught up to me while I was resting. By the time we reached the top of the hill I was 50 meters behind and completely exhausted. “I grew up in these hills,” he said solemnly. “You need to set a pace you can maintain, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” It gave me a renewed perspective on that old fable about the tortoise and the hare.

I have lived and worked in the Costa Rican countryside for 44 years. I have acquired a wealth of knowledge from campesinos and will be forever grateful to these amazing country people.