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