Yesterday was a sad day. I saw many ways in which turtles all over the world are threatened. What I saw were things that I had only heard and read about about before I came to Ostional in Costa Rica. I’m still struggling to reconcile with the fact that all of this happened in one day, and all on one beach.
Every Monday morning we’d get up at 6am to analyse turtle tracks from the previous night. When we went out yesterday morning, we saw some dead turtle hatchlings that had been bitten by vultures. They must’ve hatched the night before, and had almost made it to the edge of the ocean.
Ostional is one of the most important beaches in the world for Arribada, which is a phenomenon where hundreds or thousands of female Olive Ridley turtles all come at once to lay their eggs. This is supposed to happen every month, and lasts for 4 days, everyday being between sunset and sunrise.
Because Ostional is such an important nesting place for Olive Ridley turtles, we don’t get a lot of other turtle species here, so we rejoiced when we saw a a returning green turtle a couple of nights ago when we went on night patrol. We had paid special attention to ensure that all her tracks were covered, and that her nest was also covered by logs and broken egg shells (there are millions of them on this beach, so it would look weird if there was a patch of sand that didn’t have these over them). We spent all that effort to prevent poachers from knowing where this special nest was.
Well…. Yesterday on our afternoon beach cleanup, we went back to check her nest (previous volunteers named her Lucia), but it was obvious that something had happened. The logs that we’d placed over her nest had been moved. There were no broken shells. We had put a stick through the sand nearby her nest, but that was also gone. The poachers had gotten her eggs! We tried to dig her eggs up. Nothing.
These poachers apparently used to leave the nests of green turtles and leatherback turtles alone, because they knew how rare it was to find them on this beach. However, the increase in demand meant that the supply also needed to be increased, so they couldn’t care less this time.
On the way back from our afternoon beach cleanup, we spotted a dead sea turtle that had just been washed up ashore. She had no external injuries, but some marks around her face and head. Our supervisor said that she had been caught in a fishing net, and whenever that happens, the fishermen would simply cut the net off, which causes the turtle to drown.
Although we might have a different time range for our night patrols each day, without fail, we would still have a 4 hour shift. Yesterday night on our night patrol, we saw 24 turtles! We could all smell an upcoming Arribada! However, out of the 24 turtles, there were 7 or 8 turtles that had ugly patches of external tumours around their face. This debilitating disease is called Fibropapillomatosis (FP). It’s sexually transmitted, and is hereditary. For some reason, this disease affects mainly turtles that haven’t reached adulthood, and a lot of the time, the turtle would die before it even reaches adulthood. There’s still a lot of unknown information about this disease. However, I wish I didn’t have to just stand there and accept the fact that I shouldn’t collect data for these turtles, knowing that they’ll die soon.
Behind every bad day, there’s a silver lining, which is why I wanted to write this blog. I’ve had days where I’ve found no turtles on my 4 hour shifts, so they just end up being extremely exhausting walks on the beach at ridiculous hours. I’ve had days like this one that’s full of tragedies. On a tragic day like this, I’m glad that I didn’t decide to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary or an organisation alike. I want you to know that I’m on a real beach. This is natural. This is what happens. While you readers might be millions of miles away from Ostional, even simply raising awareness for these issues could go a long way. Even little things like not supporting the industry that utilises turtle products could also go a long way. How else can you help? To be brutally honest, I don’t really know either. Maybe they’re issues too big for us to solve. Maybe there isn’t much that we can intervene with. I’m not sure, but at least I’m aware, and you can be too.