A Night on Patrol - What it's like to be there...
Punta Banco Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
Although I try not to dwell on my paradise whilst I am in England, I do ocassionally get the urge to have a patrol night - A night where I do my damndest to recreate the feelings that make me go back every year to Punta Banco.
I'm lucky. I live in a seaside resort. So, every once in a while, I'll take myself down to the beach after dark and do a full three hour patrol, gazing out at the ocean, watching the ships signal each other with red and green lights and listening to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.
It's hard to describe what patrolling is like, because every night is so different.
I shall try though, to describe a typical night's work for you, so you can get a feel for the place, the beauty, the awe-inspiring adventure that could be ahead of you. Really, we are priviledged to be able to go and do this work...I hope to see you there...
The alarm goes off and you scrabble to find it in the pitch blackness of your room, before the rest of the station house occupants are woken up! You find it, hit the button and then see the time backlit in blue light...1:45 a.m!!! You went to bed late because you were up playing cards with Jose and a couple of the other volunteers. Now you are wishing you hadn't. But you soon shake the sleepiness off. You fight your way out of bed, past the mosquite net canopy you've strung up. You'd changed into patrol gear at bedtime to save getting changed in the dark. Your torch, retrieved, shines a red pathway to the door to your room. Out you go to the open air top floor. Brushing your teeth and splahing your face with water, you survey the skies. For the first night in a week, it is not raining! It's a half moon and the lunar light picks out the stars. It is so quiet, so peaceful. All you can hear are the waves...
You make your way downstairs, packing your waterproof in the rucksack, (just in case!). Torches tested, bag checked for gloves, sharpened pencils, tape measures, tags and plastic bags, you are all ready to go! The other volunteers appear, one by one. There is time for a cup of coffee before you have to leave. The coffee maker is switched on and three minutes later, a litre of Costa Rican loveliness is poured into mugs and sugared to kingdom come. Jose arrives on his bike and downs two mugs to your one! He needs the energy for a double shift tonight! Everyone has checked the whiteboard, so they know which team they're in and which sector of the beach they are patrolling tonight. You are on North Patrol; the longer of the two, but the most popular historically with the turtles! This week has been a good week and everyone is optimistic...
So, everyone ready and caffeine loaded, you set off with Jose leading the way. White lights on, you can't help but look up and check out the stars again. It has been a while since you last saw them, being as this is the rainy season in Costa Rica! As you leave you wish the other team good luck, 'Buena suerte'! You head over the bridge that is the entrance to the village. Then cut through the palms via a shortcut that leads out onto the beach. Now your shift has officially commenced!
The tide is coming in now, which is good for the turtles...makes it easier if they are not fighting the tides as they come in to nest. You walk together, up to the river separating the two patrols. The other team have done likewise on the other side and they flash their torches at you in greeting. No turtles in this sector, so you turn with the others and head north, the sound of the river ebbing and dying into the sound of the waves as you walk. So...on you go, scanning with your light, looking for the shadows cast by a track in the black sand. Eyes on the tide line, you keep your ears peeled, trying to attune yourself to the sounds of nature. Careful to avoid the driftwood that litters the beach, your eyes catch the light hitting what looks like a turtle's shell in the surf. It's hard to tell if it's moving in the moonlight, even with your torch; the light fades into the black water. You call to Jose. He looks, shakes his head...'Nada'. It's just a rock. Everything here, on land and in water, resembles a turtle!
Everyone carries on walking. Out to sea, you can see three lights, three ships and their reflections, signalling to each other in the dark. Up above, in the sky you can see the three stars that form Orion's belt. Lower on the horizon, the red planet flickers pink. Venus is the brightest thing in the sky. Out in the distance, you can hear the rumble of thunder as a storm front goes around the coast out at sea. The lightning flashes temporarily flood the beach with light, affording you sneaky peaks of what is to come. You didn't spot any turtles up ahead. You keep walking, listening to the crash of the waves hitting an offshore sand bank. On to pebbles in this sector. A few small streams to cross and you are back on the sandy shores of Punta Banco sector, the last part of the beach in the North Patrol. Giant boulders cast enormous shadows and the team splits in order to weave amongst them as you continue your search. You take the part of the beach nearest the water, continually scanning for movement.
All of a sudden you see her. She's expertly navigated her way round the rocks in these parts and made it to the shore line. Waves lap against her body as she hauls herself up the beach, one flipper at a time. Pointing your light away from her, you flash the rest of the team to let them know you have found something. You make your way up the beach to gather, turning off your torches as soon as you can so as not to disturb her. By the light of the moon you can just make out her movements. You can hear her shell scrape across the rocky beach beneath.
She's picked a good spot. Hardly any rocks up ahead of her, soft black sand, not too wet. You're hopeful she'll be able to lay here. You and the team keep their distance. She's now about three quarters of the way up the beach, heading towards the vegetation. Jose follows her track to take a quick look at her. He comes back a minute later and digs out the data book. 'Lora' he says. She's an Olive Ridley. You ask how he knows and he tells you she is smaller than a green turtle and the tracks are assymetrical. He is positive about her location too. You can tell because as he speaks, he is preparing the tags ready to tag her. Also retrieving the tape measure, some gloves and a plastic carrier bag from the patrol box in his rucksack. He asks you if you would like to collect the eggs if she lays!
Five minutes on, Jose has prepared everything and goes to take another look. He motions for you all to join him, but signals to use red light and to be quiet. You creep up the beach and find her settled into a place at the top of the beach. Shining your torch up, you check to make sure you are not all standing underneath a palm tree as you watch! (Those coconuts can be lethal and that's not the way anyone wants to go!). The turtle is digging herself a bed, sinking herself into the sand so she can make her nest a good deep one for the eggs. While she does this, Jose asks if you would like to help him and another volunteer to measure the turtle's tracks. It will be a while until she is ready to lay. You make your way down the track until you come to a nice clear stretch. Jose shows you how to take a diagonal measure ment across the track, flipper to flipper, and you take a few measurements then average them out. The track is 69cm wide, about average. You can see the faint line where her tail carved the sand as she walked.
You head back to the others and check the turtle. She has almost finished digging out her nest chamber. She is delicately scooping out the last of the sand using her bank flippers alternately. Her dexterity amazes you; the way the flippers are cupped like human hands. It is incredible to see such a big and clumsy creature on land, doing something so deftly. She's finished. You can tell because she lets out a bg sigh and rests her back flippers on the sand either side of her nest chamber.
Jose asks you to get ready and put the gloves on. He hands you the carrier bag the eggs will go into. You all gather behind her and watch as the opening, the cloacle, contracts. Unexpectedly, two eggs drop out, then three, then one....they keep coming, along with a sticky, clear goo secreted by the turtle to keep the eggs healthy. Jose digs a channel leading into the nest and then moves so you have access to them. He asks you to count the eggs as you retrieve them. You start, feeling the ping pong ball sized eggs flex at your touch, like bath pearls. Everyone else is laying around you, heads to the sand watching, one person directing their red light at the action for you, so you, and they can see.
Meanwhile, Jose tags the turtle, measures her and checks the shell and the body for any markings or injury. She is in perfect health. For a second, he gets the attention of the group to show us something. He asks for lights off. In the darkness, he runs his hand over the turtle's shell. Left behind, the finger markings glow with phophoresence an eerie green colour. Everyone has a turn, watching the glow fade each time, so beautiful. Jose smiles and you smile back at him, feeling so in awe of it all and wondering how you ever made it here.
Red light back on, the eggs are finally counted and in the bag, just in time for the turtle to start covering her nest. Using her back flippers, she fills in the hole, bangs down the sand with the edges of her shell and then camouflages the whole area by flicking loose sand over it with her front flippers. She turns herself around and heads back down the beach, leaving a down track in her wake. You watch her head back into the water, where she turns from a clumsy lump into a graceful swimmer, drifting off into the surf. There were 102 eggs in her nest. A good clutch of future baby turtles if you can take good care of them between here and the hatchery!
Everything gets recorded in the data book for North and you are on your way again, back towards town. You walk with the bag of eggs weighing you down, still scanning the sands for more. Nothing on this stretch and you arrive in front of the town about forty minutes later, the light of the few streetlamps casting an orangey glow on the football pitch. The resident bat is circling the hatchery light as per usual, catching flies. Entering the hatchery, you choose the next available empty grid and dig a replica nest with Jose's help. Filling it with the eggs, you recount, (got it right the first time!), and cover the nest over. 65 more days or so and you are going to be a parent!! You make a few dummy nest sites to put off opportunist poachers.
You still have time for one more quick patrol before the tide is too high, so you set off once more. This time, you see nothing but shooting stars, a brief meteorite shower, more sheet lightning, the plough constellation, the moon slowly turn yellow and set like a cheshire cat grin into the horizon. It is past four a.m. by the time you get back to the Station House. Tired, but satisfied with the evening's work, you head to bed. 102 more lives have been saved and one more turtle has been tagged who will provide PRETOMA with more invaluable information. Your legs ache, there's sand in your hair and your feet are wrinkled and sore, but it is all so worth it.
Tomorrow is a trip to the waterfall, two hours walk south on the beach. Rock pool shower, washing your hair by waterfall as the Squirrel monkeys look on from the canopy above. Pancakes for breakfast. You wonder how you can ever go back to 'normality', knowing that a place like this exists.
I can't forget, which is why I go back, year after year. I love what I do and I hope you will get the chance to venture out and have your own adventures with the turtles, wherever they and you may be. And if you are interested, and looking for an organisation to work with, I cannot recommend PRETOMA more highly. Support, local knowledge, academic support if needed and all for a minimal, non-profit making fee and just the small commitment of your time.
See their website, (http://www.tortugamarina.org) for more details and if you'd like, you can also contact me. I hope to be volunteering some time this season, (2008), at some point between September and December, so maybe I'll see you there?
Thanks for reading!
Here is a brief, (decidedly not brief though - sorry!), of the type of work undertaken by your average turtle volunteer, i.e. me!
This year will hopefully be my third year working with PRETOMA. Below is a link to their website, where you can find out more about the Organisation; what they do and how you can help.
PRETOMA are a non-profit NGO, founded in 1997, who monitor and help conserve both sea turtle and shark populations in Central America.
The Project Site - Punta Banco, Costa Rica (Pacific side)
I work as a Project Volunteer in the tiny, 200 person strong village of Punta Banco. PB is located on the southernmost point of Costa Rica, about 8 hours walk from Panama's border. It is the most laid back, naturally unspoilt and beautiful place I have ever been.
The project at Punta Banco is the longest running Solitary Nesting Olive Ridley Project in the world. This year is our 12th year and as such, we have unprecendented levels of research information and local support which need to be maintained, to help us in our fight to save the turtles from extinction. The turtles we look after are predominantly Olive Ridleys, however we have also had an increasing number of larger Green turtles in recent years.
Turtles are under threat of extinction for a number of reasons, the main two being commercial fishing and poaching of their eggs, usually for their reknowned aphrodisiac qualities, (rubbish!). You may, at time to time, meet poachers on patrol, but they are for the most part co-operative and friendly. You are under no pressure to approach them, but if you feel comfortable, you can stop for a chat and maybe ask if you can work with the turtle. Sometimes the Guarda Costa/ Coastguards join us in monitoring the beach in high season. My first year, they worked with us for three months, but last year they couldn't make it. If they do come, they are armed with AK-47's and the power to arrest, which tends to put people off poaching enormously!
Project participants come from all over the world to take part in our nightly beach patrols. They usually arrange their stay directly through PRETOMA, who organise all accomodation, food and training for your stay. Costs vary between project sites, but every penny benefits the beach projects and also the local communities.
So...what do we do?!
The bulk of our work, (particularly between July and late September), is done at night, as sea turtles usually only come up to nest when they feel protected by the darkness of the night. (This is unlike in an 'arribada', where hundreds of thousands of turtles come up to nest at the same time, either in day or night - See Ostional for Costa Rica's most famed arribada location).
The beach we patrol is approximately 7km long from start to finish, split into two halves, divided by a river into north and south Patrol.
Two groups of volunteers on duty, will be assigned one half of the beach each to continuously monitor, either directly after high tide until the tide is too low, or as the tide comes in, until it becomes too high. As the patrols are tide dependant, times of each shift vary almost every evening. As Costa Rica gets dark around 6, 6:30 in the evening, the earliest patrols can usually start is around 7pm. The sun does not rise again until about 5, 5:30 am, which is therefore the latest that a second shift should finish. Average shifts, being both tide and turtle dependent, can last beween 2 and 6 hours!
Patrols entail walking the beach, armed with a torch and rucksack of equipment. We are looking for one of two things - A track/ nest if the track has been washed away by the incoming tide, or an actual turtle doing her thing! It is soo exciting, walking together expectantly in the dark, encircled by the halo of light produced by your flashlight. And when you find something...
If it's a track, you might be asked to measure it by the patrol leader. One of the best things about PRETOMA is that they are such a hands on organisation. If you stay with us for a while, you might even get the chance to measure and tag a turtle or even cover it's eyes with your hands on the rare occassion we need to tag a turtle on the move!
Finding a Turtle! What happens next...
If we are lucky enough to come across a turtle, the leader first of all approaches the turtle quietly, using a minimum amount of light and always from behind, out of sight. We are assessing what stae the turtle is in, in the egg laying process. Sometimes, if you can see just one track and the turtle is facing the direction of land, you will have found a turtle on her way out of the ocean; looking for a good nesting spot. If this is the case, you will need to quietly monitor the turtle, again with minimum light and always from behind, checking her progress every few minutes. Fingers crossed she will have picked a nice place to come up and will be able to lay us some eggs!
Occassionally, you will come across a turtle digging a nest. There are a few stages to digging the nest. As you are still able to disturb a turtle while they are digging, again, we tend to try and keep our distance, again, minimum prefarably red light only if necessary and quiet observation. The turtle will, if all goes to plan, start to dig herself out a 'bed'. This is where she makes a hole for herself so that she is sunk into the surface of the beach. Doing this helps her to be less conspicuous to predators and also allows her to reach the correct depth when she digs her nest. She will dig this with both front and back flippers, so if she is making a lot of noise, movement and mess, it is likely she is at this stage! If the sand is rocky or full of debris and vegetation, or if the turtle is disturbed for any other reason, she may abort one or more nests. On one of my first ever patrols, we had a turtle who we named 'Esperanza', from the spanish verb 'esperar', meaning 'to hope' and also more tellingly, 'to wait'. We spent two and a half hours watching her dig and subsequently abort 7 separate nests! Quite often, you will spend ages watching a turtle dig, in spots that are completely useless....maybe the sand is too wet or they are in a river bed! Sometimes you wonder how the species even made it this far, which is, I guess, where we come in!
After a bed has been dug, the turtle will then use her back flippers, one after the other, to craft a tunnel with a bowl shaped chamber at the end, about as long as your arm from elbow to tip. If she is still happy, you will see her stop moving once the chamber is ready. Her breathing may slow and she will usually prop herself up on either side of the hole with her back flippers. Looking underneath, you should be able to see a vent located underneath the small tail. This is the 'cloacle' and is where the eggs come out! After a few moments, clear goo should start leaking out, along with the eggs in groups of 1, 2 or 3 eggs usually.
Tagging & Measuring the Turtle
At this stage, the turtle is in her 'laying trance' and you can usually work with her without disturbing her as she lays. Again using red light only, this is the ideal time to tag and to measure her. You can help with this! The measurements taken are of the length and width of the shell or carapace. This helps us to identify trends in growth should the same turtle nest on our beach in subsequent years, (which they do). While measuring, usually the patrol leader or an experienced volunteer will tag the turtle.
The tags we use are made of steel and imprinted with both PRETOMA's contact details and a unique alphanumeric code, which is recorded in our data books. Two tags are applied, in case one should be lost at any point, lower number on the left hand flipper. Sometimes the turtle will flinch, but most times she doesn't notice. We tag a soft part of the flipper, in between the second and third 'fingernails', 'cartialagey' scales with skin in between each one.
The next thing we do is to collect the eggs. You can either do this quickly as they are laid, digging out a channel behind the turtle and retrieving the eggs, counting as you go. If you arrive as the eggs are being laid though, you will often not have time to do this and will need to wait for the turtle to cover up the nest once she has finished. Using markers of palm fronds or sticks you can get a rough idea of the location of the chamber. (They can be pretty hard to locate as turtle's camouflage!) You can also locate a nest using a long, strong, straight stick. Carefully poking the sand, you will feel the stick give when it enters the air pocket left at the top of the egg chamber once it has been covered over. This technique does run the risk of puncturing an egg or two if you are not careful. Afterwards, you dig inot the chamber and using a gloved hand, retrieve the eggs, placing them into a plastic bag and counting as you go.
Data Recording & Species Differenciation when Checking Tracks
After recording the number of eggs in the data book, along with any infertile eggs, (they are irregularly shaped), the depth of the nest, (found using a tape measure and a level stick over the top of the nest), the last thing usually to measure is the track width. This gives us an idea of the size of the turtle which is especially relevant if we didn't see the turtle nesting. Also, the two species of turtle we have, leave different track markings, thus we can distinguish between the species. An Olive Ridley is lighter, so can drag it's weight on each flipper. It therefore leaves asymmetrical track marks. The Green is much heavier, so needs both flippers going, in order to move. As such, the track is symmetrical.
After all this, the track/s is/are marked with vertical lines to show that this data has already been recorded, and on the group goes!
Tagging a Turtle Returning to the Water
Sometimes, we may come across a turtle going back into the water. If there is enough time, we can try to tag her before she has gone, as every tag will help us to track the turtles thus giving us a better idea of how to conserve them. They don't like this and will put up a fight usually! The way it works is, one person will get in front of the turtle and, cupping their hands, place them over the turtle's eyes. Once this is done, the turtle will normally be subdued and will stop moving so much. Afterwards, the person tagging will straddle the turtle, sitting on the shell to hold it down. This doesn't hurt them, although is uncomfortable for them obviously. If they can, they will also measure the turtle while they sit on her. Finally, they will tag both front flippers, remembering to note the tag numbers. The turtle is then released with everyone standing well back to give her room to recover before she re-renters the water. We don't like to do it this way, unless we absolutely have to, but it is vital we tag as many turtles as we can for our findings to prove optimally useful.
End of Patrol
Patrol continues, weather regardless (!). We will occasionally have it times so that the two teams meet in a sector on the North side called Aeropuerto. Breaks are had at each end of the beach, lasting between 5 and 15 minutes. During this time, we usually stargaze, looking out for the amazing shooting star displays we get all year round here!
Finally, after between one and three walks of either patrol on average, it is time to go home; the tide is either too high and means there is no beach for turtles to nest on, or the tide is too low, meaning turtles cannot travel as far up the beach as they need to in order to lay.
The Hatchery or 'Vivero'!
Any eggs collected, are taken to the hatchery and assigned a grid code designating which square of the hatchery, or vivero, they are to be buried in. This gets recorded in the data books, along with the number of eggs and the sector of beach they were laid on. (When the babies eventually hatch, they will be released in the same sector of the beach as when mature, they will eventually themselves lay in near enough the same spot!). A replica egg chamber is dug and the eggs carefully placed into the hole and recounted. The goo goes in too, as it has antifungicidals in it which help prevent the eggs from rotting! At the start of the season, temperature recording 'buttons' will be placed in the centre of some select nests in order to monitor internal nest temperatures throughout various parts of the hatchery. This information is important because a baby turtles sex is determined in the nest according to a very slight temperature variation! Finally, the nest is covered over in a similar manner to the way that the turtles cover their nests; using the sides of their shells to bang down the loose sand, without crushing the eggs. The new nest site is concealed, and dummies made in order to prevent any opportune poaching from the hatchery.
Finally, it's hometime. Stats are recorded on the board so people can see what was found on shift the previous night and also maybe where it was found. The bags are also preferably cleaned out at night and laid out to dry if they had gotten wet during patrol. All equipment gets checked to make sure that everything that is needed is there.
Bedtime and maybe an hour or two later, time for the second patrol teams to venture out!
A.M. Patrols - 'Recurridos'
Very ocassionally, the tides will mean that only one shift is necessary during the night. In this case, a 'recurrido' may take place, where usually one person does an early morning, around 5am, solo patrol checking both the north and south sides of the beach once each. As it is daylight, this patrol is unlikely to bag you any turtles, but could find you a nest or some tracks to take data from.
During your time with PRETOMA, you will never be expected to walk alone. You will always be with at least one other person who is experienced in both the role and the beaches of Punta Banco, as well as knowledgeable about the tides. Sometimes, you will get to work with the local Punta Banconian, employed every year by PRETOMA in order to help gain support in the local community, as well as an income for someone. The past few years, our local help has been in the form of Jose, who is now my Costa Rican 'brother' and much loved friend. Other locals like to get involved and will often volunteer to walk with you...Christian, Maikol, Esteban, Chey...sometimes we have tourists who want to walk with us aswell. All par for the course!
Your days are free to do with as you please. You are of course also entitled to nights off - Just ask as most of the time, the patrols and the teams can be flexible! Towards the latter part of the season, you will find that you have to work when hatchlings need releasing or nexts need exhuming, (more later). These can be the most fulfilling and interesting parts of the role. Just remember though - If you want to work with the babies, don't even consider coming to Punta Banco until mid to late September onwards, to give the nests time to mature and the babies to grow!
As it gets to within a week or so of each nest's hatch 'due date', (usually between 65 and 70 days after eggs were laid), a metal cage, sunk into the sand, is placed in the nest grid square. When the babies hatch, they are trapped temporarily within the cage. We are then able to count them and measure the length of a sample of ten babies per nest, and record this data. The babies are placed in a bucket and previous records checked to see where their nest was originally laid. The babies are then taken back to that sector and released into the sea! We try to give them a run up, as no-one really knows still how they find their way back to their originally birth beach, when they too become sexually mature. There is a theory that they imprint landmarks , or have a memory of the magnetic resonance of that particular place, so we give them a chance to get whatever info it is they need, before they have to battle the waves! The time, number released and the sector they were released in, all get recorded. Sometimes, we will need to release them in a different, nearby sector to spread groups out, making itharder for predators to predict where the next meal will be had. Also, there are times when the logistics of getting hatchlings to the far end of a patrol mean they are released closer to home, although these are rare.
Approximately three days, (or less if lots of eggs do not appear to have hatched), after a nest has hatched, it will be dug up or 'exhumed'. We then look to reconcile the number of hatchlings with the egg shell fragments remaining, to see what percentage hatching success rate each nest has. We redord the date, time and name of person doing the exhumation. We then dig out the nest completely and work about separating the remains into categories: Empty shells, infertile eggs that didn't develop, 'pipped eggs' (predated by animals or insects), and then three stages of development for the baby turtle - Stage 1: Embyonic. Stage 2: Miniature almost perfectly formed baby. Stage 3: Fully formed dead baby turtle. There may also be both live and dead, fully developed turtles, who escaped the shell but not the nest itself in time. All this data gets recorded, the remains of the nest buried in a deep hole dug in the beach above tideline. (Preferably far away from the hatchery to prevent predatirs from developing a taste for the eggs - mainly the dogs in town).
Accomodation & Meals
These can be arranged via PRETOMA, (better), or independently. Most people choose to stay in the Station House as is the cheapest option. You might be asked to share a room, usually with someone of the same sex, if there are lots of volunteers. There are two communal toilets and a shower room, with a large, open air communal area. At the back of the Station House, is a beautiful natural rock pool, with a waterfall trail. Rocks from the river bed can be ground to make a face mask!
Other options for accomodation include homestays around the village with various, lovely families. Good for your spanish! Also you can stay at Tiskita Jungle Lodge, just down the road. Pricey, but what do you expect for a luxury jungle resort?!!
Food here is fabulous! Breakfast at 9, Lunch at 1 and Dinner around 6, with a varied menu arranged between the Co-Ordinators of the Project and our Cook, Dona Juana, (who also rents us the Station House!). Staples include good old rice and beans, fresh fruit, pancakes, sandwiches, fried eggs, empanadas, (like fried corn pasties with beans or cheese as a filling), soup, salad with every meal, fried meat, chips, tortillas, nachos, spaghetti and even fish sometimes, (locally caught, of course!). There is a good choice of food for vegetarians and vegans should be ok too. If all else fails, there is a vegetarian cafe in Pavones, about an hour and a bit's walk away!
And voila....that's it. This was a work related Journal. I will also, at some point, write a description of what it is actually like on patrol. (Shorter and sweeter, I promise!). Needless to say, it is the most amazing, awe inspiring, satisfying job I have ever done. If you are interested or have questions, please get in touch!