Sunday, June 12, 2016

Turtle Campout

My weekend began at noon on Friday, when I got permission to take the afternoon off from school. Some of last year's Peace Corps Volunteers were heading to a resort in Rosalie on the southeastern side of the island for a turtle watch. There is a delightful former Peace Corps Volunteer who works there and she invited us to come spend the night. I had never been to this particular area of Dominica, and knew very little about what I was getting into, but I decided to be flexible and spontaneous—and it was worth it!
I hurried home from school when the lunch bell rang, changed into shorts and t-shirt, threw some stuff in a backpack as well as some food and drink in a small soft-sided cooler, and headed to the bus stop. After waiting more than an hour, a bus finally came through which took me to Portsmouth, where I was eventually able to catch another bus headed to Roseau.

As my bus arrived in the capital city, I just happened to be by a window on the right side of the bus, and saw a couple of my Peace Corps counterparts. I yelled at them through the open window so they would wait for me. I wasn't exactly sure how to get from Roseau to Rosalie, so it was fortuitous that I just happened to catch them. Soon, another couple of volunteers joined us, and the five of us boarded a bus together for Rosalie, near where the sixth volunteer lives and works.

Upon arriving at 5:00 PM, we were able to catch the presentation at Rosalie Bay Resort by Simon George of the Nature Enhancement Team (NET Rosalie). Simon is an expert on sea turtles, and carefully explained their story to a crowd of about twenty resort guests and other visitors. It took place in a large gridded area up from the beach. Simon and his team patrol the Rosalie Bay beach, looking for sea turtles who come onto the beach to lay their eggs before returning to the sea. Whenever turtles dig a hole and lay eggs, Simon digs up the eggs and carefully transfers them to a grid square.
We watched as he carefully dug up the remnants of the nest that had hatched the night before, as shown below (his arm is extended all the way underground). Every egg shell was examined and data was recorded, including the number of stillborn turtles. There were even a few “late bloomers” who had not crawled up out of the sand yet. Simon gathered them up in a bucket and took them to the backside of the beach, where the grass stops and the sand starts.
It would be easy for a visitor seeing a turtle hatchling to want to pick them up and carry them into the ocean, rather than watch them struggle through the arduous journey across the sand. However, that journey is important for the young turtle to strengthen their flipper muscles prior to swimming. It may also be important for them to get their “magnetic bearings” because turtles return to the site of their birth to lay their eggs.
It is amazing to watch these little three inch turtles slowly work their way across the footprints and occasional bits of seaweed. Eventually, the upper edge of a white-foamed wave will engulf them, and draw them into the ocean. They will live the rest of their lives in the water, but only about one in a thousand will survive to return and lay eggs. Such is the cycle of life, and why it is so important to protect sea turtles. [Speaking of cycles, check out the tracks below.]
After the presentation ended and the guests left this area of the beach (see another picture below, which shows the former Peace Corps Volunteer who helps Simon), we started getting set up for the night. We stowed our gear in a small hut, and gathered driftwood for a campfire. Soon it was dark, and we were enjoying the conversations around the campfire, with intermittent walks down the beach to look for turtles that might have crawled up on land. Supposedly it takes a couple of hours for them to drag themselves up above the high tide line, choose a spot, dig a hole, lay the eggs, and cover them up, so we didn't need to immediately catch them just as they crawled onto the shore—we just needed at some point during their time ashore to see them (or the unusual tracks they make while dragging themselves through the sand).
As it turned out, no adult turtles arrived on Friday night to lay eggs (it is getting a bit late in the season). However, we were able to see one of the grid sections hatch in the middle of the night. Simon places a fence around the grid section where they are due to hatch, so that they can capture the hatchlings and check them out before releasing them the next day. We could only look at them with red light, so without a flash there was no way to take pictures of this unique event.
One of the best parts about this adventure was the camaraderie with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (shown above in the morning light). The six of us laughed and shared stories most of the night. The best part was that I had the ocean waves rolling onto the beach to my left, the glowing embers of a small campfire on my right, the distinctive silhouette of palm trees against the night sky further to the right, and a “ceiling” full of stars above my head. We saw high altitude jets, several satellites, and some “shooting stars” as we gazed up at the constellations and the Milky Way. I particularly enjoyed contemplating our place in the immense universe, while lying on my back on nothing but a plywood board. I realized that I was enjoying life on a small, isolated island, on the surface of a planet that is itself a small, isolated island amidst the vastness of space.

We had been encouraged to bring a sheet to sleep on, but I ended up using that old piece of plywood as my bed for the night (thus I didn't need to get the black sand out of my sheet when I got home). I also brought a lightweight pair of long pants to wear overnight, and a long sleeve shirt in an effort to guard against mosquitoes (which proved not to be a problem, probably because of the seabreeze blowing in from the beach). It wasn't the best night of sleeping, but I'm so glad I did it.

We enjoyed watching the sun rise over the ocean the next morning, as shown above. Before we left, Simon joined us with some of the previous night's hatchlings. These were leatherback turtles, who grow as large as six feet long and weigh upwards of a thousand pounds. They end up swimming the oceans as far away as Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
Simon let each of have one of the hatchlings to set upon the edge of the beach, and follow our particular turtle on its lengthy (especially if you are only three inches long, as estimated above) and difficult journey. I enjoyed seeing my little turtle finally disappear in the surf, as shown below. I can only hope he or she leads a long and healthy life. If it is a female turtle who survives into adulthood, she will someday drag her huge body back onto Rosalie Bay beach to lay eggs where she was born.
Maybe on that night some future Peace Corps Volunteer will be helping out at this beautiful location, and will get to see my turtle return. That would be nice!
We roasted marshmallows at night, but as a joke in the morning I brought out some “S'more” flavored generic Pop-Tarts and heated them up in their foil envelope over the still-warm remnants of our campfire.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful time you all had together with the turtles! Great memories being made.