TORTUGUERO, Limón — The first rule of turtle watching is “Wait, wait, wait.” The second is “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
We boarded a boat at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Laguna Lodge with our guide, Gerardo Alexis Torres, and as soon as we started to rev up, the captain threw on the brakes.
Out of total darkness, another boat blasted into our path at top speed, a dangerously short distance from our bow.
Torres uttered an obscenity and said, “What was that, mae?” The captain mumbled something I didn’t catch. But if he hadn’t spotted the oncoming boat, he probably would have revved our boat into its path, where it would have crashed into our port side at ramming speed. Torres said they should call the police and report the guy.
Calling the police, oddly enough, would turn out to be a repeat theme on a most unusual turtle tour on a muggy night in August.
We disembarked somewhere on the other side of Tortuguero village and walked to a waiting area above the beach. Here we were told to keep our flashlights off and keep our voices down so as not to disturb the turtles.
There were two or three dozen other people already in this waiting area, and Torres tried but failed to get other groups to obey his flashlight rule.
Torres explained that turtle spotters on the beach locate the green turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. The turtles have to be left alone while they dig a hole, because if a bunch of tourists crowd around to spectate, the turtles will abort the mission and return to the sea.
But once the turtle starts laying, she goes into a trancelike state and is not disturbed by spectators, so long as they are quiet and not flashing lights. Only one red light is allowed, for the guide, and he can shine it only on the rear of the turtle, not on the face.
Above all, we could not take pictures, or we could be fined and Torres’ license suspended.
And so (the first rule of turtle watching) we waited … and waited … and waited. I had read that turtle watching is not for everyone, as it usually involves a lot of waiting in the dark at night, sometimes for hours, and there’s no guarantee of seeing a turtle.
But finally the time came for our group to move to the on-deck circle … and soon it was time for us to actually start creeping onto the beach, and then …
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” a guide practically shouted. “The turtle is at the waterline!”
I felt like a character on a reality show where the contestants are tormented by being asked to wait for a long time in a dark place and then told to run away from the dark place in the dark.
We ran along a trail strewn with beach debris, finding our way by the glow of a cloud-smothered moon and an occasional flashlight shined our way by the guides.
When we reached the beach, there was our quarry: a big green turtle, close to a meter long, beating a retreat to the ocean by sliding her bulky body along the sand with her big flippers. Something had spooked her (couldn’t be us?) and she decided to lay her eggs somewhere else.
We all ran down to the waterline and crowded around the escaping hulk. The guides asked the people in front to get down so the people in back could see.
I was in front, so I crouched down, while people standing up pressed in behind me.
Predictably, the next thing that happened was a big wave rolled in. I let it wash over my flip-flops and up to my knees, but the people behind me gasped and shrieked and staggered backward. Nathan’s mom, Rhona, took a blow to the chest from a tall man in front of her who suddenly backed up, nearly knocking her down.
The drunk tourist
Now that we had seen a turtle, I thought perhaps we could go home. But Torres had a much more ambitious agenda. He said that was the last turtle in this area, so we’d have to go somewhere else. We set out on a long, fast march to the next area, hurrying lest we miss the next turtle, with only Torres’ flashlight to light the way for our long column.
It was quite a hike, bringing us right into Tortuguero village, where I did a face plant, stumbling on something in the dark. Speed-hiking in the dark is not necessarily the safest activity late at night for people who got up at 4:30.
We came to another beach and were again told to wait while Torres went off to confer with the spotters.
He came back and said, “There’s a turtle there, and there’s a drunk tourist who’s practically on top of him. We’re calling the police.”
We waited some more while Torres walked off again. When he came back, talking about routine turtle stuff, we asked about the drunk tourist. He pointed behind us.
“He’s sitting right over there, and the police are coming.”
We looked back and saw a man sitting at the edge of the beach, looking at us. He was holding a large, clear bottle of what might have been guaro.
The man said he had a right to be here because he paid for a turtle tour last night, Torres said. The turtle guides told him that gave him no right to be here tonight, unaccompanied, disturbing a nesting turtle.
“I have 20 witnesses that he was almost right on top of that turtle,” Torres said.
Before long we saw the police strolling up the beach, three of them, one of them swinging a baton. Counting the spotters and Torres, five men went to confront the invader, though the leader told the rest to hang back a certain distance.
A few minutes later, invited to leave, the man left, striding to the gate at the edge of the beach with his head high and his bottle in hand. He may have been drunk, but he didn’t stagger. The posse of five watched until he was out of sight.
The secret sex life of sea turtles
Tour guide Diego Castaing, 54, gave us the lowdown on green turtles earlier Sunday during a tour of Laguna Lodge.
“We have 35 kilometers of protected beach and 58,000 hectares of protected ocean right in front of it,” he said. “That makes this place the second safest place for turtles in the world after Australia.”
Female green turtles come ashore here practically every night from June to early November to lay their eggs, he said. Weirdly, most of these turtles are returning to the very place where they hatched — an outstanding evolutionary strategy, as this hatching beach is a proven success.
“When they hatch they can recognize very well the ocean map,” Castaing said. “That’s one of the ways they figure out how to get back.”
Cameras placed on the narrow strip of land within Tortuguero National Park on the slim, long island between the Tortuguero canal and the Caribbean Sea have determined that 29 jaguars come here for easy prey, Castaing said.
“And these are not all the jaguars we have,” he said. “These are the smart ones that learn about turtles. … It’s a very easy meal, they just lie down on a log and wait for the food to show up.”
Jaguars have some of the strongest jaws of all felines, and they attack the hapless turtles by sinking their jaws into the backs of their heads. The jaguars are very efficient killers, Castaing said, and the turtles do not suffer. And in case you’re wondering, the green turtle does not have a retractable head.
Most mother turtles survive their visit to land to lay eggs, of course, but the odds against their hatchlings are considerably worse.
“Maybe 1 in 100 will survive,” Castaing said. “There are a lot of predators waiting for them right there in the ocean. Sharks, barracudas, they’re waiting for them. But there are many. Thousands and thousands of turtles.”
The temperature of the beach determines the sex of the turtles, Castaing explained: At 29 Celsius (84 Fahrenheit), the turtles are born equally male and female. If the beach is warmer than 29, the turtles are born females; if cooler than 29, males. Tortuguero is warmer than 29, so it’s a breeding ground for females, which in turn makes a venue for repeat visits because females return to the place where they hatched.
Females take an astonishing 35 years to reach sexual maturity, then are receptive to amorous males for 10 years, and then they retire. Yet they live for 80 to 100 years.
Another green turtle oddity: When they hatch, they are carnivorous, but when they grow up, they become herbivores.
“The females come for 10 years, but they don’t come every year,” Castaing said. “They have the capability to save the sperm, the special sauce, so they can fertilize themselves.”
The circle of life
Torres came back from his next huddle with the spotters and said, “That drunk guy went over there and came down to the beach again. The police took him away.”
We laughed. Must be a real turtle lover!
(I clarified with Torres later that this man was a tourist, not a local. “Oh, no, if he had been a local, I would have grabbed him like this,” he said, miming a headlock.)
Torres said the turtle was almost finished digging its hole, but soon it would get into position for laying and it would be go time. There was actually a countdown: 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes …
Go time! The turtle was in position. Torres said when he flashed his red light at us, we should come forward and go to the two places he indicated, three on the turtle’s left and three on her right, and beyond that, we could stack up behind.
But we wouldn’t have long, as this was the only turtle in the area, so all the groups here tonight would want to take turns having a look.
Red light flashing! We hurried to the edge of the pit the turtle had dug and crowded around to look. All we could see of the behemoth was her rear, but as we kept our eyes trained on Torres’ steady red light, we saw large, white eggs oozing out of her and dropping into the soft sand below.
Someone remarked later that they looked like large, white, soft-boiled eggs with the shells removed.
To my surprise Torres actually had his hands on the turtle and was holding one of its flippers out of the way, like a turtle midwife. He later explained that in the trancelike state that laying turtles get into, they don’t care if you touch them.
We cleared out for the next group and got back in line for our second turn. The turtle was still laying. This time those who had been in back before got to get in front. The eggs were still oozing out of her, but now instead of dropping into sand they were dropping onto a gleaming white (and yellow) bed of eggs that preceded them.
Again we cleared out for the next group, and got right back in line for the finale.
“OK, this will be the last time we get to see the turtle,” Torres said. (I was immensely relieved to hear this, as I was completely exhausted.)
Torres explained that the mother turtle was about to finish laying her eggs, and then she would begin covering them up. He said this was something really special to see.
We took our third turn, witnessing the last two or three eggs drop.
And suddenly the flippers went into motion! Working blind with two appendages, the turtle expertly buried her eggs. One swipe with the right, one swipe with the left, and repeat. The eggs disappeared from sight in less than a minute.
“And she will go on doing this for 15 minutes,” Torres said. “Ready to go?”
The finale was frankly amazing. Any chicken can lay an egg, but to watch a big, green hulk of a turtle lay 4 or 5 dozen eggs and then deliberately bury them was to watch intelligence at work in a giant reptile.
In 60 days, if a raccoon doesn’t get to them first, these eggs will hatch and newborn turtles will crawl out of them, using the same flippers they will someday use to cover up their eggs if they survive, and they will scramble for the sea. And so the circle of life starts all over.
“The birth is beautiful — it’s like when you boil water, you see the first bubble, and then you see many bubbles, it’s exactly like this,” Castaing said. “That’s how they’re born, and they swim immediately for the sea.”
For more info: http://www.lagunatortuguero.com