Last week, three members of the WSORC team headed to the North side of Utila to take part in the turtle monitoring program here on Utila Island. Hannah, Joe and I (Chris) all donned long comfortable clothing and packed our bags with cameras and snacks in preparation of a long night of beach patrolling.
Although sea turtles are aquatic animals who spend the great majority of their life at sea, they must return to land to nest. Many sea turtles tend to migrate back to the beaches that they were born on, termed natal philopatry. After mating with a male offshore, the females will pull themselves onto a beach to find an appropriate nesting site. The females then dig a hole (sometimes up to four feet deep!) and enter an egg-laying trance until all their eggs have been laid.
Utila is home to a nesting beach of one of the more endangered and elusive sea turtles, the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). The nesting beach is monitored and protected by several organizations working together: Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), ProTECTOR, and (most recently) Sea Shepherd. Hawksbill sea turtles are classified as Critically Endangered under the IUCN Redlist of threatened species, with an estimated population of only 80000 breeding females left in the world – so protection of any nesting beach is critical to the conservation of this species.
The evening began with a short briefing at BICA around 7:00 PM, and a very bumpy ATV ride to the beach. We joined a full-time beach patroller and another volunteer: Chel (from BICA) and Rodney (from ProTECTOR) respectively. The dedication by Chel is tremendous – in addition to working during the day at a local beach restaurant, Chel patrols the beaches every night, and is responsible for data collection and turtle tagging.
When we arrived, we set-up in the middle of the beach with sleeping bags and beach mats. The beach is patrolled every hour, and at nine o’clock we set off on our first patrol with Chel and I heading one way, Joe and Rod heading the other, and Hannah minding our camp. To our surprise (and delight!) both groups immediately found Hawksbills on the beach.
Beach patrollers typically find turtles and their nests by distinct turtle tracks. These tracks are silently followed up the beach, with the patroller being very careful not to startle the female sea turtle.
The turtle Chel found was digging her nest, and we kept back until she had finished. Although sea turtles are completely zoned out and don’t stop laying eggs once they’ve started, they will abandon a nest they are currently digging if disturbed before they begin laying. As soon she began laying, Hannah and I headed up to count eggs, while Chel took tag information and morphometrics of the female. The entire laying process took 15 minutes, with 112 eggs being laid. The female then covered her nest, and moved surprisingly quickly back down the beach and back into the water.
The turtle Rod and Joe had found was having a tough time finding an appropriate spot for her nest – she ended up heading back into the water after about two hours of searching and digging. She returned later that evening, but yet again could not find an appropriate place for her nest, and left without laying any eggs. Females can spend up to four nights repeating this process of climbing the beach, searching for a nest, and returning to the water until they find an appropriate place for their nest.
Each patrol would take about 15 minutes (if there was no turtle found!) and so for the rest of the night, we slept and took pictures in between patrols. We were lucky enough to bear witness to a gorgeous night, and I got some great pictures of the night sky. All in all, we had a great evening, witnessing a critically endangered sea turtle lay eggs, star gazing under a clear sky with little light pollution, and snoozing to the sound of waves crashing along the beach.
Thanks to BICA and Sea Shepherd for continuing the beach patrol, and allowing WSORC to engage in your patrol program!