We had a wonderful chance, while in Monterrico, Guatemala, to watch turtles nesting and laying their eggs, part of a cycle that also included the turtle hatching we reported in our last blog. The Parque Hawaii turtle conservation site, above, was our host for both. LINK
The turtles have a natural habitat on a section of beach near Monterrico, Guatemala. On that 8-km section of beach, they come ashore to lay their eggs between August and November. This happens at night, when they have the greatest chance of avoiding predators: The birds are asleep; crabs are resting; there is no light to show where the eggs are being laid and buried.
Turtles in the dark on the beach...
The female turtle crawls out of the waves and makes her way up to the vegetation point. She then digs a hole in the sand with her flippers, creating a uniform circular structure that will allow for air flow and oxygen for the eggs and more importantly for the hatching baby turtles. She then will lay between 60-90 eggs in a few minutes, often with “tears” running down her face during this time.
As soon as the eggs have been laid, she covers them with sand, compacts the sand slightly with her body weight and flippers, and then crawls back to the ocean. Of course, the chance the eggs will make it to maturity, hatch and allow the babies to make it back to the ocean are exceedingly slim. Enter various volunteers and services to aid in conservation.
We were informed that as a new moon, with a high tide and thunder storms, the conditions would be perfect for turtle nesting that night between 8-10 pm if we wanted to join them. Who in their right mind wouldn’t! Thus, we found ourselves walking along the darkened beach, looking for tell-tale tracks that showed where a turtle had come ashore to lay her eggs.
We were lucky enough to see two such layings. But, as part of the conservation effort at the Parque Hawaii conservation site, as soon as she has made her nests, you have to dig the sand away, and take the eggs out to move to the hatchery to protect them during the 45 day incubation period.
And, thus the “drama” unfolds. Guatemala is one of the few countries that still allows commercial sale of turtle eggs. Locals will sell the eggs to people who swallow them raw, believing they are an aphrodisiac!
Because of this belief, thousands of eggs are destroyed. But, Parque Hawaii, and several other such programs, work to save them by exchanging food vouchers for the eggs and enlisting local children as volunteers in finding the eggs.
ALL of the local villagers are out scouring the beach for the turtle nesting. They are there to get the eggs for local rituals and aphrodisiac purposes, while the volunteers and conservationists are out trying to capture the eggs for research and release purposes.
The villagers are seemingly more familiar with the territory and are quite well coordinated, using flash lights to quickly scour the beach, before turning them off so as not to confuse or startle the female into thinking it was daylight and returning to the sea. They also drive motorcycles up and down the beach, covering quite an expanse quickly.
Meanwhile, the conservationists and volunteers are trudging along in small groups looking for the turtles. Ultimately, when a turtle is found nesting, both groups converge and a delicate balancing negotiation starts. Our guide asked if they would be willing to donate the eggs (i.e., exchange them for food vouchers) instead of using them for sale in the local community. With the first nest, she was successful in getting all 94 eggs exchanged for a voucher, while in the second one we observed, she only got 20 of the eggs. But, better 20 than none!
By the end of the evening (about 10:30 pm), she had 184 eggs – which are about the size of a golf ball or ping-pong ball, and were surprisingly heavy. At one point after the second turtle egg transaction, I offered to carry the eggs back and wait for her at the hatchery. However, it was probably 15-18 pounds worth of eggs I was now carrying. I am certain that I made for a most unique sight: a Zimbabwean tourist walking alone of the beach at 10:00 o’clock at night carrying 180 turtle eggs!
Even though several local men approached me and were most inquisitive about what I was doing, I truly do not speak Spanish and so had no idea what they were saying or asking. I was going to protect those eggs no matter what.
What it's all about...the eggs will eventually produce these babies...
After the tide began to recede and all of the nesting turtles were done for the night, we were going to walk back and re-create the nest in the hatchery. Up to 94 eggs can be placed in a single nest (one of the experiments being conducted), and these were buried, the coordinate numbers carefully documented to make sure they were going to be appropriately monitored during their incubation period.
Needless to say, this was an experience of a life time for both of us. Earlier being able to hold squirming baby turtles; next being able to release them, and watch them successfully get to the ocean; and now watching a female nest and lay her eggs; being part of the negotiation for the egg exchange; and then finally helping to recreate the nest in a more controlled and protected environment. It was a truly unique and unbelievably moving experience. If you ever have the change to be in Monterrico in the nesting and hatching season, this will be the highlight of your trip.