A typical day

NOVEMBER 25, 2008

Impressive. I actually got 5 hours of mostly solid sleep last night. I probably could have gotten more if I hadn't have had to get up for hatchery duty at 5am. Alan hasn't been signing up for any evening hatchery duties and it's pretty irritating to everyone. Especially when most of us are having to set our alarms at odd hours of the night/early morning to get up and do it, or drink pot after pot of coffee just to stay awake. Not to mention that if we find hatchlings, we have to walk them down the beach no mater the circumstances.

This would be a nice time to walk you through a typical day. You knew it was coming, eventually.

The first and most consistent thing we do is hatchery duty. Hatchery duty is divided into two chunks of time: from 10am-9pm is when the two people on kitchen duty divide up the times to check the hatchery every hour. From 10pm-9am everyone else not on kitchen duty is to split up the evening based on when they are scheduled to do patrol or need sleep. I am usually up early, regardless of patrol times and generally check it then. This morning I checked it at 5, 6, and 7am.

Skip to 10am. This is when the two people assigned to kitchen duty (two new people everyday, and everyone has kitchen duty at least twice per week) make everyone breakfast. Generally it's pancakes and cooked plantains, cornflakes and powdered milk, or oatmeal. One of the kitchen people has the night off--no patrols and no hatchery duty. Thing is, if dinner is at 1am, they must be up to make dinner and have it ready by the time the first patrol gets off and before the second patrol leaves. The second person on kitchen duty has to always do one patrol at night v. two, and has hatchery duty. The only other person person that gets the evening off from doing hatchery duty is the person that is doing double patrols. Back to kitchen duty. They also must do dishes for all meals. During the day, the rest of us laze around, trying to catch up on sleep, read, walk to town, body surf, do laundry, etc.

Generally after lunch, or before the sun goes down, we do exhumations of hatched nests from the hatchery. If you were to look on the board, you would see what nests need to be done that day. Exhumations are always done 2-3 days after the first hatchlings appear from the nest (incubation is 45-60 days). We wait 2-3 days because it takes some hatchlings longer to make their way to the surface. We also sometimes still find live babies as we exhume.

We dig a cylinder hole straight down about a foot and half, or until all the bad sand is pulled out and placed into a bucket. The contents we are pulling out lots of times has maggots, dead babies, unhatched eggs, and hatched shells. These contents are placed into a separate bucket for analyzation. Once all contents are cleared, we trudge to the beach and dump the one bucket with old sand into the tide. The bucket must be rinsed with ocean water to "sanitize" any leftover parasites. Then sand is collected back into the bucket just up from the surf where the sand is damp. It may take us several trips/buckets to fill the hole in the hatchery. The sand is heavy and after 4-5 trips lugging wet sand, you're pretty exhausted.

After the nest has been filled back in, we dig a hole on the beach to sort the contents of the other bucket filled with hatched and unhatched eggs. Eggs are laid out in a grid on the beach--healthy hatched eggs in one spot, pipped in another, and unhatched eggs in another. Pipped eggs have small holes in them and are filled with maggots or have black turtle remnants that have been decomposed by maggots. Unhatched eggs are opened and examined. These are divided into four sections: yolk (runny); solid, yellow contents; blood or blood vessels or some baby sea turtle formation; unhatched baby turtle. We also note live and dead turtles found, and dead turtles found outside the nest. All is counted and recorded.

Hatchlings. Hatchlings are counted as they come up and are recorded. The hatchery is gridded-out and the grid at which their nest lies tells us where their nest was originally lain on the beach. This is documented when we first relocated the nest 45-60 days prior. If there are a lot of hatchlings, they must be taken to their sector. Only a few can be released closer to camp. Counting the babies allows us to compare them to the original egg count when we first relocated the nest. This tells us what number to look for during exhumations.

Patrols. Patrols are based on high tides (patrol 1) and low tides (patrol 2), and this is based on the cycle of the moon. We have a little cheat sheet to help us establish times, but it is for Nicaragua and a little bit off. On rare occasions, there are 3 patrols at night based on the tides, but typically we do two per night. Last week there was two nights with 3 patrols and I did one of those patrols. This week there are two nights with 3 patrols and I do another. There are only 6 people available for patrols each night and this is why there are doubles and sometimes triples, for there are only 7 of us total.

Patrols consist of walking the beach with no light, looking for dark tracks in the sand called "rastros," following them to the area of a nest and using our technique to find it, and then excavating. We measure the width of the rastro, document the sector, the direction of the tide (coming in or going out), date, time, and initial. If the female is present, we tag and document the tag number. This is done while the female is laying her eggs since she goes into a state of euphoria. We also measure the length and width of her carapace, documenting any injuries, scars, malformations, distinguishing characteristics, etc. There are times where we have to wait awhile, while the female digs her nest. Leatherbacks--the largest, most rare, and endangered--have not been seen yet. They can take up to an hour and half to lay their eggs. If we reach a site where a turtle is burying her nest we must wait until she descends towards the ocean to restrain and tag her. This is much more stressful and causes her recognized pain. When she is laying, we gently dig behind her cloaca and remove the eggs into a ready plastic bag. It is very important that we also collect the uteri mucus that comes out with the eggs, for it contains a natural anti-bacterial that protects the developing hatchlings.

We may carry up to 5 nests on our backs at a time, each with an average of 50-100 eggs. No more than this can be carried per pack because the weight of the nest will crush the ones on the bottom of the pack. After 3 hours we return to camp and bury the eggs into empty plots at our onsite hatchery.

Hatchery. After arriving back from patrol, we look at the board to find an empty plot on the grid. Grids are A-H and sometimes Z vertically, and 0-38 (and sometimes 39) horizontally. While we were on the beach, we measure the depth of the nest that the female has dug for her nest. This number is used to dig the cylindrical hole in the hatchery at the same depth as the nest measured on the beach. Our job is to mimic natures standards as much as possible. This is also why we release hatchlings in the exact location that the nest was originally buried. It is speculated that hatchlings and mothers use some kind of magnetic imprinting to return to the very beach where they first hatched. It is also thought that sand temperature effects the sex of hatchlings. Lighter sands maintain higher temperatures, which decreases incubation time and results in more female hatchlings.

Playa Caletas is one of two especially important nesting beaches in the Nicoya Peninsula. Currently PRETOMA is trying to establish a federally protected site where we live called, the Playa Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge. It is the most important nesting location on the Eastern Pacific since it is one of the only undeveloped stretches of beach left. Even though poaching is illegal, it hasn't stopped local Ticos from carrying out a tradition of poaching turtle eggs for consumption (a.k.a. a folklore aphrodisiac). Our very existence gives us an opportunity to educate the local population on the importance of not poaching endangered sea turtle eggs and preserving the beach integrity in hopes of sustaining a prehistoric marine population essential to its surrounding ecosystems.

Poaching is not the only physical threat to the sea turtle population here, as shrimp trawling remains extremely detrimental. Since we live on a protected Wildlife Refuge, shrimp trawling is illegal certain distances from the beach. Shrimp trawlers here are to use specialized nest that allow sea turtles, sharks, and other large marine life to escape as to not be tangled and drowned in the nets of the commercial fisheries, but they clearly do not and our PRETOMA fishery inspector, Eric is the ones who tries to keep this in check.

Other tasks here include burning of trash (paper and non-recyclable plastics), checking rain gauge, cleaning common area, raking and vegetation maintenance, and keeping up on data notebook templates. These tasks are assigned weekly; while hatchery duty, patrols, and kitchen duty rotations change each day.

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