FIRST NIGHT ON THE SEA TURTLE FRONTLINE.
Hugh Paxton’s Blog is lying in a restless, one might say vicious, hammock on the Pacific coast of Guatemala waiting for nesting sea turtles to leave the crashing surf. There’s a volcano erupting inland. Raindrops as big as pennies are rattling off the palm-frond roof of our shelter. Lightning is tearing the night sky apart.
“Is it usually like this?” I yell across to Colum Muccio.
Muccio should know. He has been working with ARCAS, a Guatemalan conservation organisation for years. Many years!
“Usually like what?” he yells back.
“Like apocalypse! And why is this b****dy hammock trying to throw me on my b****dy head?”
Muccio’s answer is drowned out by a thunderclap.
My eagerness to conduct a nocturnal beach patrol dwindles. This is real tropical rain. Drenches you in seconds. Floods roads. Washes away defoliated mountain slopes. Drowns sea turtle beach patrols.
Then, abruptly, someone turns off the tap. The silence is deafening – for about 30 seconds. Then, as if a conductor has twitched a baton, there is a concerted explosion of insect orchestrals from the mangroves behind us.
The actual location of Hawaii (that’s Hawaii, Guatemala, as opposed to that other place in the Pacific) is as striking as as its storms and shrieking insects. The turtle beaches are black volcanic sand cut off from the mainland by a mangrove-lined canal that is main road, bath and larder to local fishermen. Similar mangrove canals follow the coast as far down as El Salvador hosting a rich and idiosyncratic wildlife population: basilisks or “Jesus lizards” walk – or more accurately scuttle- on water using their flat webbed feet, and four eyed fish among others.
BLOG ED NOTE: The evolutionary four eyes plan is cunning. It enables the fish to keep two wary eyes on avian predators above while keeping two alert eyes focused on potential prey and predators below the water’s surface.
But I digress. Back to the plot!
ARCAS runs two volunteer programmes; there is a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre on the shore of Lake Petenista near the ancient ‘lost’ Mayan city state of Tikal, in the jungles of Peten near the Mexican border. And there is this turtle hatchery (complemented by caiman and green iguana breeding facilities) in Hawaii.
Volunteers are not just welcome but needed. They pay a nominal sum for bed and board.
The beaches of Hawaii suffer a problem common throughout Central America. Poaching.
Turtle eggs are regarded – yes, you are probably ahead of me on this one – as an aphrodisiac.
“Guatemala’s human population is growing at nearly three percent a year, so aphrodisiacs are the last thing this country needs,” Muccio says wryly, “and this beach is technically a protected area so we shouldn’t have to be doing this at all.”
He hauls himself out of his hammock. “Oh for a perfect world! Let’s go and meet the crowds.”
Crowds may be overstating the case somewhat, but, despite the recent torrents, the beach has more people on it than I ever saw during the day – hueveros (egg collectors) one and all.
Two old men wobble past on bicycles proving an exception to the general rule: Egg poachers mainly seemed to operate alone, heads turning sheepishly away from us as we passed.
Muccio isn’t a policeman (from Washington DC he isn’t even Guatemalan) so stopping hueveros is not an option. Also they’ve got machetes and not a few smell of Venado, a vicious sort of local gin that aids bad temper.
Instead of becoming involved in blood drenched beach brawls, ARCAS has hit on a pragmatic, if less than perfect, agreement with local hueveros: They are asked to hand in 12 eggs, roughly ten percent of a nest load, to the protected hatchery. According to Muccio, about 50 percent comply with the egg agreement.
EGG HUNTING ETIQUETTE …
…is ‘finders keepers’.
First one to a nest takes all. Hence our patrol. If we get there first – well, it will be 120 olive ridley turtle eggs in the bag, into the nursery and then, once hatched, into the sea.
There the little fellahs will have to run the usual sea turtle gauntlet of shrimp trawlers, pollution, bull sharks, ghost nets lost by fishermen, etc. before eventually returning to their birth beach to lay the next generation. How any of them make it is frankly beyond me.
Still, at least we are giving them a start in life. Before the ARCAS operation began, not one single nest escaped the hueveros. Every egg was taken. Truck loads of eggs headed inland. This ultimately self-defeating practice was only made possible for as long as it was by the sea turtle’s extraordinarily long life span.
“The key to success is to watch the sand just above the surf line for tracks,” Muccio explains. “Follow the tracks and you’ve got your nest. Easy.”
As we plod along the beach, the din of the surf is our constant companion.
One hour later – zip. Nada. My initial alertness fades. My thoughts wander towards the profound. Why the bloody hell am I doing this when I could be in bed? Why do I care about sea turtles? Why does Muccio care about sea turtles? The man could have a comfy well-paid job in the States instead of an incredibly unpaid job in Guatemala. Why have I signed up for two weeks of this slog?
And then the utterly profound! What will we be having for breakfast!
Hours pass. Still no turtles. Just one emptied nest. A hole in the beach, a wound in the world. Turtle tracks and human footprints.
BREAKFAST AND THAT BLOODY HAMMOCK!
Breakfast turns out to be cold beer, bananas and chilli shrimps. No eggs. It happens at 4:30 a.m. And after it is done I hit the hammock like a hammer, which of course bounces me straight out again. After hitting the floor like a hammer I fall asleep.
IN RETROSPECT: Precious Moments.
The fortnight I spent on the beach passed swiftly. Days were spent dozing in the hammock, surf too rough and currents too weird for swimming, heat beating the black sand, too hot for naked feet at high noon.
There were moments of great beauty: sitting on the wonky wooden Hawaii dock watching the four eyed fish watching for herons above and fishy business below,. Pelicans on patrol. Sunset firing the mangrove canal’s water, fishing bats flitting low above the glowing surface. Flotillas of water hyacinth drifting slowly, slowly past. The jewelled eyes of a young caiman.
There were moments of of great excitement: finally finding a nesting ridley before a huevero, waiting patiently for her to finish her lay. What seemed to be tears were running down her cheeks. Muccio explained something technical about salt glands, but watching the turtle at her strenuous, ancient, fragile work I decided to stick with the tears interpretation.
There were moments of great optimism: the huevero who turned up with 50 eggs for the hatchery. The visit to a local school-run hatchery just down the coast, the children’s eyes gleaming with pride as they released hatchlings.
There were moments of great ugliness: two men in Chicago Bulls t-shirts, reeking of Venado (that vile rot gut I mentioned earlier), hauling a female off her nest before she could scrape sand back to cover it.
The turtle made no effort to regain the sea. Just lay there on the sand making feeble flicking motions with her flippers, water from her eyes driving narrow channels through the sand that caked her cheeks.
Local rules on this one. We watched them take every egg. We helped the turtle make it back to her sea. After dawn we waited for the two men to bring us the agreed ten percent of their raid. We waited in vain.
The last night in Hawaii was again split by storm. The volcano’s glow had faded. Quite a fortnight! And I finally got the hang of my hammock!
BLOG ED NOTE: Colum Muccio is our Hugh Paxton blog Guatemala columnist. Noteworthy for not actually having time to really submit any columns. ARCAS remains doing what it does. He remains doing what he does. And he remains not earning much. But he keeps his Guatemalan wife in re-fried beans and his kids are doing good. The turtles are still coming back to the beach. The struggle goes on. If you are feeling rich and generous (Bill Gates! Can you hear me????) a donation would help! If you are interested in sea turtles read anything written by Archie Carr. A great start!