Monday, November 7, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Swim Little Turtles, Swim!

A few days ago, we held tiny sea turtles in our hands.  They were only one hour old.  We were taught how to pick them up, gently grasping them by the shell, between thumb and forefinger so their little flippers were free to wiggle through the air.

A few days ago, we gently set little turtles on the sand and watched them scurry, scurry toward the waves.

A few days ago, we were part of a movement which has released 46,000 baby sea turtles so far this year in an effort to preserve these beautiful, ancient sea creatures.

We found out about this opportunity through a friend who saw it on an ex-pat Facebook page (a page where folks from the US and who live in El Salvador post helpful information).  We got up early and headed toward La Libertad, asking at a few points along the way for directions to the specific beach.

Once we arrived, we were greeted by our guide, Francisco, and were seated in plastic chairs under a palm-frond canopy.  First we would receive the charla (educational discussion) and then we would help some new baby turtles to make their first journey to the sea.

Francisco gave a passionate and detailed charla, and we really learned a lot!  We asked Francisco how he got started in this work to save the sea turtles, and he remembered a time when he was 11 or 12 years old.  Francisco's grandfather was a tortuguero (a turtle and egg hunter).  Grandfather, father and young boy Francisco came down to the beach one night to dig up some eggs.  On that night, Francisco saw the mothers digging their nests and laying their eggs.  He had never seen that before, and he realized that each little egg was a future turtle.  From then on, Francisco wanted to help the turtles.  He told us that while he did not graduate with any degree, his experience and multiple training events over the years have helped him to learn about all aspects of sea turtle life in El Salvador.

We could feel the love and respect Francisco has for the turtles.  I took just a few notes during his charla:

The charla complete with turtle diagrams in the sand
  • There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, and four of them navigate the waters off of the Salvadoran coast and lay their eggs on the nearby beaches.
  • Tortugueros (turtle hunters and turtle egg gatherers), fishermen and environmentalists are working together in an NGO (non-governmental organization) named ATOPLOPC (Association of Turtle-Hungers of the beaches of Los Pinos Cangrejera).  The association has started micro-enterprises for turtle-hunters so that they can make money in other ways, such as a bakery, an artisan project and fishing (using an ATOPLOPC fishing boat.)
  • School groups, international tourists and Salvadoran families come to the Los Pinos beach to learn about the turtles.  The entrance fee helps to pay for the turtle recovery programs.  Groups can help to release turtles, like we did, or do beach clean-up projects.
  • The methodology of ATOPLOPC helps to increase the odds of survival for sea turtles.  The turtles come to shore to dig their nests, and then within 24 hours, workers carefully transfer the newly laid eggs to plastic bags and carry them to the nursery.  There the eggs are reburied in the same way in which the mother buried them.  Because global warming has caused Salvadoran beaches to be hotter than in the past, without shade protection, the eggs actually cook (and become like hard-boiled eggs).  Therefore, the nursery is shaded with palm fronds and careful attention is paid to the temperature of each nest.  The nursery is fenced to prevent dogs from digging up eggs and has a net barrier to prevent crabs from sucking the insides out of the eggs.
  • Fencing to keep dogs and crabs out of the nursery
  • Out of 1000 eggs laid in nature, only 1 will successfully produce a baby sea turtle which makes it back to the sea (due to dogs, and crabs, and birds of prey and humans).  The hatch and release program from January through October 2016 has released 46,000 baby turtles into the sea.
The banner posted under the palm frond canopy included photos of each of the 4 species found in El Salvador, along with details about their physiology and nesting habits.  Beyond what the poster says, and beyond what one might find on the internet, Francisco shared details from his years of experience.  Maybe these little facts are not super-exciting to your the person sitting at the computer reading this story, but if you have ever had a pet turtle, if you have ever held a baby turtle, if you have ever loved stories about turtles, or if you are an especially ecologically-minded person, then these details are for you:
    Baby Golfino
  • The Tortuga Prieta (Green Sea Turtle, English common name) in El Salvador is most threatened by toxins in the water.  They return to nest every 2 or 3 years.
  • The Tortuga Carey (Hawksbill Sea Turtle, English common name) is hunted for its beautiful shell which is used to make craft items.  It is the only sea turtle that lays yellow eggs (all others are white).  They hang out near coral reefs and help to keep an equilibrium in the fish population.  Sometimes they become luminescent from eating certain coral species.  There are only 300 adult turtles left.  (I believe this number is how many are known to nest in  El Salvador).
  • The Turtuga Baule (Leatherback Sea Turtle, English common name) weighs in at a whopping 1500 lbs and is about 2 meters long.  It eats medusas (jellyfish).  One of the biggest threats to this giant turtle is plastic bags.  As the bags float and decompose in the water, they look like jellyfish and the Leatherback turtles eat them, which messes with their digestive and reproductive systems and eventually kills them.  An overabundance of jellyfish can be seen in the Salvadoran oceans because there are only 6 of these turtles left in this area.  The jellyfish sting and kill off the fish population, so it is important to try to repopulate the seas with Leatherbacks.  Egg fertilization happens inside the mother, and when she lays eggs some are unfertilized.  The goo (yes, my sophisticated technical term) inside the unfertilized egg evaporates and leaves a shell full of air.  When the baby turtles hatch, they can poke into these pockets to get air during their process of digging through the sand and making it to the surface.
  • The Tortuga Golfina (Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, English common name) is the species which we helped to release.  In the early 2000's there were 120 to 130 females which came to this beach to lay their eggs.  In the last few years, there have only been 10 to 15.  These little guys were pretty cute, and very speedy once they realized they were free to go!
Golfino turtles fresh out of the nest
We took photos.  We cheered them on.  We worried for the ones which were swished away by a big wave.  We were ready to scare off the giant predator birds which were fishing just off shore.

This was a great experience.  I had no idea that El Salvador was a nesting site for four different species of sea turtles.  There is something about holding one of these little guys in your hand, and helping him to take his first little waddles, and cheering him on as the waves come crashing in that makes you really care about these creatures which perhaps you have only seen in picture books or at an aquarium.
Racing toward the waves

Go little guy, go!
This type of eco-tourism is something that El Salvador is building, and is something that delegations or visitors to El Salvador can really help to support.

After we said good-bye to Francisco, and gave one more parting glance in the direction of the babies swimming out to sea, we headed over to the fishing pier in La Libertad.  As we relaxed with some fresh fruit frozens, a little boy came by to sell us some cashews.  We told him we had already bought some from a little girl (truth), and then he quietly patted the bottom of his backpack.  "I have turtle eggs in here, do you want those?"
The tell-tale tracks of the baby sea turtle's first journey
Digging and selling sea turtle eggs is illegal.  All of these species of sea turtles are protected.  Clearly, there is more work to be done.

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