Sea Turtle Ecology

Attack of the Sand Gnats
by -- April 23rd, 2012

You “wake up” and open your eyes except instead of being able to see what’s around you, you can’t even see 5 feet in front of your eyes. All you want to do is flip the switch on your headlamp so you can be sure you’re not walking off a cliff or seemingly invisible mound of sand but the tiny white bulb that could make everything so much easier is also a deterrent to the whole reason you’re awake at 3 o’clock in the morning on a beach that took 20 minutes to hike to on foot. The task of the night: patrol for nesting leatherbacks. Our hopes of seeing these colossal creatures is still high but the excitement of staying up all night is slowly taking a turn for pure wanting to spend a night in a nice clean bed.

Being the weekend, our day was slightly less eventful than what we have been accustomed to with the go, go, go mentality of the first 2 days of fieldwork. We spent the morning sleeping/ recuperating from the previous night’s patrolling and the afternoon fulfilling our role as tourists by wandering the streets of Culebra in search of the perfect food to fill our bellies or gift to take home and remember the trip by. At the conclusion of the excursion half the group went back to rest up a little more before tonight’s patrol and the other half aimed for flamenco beach (a popular tourist spot) to enjoy a little more sun. Dinner was also a new experience in that we took advantage of the house kitchen and braved the idea of cooking for ourselves. The menu: rice and bean burritos. The outcome: pure success and a very happy group of hungry students.

Downtown Culebra

Once the sun went down, the real fun started. Tonight we rotated which beach each group was monitoring. My group shifted from the mild hike of Brava beach to the mountain scaling of Resaca beach. The path drops down the mountain on the way to the beach and then climbs up the mountain on the way back out. The best way to describe this trek was it is like a stair master: wilderness version. You are not actually walking on a path for the majority of it but instead are “jacky channing” from rock to rock in order to successfully get from point A to point B. The beach itself is actually the shortest distance from end to end of all the beaches but the soft sand makes your calves scream after walking the water line a mere 2 times. The beach had no previous nests marked off, but we had been informed that a momma leatherback laid her eggs the night before on the beach around the corner to our left. The beach had to be walked every 25 min and with 3 groups we were able to get a nice hour-long snooze every third walk. The only problem in this heavenly plan was that the bugs were not on the same schedule as us. One of the trade off to little wind (and not being freezing cold) is there is nothing to keep the mosquitoes and sand gnats from literally eating you alive. Its like mother nature placed us on an eloquent platter and said, “Here, have a feast” to every painful bug in a half mile radius. Consequently our efforts to sleep when we weren’t walking were in vain. The night also turned up fruitless in that no beaches had the opportunity to witness a nesting leatherback in progress. Our hopes can still stay high since we have a few more days in our itinerary to help monitor the beaches. Tomorrow poses more opportunities for some turtle sightings both in water – snorkeling for fun at Tamarindo where juvenile turtles forage – and on land – patrolling the beaches for round 3!

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