Sea Turtle Ecology

Razor Grass and Turtle Jump-Rope
by -- March 29th, 2010

We hike through the jungle in search of howler monkeys and return to the beach for one last turtle patrol in Trinidad

We began bright and early on Thursday, dragging our sleepy-eyed selves out of bed at 7:30 to shovel down a quick breakfast and load up the truck. We headed down to Matura Beach to check out the surroundings in daylight, and then trekked up the road and into the jungle for the Howler Monkey Hike.

                We bravely battled razor grass (aptly named), slid down hills and balanced on fire-felled logs, heading deeper and deeper into the forest. Our guides pointed out pineapple trees, vanilla vines, cocoa fruit, and sliced open coconuts so we could sample the juice fresh from the source. The formerly swampy areas have dried up since the start of the dry season, sending the anacondas that usually call Matura Forest home scurrying to find new stomping grounds. We did manage to find a decidedly un-exotic squirrel, and a cane toad that was less than happy at our attempts to cuddle and photograph. On our way out of the forest, we finally spotted a howler monkey on its dash through the canopy. Returning to the guest house dirty and tired, we settled in for lunch (complete with plum jam), ice cream, and nap time.

                After everyone caught up on sleep, we ate dinner and switched out our hiking gear for beach patrol attire and equipment. We made a quick pit stop at the Nature Seekers office to stock up on gifts and recycled glass jewelry (made from bottles collected during the annual beach cleanup before the start of the nesting season), and then hopped in the truck for the now-familiar ride to Matura Beach.

                Armed with a pulse oximeter, weather-proof notebook, and headlamps, we marched down the beach, legs still burning from the morning hike. Our long walk to Zone 13 was rewarded with seven turtles surfacing within 200 yards of each other, with four nesting on the beach at once. The second turtle to surface was quickly dubbed The Perfect Turtle; she headed straight up the beach to the perfect nesting spot just short of the vegetation line, promptly body pitted and dug her nest (all while giving us perfect heart rate reads on the pulse oximeter – a rare occurrence to say the least), and tolerated our best Obnoxious Tourist act, complete with flash photos and heavy petting.

                Here’s the thing about the pulse oximeter: once you hook it up to the hind flipper, you have to manage to keep it on through the entire nesting process. This leads to something we like to call “turtle jump-rope.” During the body pitting and camouflaging stages, the turtle swishes her hind flippers back and forth to smooth out the sand behind and below her in a motion reminiscent of dancing the Washing Machine. While incredibly endearing, this dance move tends to send the pulse oximeter flying off the flipper. The only way to keep it on is to stand behind the turtle and swing the cord so that it goes over the flipper and under the carapace – hence “turtle jump-rope.”

                Exhausted but ecstatic, we returned to the guest house around 1:00am with a notebook full of data and the satisfaction of a night well worth the aching muscles and sand-coated clothes.

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