Friday, May 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Night patrols protect sea turtles on remote Costa Rican coast

Seattle Times Northwest Weekend editor

 Audio report from Costa Rica

A newly hatched leatherback sea turtle heads to sea from its nest on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

A tale of turtles

On a moonlit beach in Costa Rica, a female sea turtle — a low, dark shape easily mistaken for a storm-tossed log — was breathing in what sounded for all the world like Lamaze puffs.

"FWOOO!" came periodic exhalations from her football-sized head as she laid dozens of eggs on the beach. The exhausted sighs were audible above the cymbal crash of surf less than 15 yards away.

"She sounds like a tired mom!" marveled Lois Neffner, a visitor from the Seattle area who stood nearby in the shadowy light of a full moon with about 20 other Seattleites.

In sticky T-shirts and sweat-stained cargo shorts, they resembled anxious family members in a tropical maternity ward. They had traveled more than 3,500 miles to this spot on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast to help play midwife on an April night to this leatherback turtle, one of an estimated 30,000 nesting female leatherbacks remaining worldwide.

An ancient animal that swam with pliosaurs 100 million years ago, and whose numbers once were so vast they could impede ships, the leatherback is among the most endangered of sea turtles. It's also the biggest. At 4½ feet long by 3½ feet wide, this one was the size of a kitchen table.

They can be almost twice that big.

After scooting laboriously out of the surf an hour earlier, the turtle had lurched slowly up the sand to this spot where she used her dinner-plate sized rear flippers to gouge a hole deep enough to swallow a man's arm.

Now, at 9:30 p.m., she was busy laying eggs, and Alvaro Garcia Cortez, a 22-year-old Costa Rican turtle-station "investigator," crouched at her tail. Wearing latex gloves, he acted as a sort of attending obstetrician, intently catching the eggs in what resembled a plastic shopping bag. The only light was the feeble red glow of a mountaineering headlamp strapped to his forehead, and the moon's piercing single headlight dodging Van Gogh-style clouds high in the sky.

In a war against extinction, this was the front line.

Soft as tomatoes

The soft, white eggs plopped moist and shimmering into the bag. At first one by one, then in clumps of two or three.

"They feel like overripe tomatoes!" exclaimed a helper. Some, the fertile eggs, were as large as croquet balls. Others, more like pingpong balls, were infertile. Turtle nests typically contain a mix.

The guides were from a nearby sea-turtle research station, Estación Las Tortugas, a remote outpost reached only by boat via a narrow jungle canal. The visitors — mostly families and friends from North Seattle's Broadview neighborhood — were there to help and learn under the auspices of a nonprofit, Seattle-based educational organization called EcoTeach.

The primary objective: to collect the eggs and relocate them either to a fenced hatchery near the research station or to a manmade "nest" elsewhere on the beach, away from the mother turtle's highly visible tracks. Either strategy helps protect the eggs from poachers. The sheer presence of turtle watchers on the beach helps discourage poachers, too.

Children chattered excitedly, some helping to restrain the turtle's rear flippers as it laid. Walkie-talkies crackled as guides reported the location; the beach is marked with posts in 100-meter segments. Guides consulted the turtle station's director, Stanley Rodriguez Mendez, and his staff of wildlife management experts.

All kept working under the red glow from headlamps — red because such light won't destroy night vision, nor scare away the turtles, whose instinct is to lay their eggs in the cover of darkness.

The aphrodisiac curse

As is the burden of many dwindling species around the world, one of the sea turtle's biggest enemies is a myth of human virility: Though protected by Costa Rican law, their eggs can net 50 cents each in bars, where they're consumed with hot sauce and chased with a beer as a supposed aphrodisiac. With an average nest containing 100 eggs, a night of poaching can add up to real money in a village economy.

But it also can be devastating to leatherbacks, for whom only about one in 1,000 hatchlings lives to reproductive age. Others fall victim to natural predators, fishing nets, pollution or foes as simple as submerged plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish, the turtle's primary diet. (Their leathery carapace, unlike other turtles' rigid shells, won't crack in high-pressure dives of more than 3,000 feet to pursue jellyfish.)

Also of concern is the loss of nesting areas as beaches are developed, and even the cluttering of beaches by driftwood as more forests are cut.

While the endangered green sea turtle is making a comeback, the leatherback continues to dwindle. Important Pacific Ocean populations have plummeted 98 percent in the past 23 years. Though both greens and leatherbacks can be found worldwide, Caribbean breeding grounds may be the leatherback's last major stronghold, making these Costa Rican beaches key to their survival.

Trances and tears

Over lunch that day at a long table in a screened dining hall at Estación Las Tortugas, where whistles and screeches of tropical birds in surrounding jungle accented the conversation, members of the Broadview group compared notes on a turtle encounter from the previous night.

"She kind of goes into a trance while she's laying her eggs," said Danae Hollowed, leader of the group, which included 12 children, most 10 to 12 years old, and 10 parents — an accountant, a librarian, a banker and others.

"She laid 130 of them — no wonder!" responded Julia Greely, who hadn't witnessed the laying but had heard the egg count.

For many people, the spectacle of turtle nesting evokes strong and basic emotions. "From a mother's standpoint, this is practically a prehistoric thing going on," said Catherine Schiffler.

"I think I'd cry!" said Greely.

"I did," acknowledged Hollowed.

That night on the beach, the mother turtle appeared to cry, too. EcoTeach guides and coordinators from the turtle station kept observers near the turtle's tail and away from its head, so as not to unduly disturb it. But even from a short distance, streams of sticky, dark "tears" were visible below the turtle's eyes.

The phenomenon, common during egg laying, actually has more to do with excreting excess salt from the turtle's body than with maternal emotion.

That's what the biologists say, anyway.

Lonely beach

Stanley Rodriguez Mendez has devoted much of his life to saving leatherbacks. He established Estación Las Tortugas four years ago on his own oceanfront property on the central Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and his project now controls about 2 miles of beach. It's a dark and undeveloped stretch of coastline. Much of the turtle station is lit by dim blue light from solar-powered bulbs.

This night, the turtle was laying her eggs on a low shelf of sand near a line of dune scrub and low palms, not far from dense jungle that is home to the deadly fer-de-lance snake, caimans, howler monkeys and sloths. Some 20 miles to the south, a few lights marked the edge of Limón, this coast's largest town. Far to sea, a slowly moving light signified a solitary boat. Unlit boats are also known to frequent this coast: drug boats painted black and with large outboard motors.

But such worries seemed far away as the Seattle children sat on logs and chose a name for "their" turtle. There was discussion of "Sandy" or "Minerva," but they soon arrived at "Thetis," the name of a Greek goddess beloved by Poseidon, the god of the sea. (The kids had been studying Greek gods in school.)

As the turtle finished laying eggs — 88 fertile eggs, 38 infertile — a small knot of mothers discussed the name chosen by the kids. One parent was relieved when she learned that the name was "Thetis," not "Fetus" as she had first heard it. ("It just wasn't very romantic!")

As to fetuses: Theories vary on why the turtles lay so many infertile eggs. After mating at sea and coming ashore to lay eggs every two to three years in the general vicinity of where she was hatched, the female may return to nest as many as 10 times in one four-month nesting season.

The infertile eggs are thought to act as spacers between the fertile eggs, making it easier for the babies to crawl out when they hatch. Another theory is that liquid from the infertile eggs transfers by osmosis to the fertile eggs, helping to nourish them over the 60-day incubation period.

Minding the details

By 10 p.m., our turtle was done laying. Alvaro strained to hoist the heavy bag full of eggs — maybe 40 pounds worth — into his backpack for safekeeping. The mother turtle began to flip sand back into the now-empty nesting hole.

"Look out, you'll get sand in your eyes!" went up the cry as observers scrambled away.

Some dispersed into small knots chatting around the dark beach, as others assisted by red-glowing flashlight in the meticulous record gathering that is practiced at Estación Las Tortugas. Like surgical nurses filling out a preprinted form, adults and children from Seattle used a tape to measure the turtle, a meter stick to gauge the nest's depth, and another long tape to measure the distance of the nest from water's edge and from the jungle's edge.

They recorded the phase of the moon, the height of the tide, weather conditions and more. Guides used a special tool to attach metal tags to the turtles' rear flippers, and recorded the numbers, to help track the turtle's future movements.

Meanwhile, the turtle moved forward and began flinging sand like a bully at a bathing beach. She threw it four feet with big swaths of her forward flippers, as long as an orangutan's arms, building a "false nest," a common ploy thought to act as a decoy to predators looking for the eggs.

And Thetis the turtle kept sighing like an exhausted sprinter.

It would be another hour before she would return to the water. Maybe we would wait and watch? But at 10:30, a walkie-talkie crackled with a long conversation in Spanish. One of the guards patrolling the beach for the turtle station reported that another big leatherback was hauled out at Marker 25, a mile or so down the beach.

Quickly, eight of us shook off the weariness of the night. We packed up our gear — the measuring tapes, gloves, headlamps.

On a mission to save sea turtles, we trotted quietly south in mealy dark sand, leaving a trail of deep footprints in the moonlight.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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