It happened again: a nest in the hatchery emerged during the late afternoon! This is a rare occurrence as hatchlings usually emerge from their nest during the night.
Shortly after we finished two nest excavations in the hatchery, there was movement at the surface of a nearby nest. The sand was moving as if magically. Then, a little turtle popped his head out of the sand. He was soon followed by another, and then another. 62 little turtle hatchlings soon emerged from the sand and scattered out of the nest.
We collected all the hatchlings and brought them to the beach. We released them at the top of the beach and watched them all run energetically towards the sea. It was a really fun sight!
The Cape Verdean national military offers its support to SOS Tartarugas and patrols the beaches at night to protect the nesting turtles from poachers. This means that during nightly patrols you sometimes meet a military fireteam on the beach. Most often, the unit will just stay in one spot and stay there throughout the night. Other times they will patrol with you in the hope of seeing turtles. And occasionally they show a real interest in your work and want to help.
One night I found a turtle nest that had to be relocated. Unfortunately I had just missed the nesting turtle so I did not see her. I started to dig for the eggs and this raised the curiosity of two military soldiers that were nearby. They watched me dig with interest and when I started to extract the eggs from the egg chamber they looked very surprised and left in haste only to come back moments later armed with their AK-47 assault riffles. They seemed to take the protection of the turtle eggs very seriously and stood sentinel over me!
When I was done removing the eggs from the nest I carried them down the beach to a good location to rebury them. Both soldiers followed me, guarding me and the turtle eggs. I had my own personal military escort! When I was done relocating the eggs they both saluted me and marched off. I then carried on with my patrol. It makes me very happy to know that some people take the preservation of their natural heritage very seriously.
One of the rules of SOS Tartarugas is “Never leave a turtle alone”. The reason for this is that you want to make sure the turtle nests safely and returns to the sea safely. If you leave a turtle alone, she may be taken by poachers who are waiting for such an opportunity.
Poachers occasionally try to take turtles from a beach that is patrolled by SOS Tartarugas rangers. If they see a turtle while the rangers are patrolling a different part of the beach they will come out from behind the dunes where they were hiding, go to the turtle, and take her behind the dunes. They try to do this before the patrol comes back. Fortunately the rangers can usually tell what has happened when they return as they will see turtle tracks going up the beach, find no turtle, but discover a drag mark (if the turtle was flipped on her back and dragged) or deep footprints (if the turtle was carried) instead. By following the clues and catching up with the poachers they can then save the turtle.
Luckily, poachers are non-confrontational and will usually run away if you see them. They know that what they are doing is against the law and that we have the support of the national police and of the military.
Before SOS Tartarugas was established in 2008, the dunes around the island were littered with dead turtle shells and remains. Dozens, if not hundreds of turtles must have been killed every nesting season. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of SOS Tartarugas and the Cape Verdean military, all of the main nesting beaches of Sal are patrolled nightly and this makes it increasingly difficult for poachers to take turtles. So far this year, the number of turtles successfully taken by poachers on patrolled beaches is only six. This remarkable diminution of the number of turtles killed on Sal is a credit to the hard work the rangers carry out night after night throughout the entire nesting season.
Every once in a while you see an adult sea turtle with missing limbs. This can be due to several reasons: it may be that the turtle had a close encounter with a shark; it may be that a motorboat inadvertently struck the turtle; or it may be that the turtle was born with a missing limb.
Last night I saw such a turtle. I was patrolling a beach on the east coast of the island when I came across an interesting asymmetrical turtle track. I carefully followed the track and found a turtle that was missing a back flipper. She was trying to dig an egg chamber to lay her eggs.
What is very curious is that the turtle still went through all of the regular nesting motions and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that she had a missing flipper. She dug with her flipper, scooped some sand up, removed it from the nest cavity, and then shifted her body to dig with her missing flipper. Of course she could not dig with her missing flipper but still went through the ghost motions before shifting her body again and digging with her flipper. After several minutes the turtle decided to give up on this egg chamber as she judged it was not going well enough.
Luckily, the turtle decided to try to dig a new nest further up the beach. I discretely followed her and opted to help her out this time: as the turtle was digging, every time she shifted her body and tried to dig with her missing limb, I would reach in the nest cavity and scoop out some sand for her. Together we built a nice egg chamber and the turtle seemed pleased as she resolved to lay her eggs! She lay close to 80 eggs that all fit nicely in our egg chamber. After covering up her nest and camouflaging the nesting area, I watched her return to the sea. Due to her missing limb, she walked a little bit sideways like a crab.
This particular turtle had been tagged earlier this season and was spotted nesting twice already. I imagine that the other rangers that saw her nest also gave her a helping hand when she was digging!
Sea turtles nest during the night when the temperatures are cooler. They come out of the ocean after sunset, which means that we only see them in the dark. In order to disturb them as little as possible we only use red light torches. Unfortunately, this means that what you see of the turtle is very limited.
Very rarely, however, you will find a “morning turtle”: a turtle that is still nesting after sunrise. This is when you get to see these beautiful animals in all their glory. I have not yet found a morning turtle this season, but I will share with you one of my fondest memories from my 2012 field season here on Sal.
I was out on patrol with a nice Dutch volunteer called Mara. We started our patrol at 1 a.m. on the secluded beach of Serra Negra, one of my favourite beaches of the island. The two of us had been monitoring turtle tracks and recording nesting activities all night and it had been a long and exhausting patrol. In order to do the work more efficiently I went ahead to record activities as Mara was recording GPS locations of other events.
And then, at the far end of the beach, in between rocks, I saw her: my first morning turtle! I was so amazed and excited that I immediately forgot how tired I was. I ran back to the other end of the beach at full speed to get my camera. Mara had no idea what was going on, but judging from my expression, I think she could tell that something special was happening. She quickly finished up her work and together we went to the turtle.
The turtle was covering up her nest. She was clearly tired and confused as her movements were very slow and she seemed to have lost her sense of direction. Trying to be as discrete as possible, we watched her as she tried to make her way back to the sea. The tide had gone out and exposed rocks were preventing an easy route to the water. She got disoriented in between two big rocks, but after a few deep breaths and a full 360° turn she finally made it out to sea. We watched her for as long as we could. Her head popped out of the water a few times before she disappeared underwater completely.
It was amazing to watch a turtle from so close by in the daylight. We could see the beautiful orange colour of her skin and her carapace. Needless to say, I took a lot of pictures that morning. I hope these pictures will give you an idea of how impressive and beautiful sea turtles are!
It is possible to adopt sea turtles at the SOS Tartarugas Conservation Centre. You can adopt individual hatchlings, entire nests, and adult nesters. Of course this is a symbolic adoption and you do not get to take the sea turtle home with you, but you would be surprised of how many times I have been asked things like: “What should I feed my baby sea turtle when I am back home?”
For example, if you adopt an adult nester, you can choose a name for your turtle and will receive a personalized Adoption Certificate. Your turtle will be tagged and you will receive her unique tag numbers. Every time your turtle comes ashore you will be informed by e-mail and will receive relevant information such as if she nested and how many eggs she laid!
If you are interested in adopting a sea turtle you can visit the SOS Tartarugas website. Adopting a sea turtle is a very nice gesture and can be a special present for a loved one! It is also a great way to show your support for the project and the conservation of loggerheads in Cape Verde.
Next to the SOS Tartarugas hatchery is the SOS Tartarugas Conservation Centre where guests can learn about sea turtles and the conservation work taking place on Sal.
I personally really enjoy talking to people about sea turtles, their conservation, and my own research. When someone shows interest, I always seize the opportunity to share interesting or fun facts about turtles. I also think it is very important for people to know the plight of sea turtles in the modern world we live in.