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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Yo quero tortugas, muerto o vivo!

ECUADOR | Wednesday, 27 June 2012 | Views [475]

We captured this little guy in the harbor and tagged it.

We captured this little guy in the harbor and tagged it.

One of the best transitions from my project in Tofo to the one here with Equilibrio Azul is continuing with the conservation of sea turtles.  Back at Tofo, I learned general knowledge plus the five species of turtles that reside there; luckily, four of those five species (Green, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley, and Leatherback) make Ecuador their home, so I am somewhat educated about them already, just need to learn the species names in Spanish (easiest species to learn in Spanish:  Green = Verde!)  In Tofo, I never got to work hands-on with the turtles, only swam with them during dives and had "turtle walks" along the beach in search of dead turtles, courtesy of poachers and fishermen who catch and kill them for their meat, eggs, and/or shell, but here, there are two activities that I get to do daily:  turtle captures and beach patrols.  

Tortugas capturas translates to "turtle capture", and the activity is exactly that:  we capture turtles in the water, measure them, take a DNA sample and tag them for monitoring.  Since only female turtles come ashore to lay eggs, the only way to find male turtles are in the water.  We capture them from two locations:  in the harbor not far from shore and farther away in the bay.  To capture in the harbor, we drop fish into the water as bait, and then sit in the boat and wait for the turtles to appear, all the while scaring away other fish and birds who are after the bait.  If a turtle swims near enough to our boat for the bait, our free dive expert jumps into the water and grabs the turtle by its neck and shell, and then lifts it into the boat (that may not be successful every time, turtles are mighty strong swimmer).  To capture in the bay, we sail about 10 to 12 minutes away from shore, where it's pleasant for turtles but the current and waves are rough for the casual snorkelers and fishermen; from there, we jump into the water and snorkel along the rocks, and if we're lucky enough to find a turtle, will have to swim after it to capture.

My first turtle capture outing was to the harbor only, and we caught nothing, just sat in the boat for two hours, fending off hungry blowfish and seagulls.  Subsequent outings in the harbor were more interesting; we managed to capture three turtles, with two of them not yet tagged.  I had no idea that the turtle's front flippers are so strong; when our diver grabbed the turtle, its first instinct was to flap the front flappers (like humans waving their arms about madly), and boy, did it hurt when struck!  Our free diver L is such a fantastic diver and fisherman, sometimes he would grab on to the turtle and not let go, even if the turtle is resisting and trying to swim away.  The times he brought the turtles on board the boat (a small wooden boat with a small engine that can probably fit up to six people), we first tried to calm down the poor thing by covering its head with a blindfold; when it continued to struggle, two of us held it down with both our feet and hands, all the while trying not to get "whipped" by its flippers.  Next, we took measurements of its shell (length and width), its head, its tail, and even flipped it over onto its back to measure the underside.  We "stapled" tags onto its hind flippers for identification, and sliced a small piece of skin off its neck to record its DNA.  Once that was all done, we cleaned it as best we could; often the turtles have abalone shells stuck and growing on its shell or even on its skin.  Finally, we released the turtle by "tossing" it gently back into the water.  I've never seen turtles swam away so fast, they were gone in seconds!  The data we captured were later recorded, so when a tagged turtle is re-captured, which happened in one of my outings, we would simply measure it to keep track of its growth, plus it is nice to see the turtle still alive and kicking, literally!

My first outing farther to the bay was quite humorous.  I was the only volunteer at the time, and the English-speaking coordinator had an appointment that day, so I was on the outing with the skipper R and the free diver L, neither of whom speaks English (unless they do and are messing with me!)  I had no idea we would be snorkeling from afar and in relatively rough conditions; I thought we were only staying in the harbor.  When L was explaining to me what we would be doing, I only understood about a quarter of what he said (my Spanish desperately needs to improve!) and thought at the time that I'd be staying in the boat and only assist him when he captures  a turtle.  When the boat came to a stop, and L indicated that we would be snorkeling along the rocks for some distance, I panicked a bit; I wasn't even wearing a wetsuit, only bathing suit and a rashguard, great!  I put on fins and mask and snorkel, said a little prayer in my head, and unloaded from the boat into the water.  Fortunately, the water temp was not bad; better yet, my many ocean safaris in Tofo have strengthened my snorkeling skills in rough conditions.  Compared to a few ocean safaris where water was consistently crashing and coming inside the snorkel from the top, this was relatively mild, though the closer I was to the rocks, the rougher the current.  I swam quicker than I should be, so when I paused to clear the water from my ill-fitting mask, L signaled for me to slow down and to stay closer to the rocks.  I am not an expert in free dive at all, so it was astounding to see L took deep breaths and dived deep underwater, looking under huge rocks in search of turtles, while I stayed near the surface with my snorkel consistently out of the water.  The visibility was quite poor, maybe 4 meters only, and I saw just one Green turtle, who was too fast for me.  We swam for about 1 km while the boat followed us.  Having found nothing, we returned to the boat, and I was amazed at how easy I managed to climb back on board (again, thanks to those ocean safaris and constant climbing back onto the raft!)  Now that I know what to expect, hopefully I will be more relaxed in the future and pay more attention to my surroundings, perhaps even free dive a little!

By comparison, beach patrols are easy, can stay on dry land, though no less hands-on.  There are many beaches along this part of the Ecuadorian coast where turtles come to nest, so as a result, the turtles and their eggs are heavily poached.  The goal of the beach patrols is to look for nests, measure and capture pertinent data like turtle species, number of eggs, size of nest, and to tag the female turtles (if they happen to be around and making the nest at the time, though that normally only occur at night); if the nests are not built in a safe location (e.g. too close to high tide or human habitats), we will also relocate them.  If I haven't mentioned already, female turtles never stick around to see the eggs hatch; they only build the nest, lay the eggs, and then return to sea, never to return for the hatchings, so relocating a nest does not impact the mother. 

During the beach patrols, we walk the beach from one end to the other, looking for turtle tracks, nests, or dead turtles.  On my first beach patrol, we encountered three dead ones;  the cause of death was unknown, could be natural cause, by-catch, predated by other animals, or poached.  We measured the turtle carcass as best we could, and noted any special observations (is the shell missing? are their obvious scars and wounds?)  It was like an episode from CSI!  I was surprised at how calm I reacted in seeing turtle carcasses; the body was quite in tact, with the head and most of its flippers still there though completely deprived of color, and one of its hind flipper had decomposed to the point where only the bone remained.  We measured the shell, flipped it over onto its back to look for scars or wounds, then flipped it back and left it there for nature to take its course (a dead turtle should feed many insects, birds, and other marine life).  The other two carcasses were more decomposed, so likely they had been there a while.

I have yet to see any turtle tracks nor nests, hopefully will.  I do enjoy walking the beaches and taking in the view, even if we find nothing.  Just today, the beach was bare but instead we saw whales far, far away in the water, blowing water out of its blowhole!  Some beaches are quite polluted, with much trash (mostly plastics like bags and bottles) left behind by beach-goers and fishermen, or washed ashore by the waves.  One beach though is quite stunning; Los Frailes is part of the Machalilla National Park, so it is kept in excellent condition and is a very popular destination with tourists and locals.  It's only a 5-minute bus ride from Puerto Lopez; once we alight the bus, we walk almost one hour from the entrance to the visitor center (if we had a car, the drive would only be a few minutes, good exercise though!)  From there, we patrol three beaches, all of them quite close and each with its own lovely view.  The sand at Los Frailes is a dark, ashy color, perhaps from volcanic activities off the coast.  The day I was there, only the first beach had a few dozens locals swimming in the water, while the other two beaches were utterly deserted; apparently on weekends, this park is very busy, so I was glad to enjoy it without the crowd.  I know this will be my favorite beach to patrol, although I hope to find nothing dead ever!

Tags: beach patrol, green turtle, hawksbill, leatherback, los frailes, machalilla national park, olive ridley, turtle capture

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