Ancient Being

Posted: July 14, 2013 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel

by Kristen Barbour

Habituating yourself to working the 12 am – 2:30 am shift or the 5:30 – 6:30 shift, which both vary depending on whether you spot any nests, hasn’t been the easiest. Despite knowing full well what I signed up for, there have been a handful of nights I’ve left the house for a beach patrol hoping that I’ll return to my full-sized bed without having to plant my knees in the sand, dig out and count dozens of eggs, and take them back to the nursery to incubate them. But I can’t complain about these nights which justify my reason for flying 2,000 miles across the country even though the lack of sleep occasionally puts me and the other girls in unwelcoming moods and has me questioning my level of intelligence.

The other night Patricia, Amalia, and I starved ourselves off from sleeping and drove out with Frank for the midnight patrol. We started down the left half of the beach but quickly had to stop. The lagoon had given way to the strong waves and opened to the sea. A wide and deep chasm had now fragmented the beach, removing what once had been several yards of sand just along the shore. In substitution of sand was now brown, smelly water embellished with green leaves—the plants that outlined the lagoon—containing untreated sewage. All this was moving quickly out of its respective receptacle to clash with the waves. It’s safe to say that any surfing or swimming will now be done at beaches several kilometers away from the local one.

Driving in reverse for several feet until it was safe to turn around after watching the lagoon traffic into the sea, we patrolled the rest of the beach. Amalia and I hopped off the buggy once tracks were spotted. With our flashlights, we followed the tracks up closer to a beach house and found a mother tortuga, our first, pushing her hind legs into the sand, blindly digging a nest for her children.

Amalia and I shortly put out our lights and grew accustomed to the light the world already had to offer us. We sat silently in amazement, watching her pull sand up and throw it out—occasionally on us. Once Frank returned with the buggy, being expertly more comfortable with this creature than Amalia and I were, he shined a light on her rear end and dug under her a bit. We saw the small cavern she had built and seconds later, the first eggs drop into their temporary home.

Honestly, watching this all, I felt a mixture of awe, curiosity, sadness, and mild repulsion.

Let me explain:

On Awe – This was my first time seeing an adult Olive Ridley sea turtle and Amalia’s first time ever seeing an adult sea turtle in general. She was smaller than I expected even with the prior knowledge that Olive Ridleys are the smallest of the seven species; relative to a common household item, we estimate that she was smaller than a coffee table. And with a scratched and dented brown shell with almost indistinguishable scutes, she looked ancient, like a creature that had spent hundreds of years scuttling along the sea floor. The most beautiful part was her head which was lighter in color than the rest of her body. I initially got to see it in full light for several seconds when we had first found her but it was enough to see her eyes and the salty tears they produced.

On Curiosity – Many questions that couldn’t easily be answered roamed through my mind during the delivery. Some were questions that can only be answered with more scientific research that will hopefully become more possible as the world becomes more technologically advanced.

On Sadness – As professed lovers of animals, Patricia and I both frequently lament the barrier of communication that will always exist between animals that holds us back from understanding other species. But the most we can do is try to put ourselves in their position and imagine what they are feeling. Of course, this results in anthropomorphism, a personification that is not always accurate. In the mother tortuga, I attributed sadness and fear. Digging blindly in the sand after swimming thousands of miles to come here in an ocean that had depleted much of her kin was terrifying. Leaving her eggs on land, a world she had very briefly known with strange creatures (us humans) close by was terrifying. I wish she could have known that we were the good ones. That because of us, she was not doing this all in vain. After she planted the eggs she began to pat down the egg chamber and hide it by throwing sand all around it, doing it more thoroughly because we were there, Frank told us. As soon as she was several feet away, I began digging up her nest. At a sea turtle exhibit I went to earlier this year, I was told by the informant that the reason sea turtles frequently get themselves caught in litter or eat garbage that devastates their digestive system is because their brain is so small. The informant told me this in a way that implied condescension. They’re stupid. But as I grabbed the first several eggs with my hand, the mother looked back at me, straight at me into my eyes, and I knew she knew I was taking her babies. But I wish she had known why and that they were safer with me.

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On Mild Repulsion– Watching the Olive Ridley ovipositing close up on the beach was one of those experiences you can’t look away from. The eggs came out infrequently, sometimes with more than three all in quick succession, other times more slowly, all emerging from the reptile’s only opening for urinary, excretory, and reproductive measures—the cloaca, which looked like a small elephant’s trunk between her two legs hooded by her shell. It was a very, very odd view and despite all of the awe and amazement I felt from seeing a mother sea turtle nest, I couldn’t help think how gross and odd the view I had was.

When she was finished, she had lain 78 eggs with none broken in collection or relocation. The eggs she laid will hatch approximately on August 26th, a week after I’ve returned to the States.

Kristen Barbour is on a two month volunteer assignment in San Pancho Mexico working with You can also enjoy her blog here:

  1. ted says:

    You are a good person. Thanks for doing what you do. Aieee1.

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