May is the month when leatherback turtles come to the shores of the Carribean coast and lay their eggs. The neighboring wildlife refuge (Manzanillo-Gandoca) is home to the leatherbacks and serious efforts are being made to protect these incredible reptiles. According to the Leatherback Trust, in 1980 there were more than 115,000 female leatherback turtles and now less than 25,000, even becoming close to extinction in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the turtles have a rather beautiful shell perfect for making costly jewelry and the eggs taste pretty good as well so we humans have had made our impact and only in recent years have regulations been made. These impressive creatures out date humans by a million years and know what the earth looked like with dinosaurs running around. Needless to say, we were all excited with the possibility of seeing one of these beasts.
We decided to make a day out of it and piled our friend Denise, her 4 year old twins, boyfriend Matias and Adam Harr who was visiting from DC into the rumbling Galloper for a rainforest adventure. For a pretty penny you can take a 30 minute boat ride from the town of Manzanillo to Gandoca beach, but we decided to drive up around and down on bumpy roads to get there.
Next time we’ll take the boat. We stopped along the way at the BriBri water falls. The twins had never been to this rather large waterfall and after much excitement and anticipation when we finally reached the massive falls (you have to hike for about 30 minutes in the jungle) the girls started screaming and crying not wanting to go near it. With a little coaxing we got them to get in with us and the screams of fear turned into screams of laughter. It was adorable.
Back in the car we continued to the border of Panama where we dipped back in towards the sea. The viewing of the turtles is all very official since this is a preservation project and so we hired our guide, put on our black clothing and walked into onto the dark beach to begin our search. The turtles come in at night so it is best to go out after 8pm. Our guide was a cool young guy who had a lot of information about the turtles and the area and told us about how they are collecting the eggs after the female comes and lays them to put them in protected incubators (buckets) in a sectioned-off part of the beach that has 24-hour surveillance.
He took us down to show us the project and there were about 10 young teens with “staff” shirts on hanging out. They were all local volunteers which was nice to see since those where the same kids eating the eggs last year. Some of the buckets were placed under the shade and others in the sun. Apparently sun or shade, in other words temperature, decides the sex of the turtle. A volunteer came around saying there was a turtle a ways down the beach and so we trudged down and lo and behold there it was! A 6 foot long, 4 foot wide turtle digging a large hole in the sand in preparation. We crept up behind her trying not to get in her field of vision and watched in awe as the ancient reptile worked. The guide told us that she still had some time before actually laying eggs and that there was another turtle further down that we should go check out.
Down the beach another massive turtle was flapping those powerful flippers, heaving her 1500 pound body across the sand in search of a good spot to lay her eggs. The guide explained to us that the tide had been weird that week and the water level was different than usual so the turtle kept finding water as she dug and she would not lay her eggs in water. She began to painstakingly head towards the sea when at the last minute, she started back towards the sand. Our guide thought this turtle was crazy. “Tortuga Loca!” It was clear she did not want to give up that night.
It is hard to describe how enormous these turtles are and the struggle it can be for the females to perpetuate life. And still after years of traveling far distances in the sea they come back to the very same spot they themselves hatched, an intuition nobody fully understands, and continue the life cycle that has been going on for a million years. We were on the Gandoca beach with the great leatherbacks on Mother’s Day, a spectacular tribute to motherhood indeed.
Sorry, no photos are allowed to be taken of the turtles so you will have to come experience the wonder for yourselves.