June 4, 2009
By Jessica Dalton
On the summer nights of Fridays and Saturdays, most people would expect college students to be found in a bar, club, or at a social event with friends. This was not the case for seven University of Nebraska - Lincoln students studying abroad in Cozumel, Mexico on Friday, May 22nd and Saturday, May 23rd. Jessica Dalton, Katie Gilliland, BreAnna Haessler, Jenny Larson, Erin Sorensen, Jessica Sorensen, and Erin Starkebaum all participated in the Cozumel Marine Turtle Salvation Program which involves searching for nesting female turtles, turtle nests, and recent hatchlings. At this time of year, it is not possible to find hatchlings because the nesting season occurs from the start of May through the end of September with a 60 -day nesting period according to Pantera, a marine biologist working with the program.
Why is this program necessary you may ask? The Mayan occupants of this region have been eating turtle meat for centuries as it was something that was easily available to them and according to myth, improved a man's virility. Due to this excessive consumption, the number of sea turtles in the area was decreasing very rapidly. According to Phyllis Larsen, a long-time diver in Cozumel, the divers were the first ones to notice the shortage of turtles being seen in the reefs and decided to do something about it. Also, because of development of the East side of the island where the turtles nest, fewer turtles were coming back to nest on the beaches where they hatched. It takes approximately 15 years for a turtle to reach sexual maturity, according to volunteer project coordinator, Sherri Davis. If the young turtles are harmed by humans, or simply don't even make it back into the ocean to begin their lives because they are eaten by predators, those turtles cannot return to lay eggs. Volunteers mark nests so that each night, the brigades may keep an eye on them to make sure they are not disturbed. If the brigade comes upon a nest that is too close to the shore, it is moved to a location farther back on the beach to prevent waves from uncovering and carrying away the eggs.
This experience was something that will forever stay with me. I remember the curiosity about the unpopulated, east side of the island, the disappointment when the first group came back without seeing a turtle, the excitement of a possible turtle nest, the exhaustion from volunteering from 9 p.m. till 3 a.m., and the natural high of being inches away from a Loggerhead sea turtle as it is laying its eggs. Working with this program gave me a chance to practice my Spanish speaking and listening skills, as I had to translate instructions and information from Pantera to myself and the other girls. While we were traveling the roads along the darkened beaches, we stood in the bed of a truck, shining a red light in search of turtle tracks leading to a nest. The red light is used as opposed to a white light because it does not hurt the turtles' eyes, therefore disorienting them and forcing them to stay in the water until the next night. When possible nests were spotted, or the shrubbery was too tall to see over, we opted to walk the beaches. We did not see any turtles this way, but it was still early in the season. Throughout the night, Pantera would explain things about beaches in general, about the two kinds of turtles that nest on the island, and kinds of signs we were looking for to differentiate a nest from a pile of sand. This information all came in handy when we finally saw something dark in the sand toward the water. Pantera immediately began shouting "¡TORTUGA! ¡TORTUGA! ¡TORTUGA!" We climbed down the beach and eventually had to crawl to the turtle from behind so she would not be frightened by us. She was still in the process of laying her eggs and if we spooked her, she could stop and head back into the ocean. This, of course, is not the intent of the program. We knelt down to the side of her and watched as she laid her last few eggs. Did I mention before that the Caretta Caretta species, or more commonly known as the Loggerhead, normally lays 120 ping-pong ball sized eggs? Anyway, because the nest was very close to the ocean, we took the eggs out of the nest and placed them in a plastic bag in order to move them to a safer place further back on the beach. We then began wiping the sand off her shell and head to measure her. She was nearly 5 feet long, measuring 13 cm longer than the average size of 1 meter. The biologists were completely amazed by this and guessed her age to be 14 years. When we first began touching her head, she would shrink away from us. This told us she was still in her conscious state and no examinations other than measurements could be done. After laying eggs, sea turtles go into a semi-unconscious state which allows them to quickly recharge after the exhausting and painful experience. Once she had slipped into this state, we were allowed to take a group photo with her using the flash (remember: the white light would have scared her otherwise), as well as pictures of her fins and face. This is when we noticed black streaks down her face. When I asked what it was, we were informed that those were her tears that she had cried out of pain and sadness for her eggs. I suppose it could be compared to giving childbirth without medication or a family member or friend around for support and immediately giving the babies up for adoption without seeing them. I think I would bawl my eyes out too. Once all the measurements had been taken, eggs counted, and empty nest covered back up, we let her be in order to relocate her eggs. We moved a few meters from the roadside and began digging a hole with our hands. This was to be a replica of the one the mother has just created. This was when we were informed of another fun turtle fact; when the eggs are in the nest, they naturally become arranged in such a way that the females are in the inside and males are on the outside wall. This is because the female produces more heat and can then heat the nest from the inside out. This means the sex of the turtle is already predetermined when the eggs are laid. After the hole was filled with eggs and covered back up, we placed a red stick behind it in order to mark it for brigades to keep watch over. By the time we had finished this, the mother had already returned to the ocean. We all climbed back into the truck, and continued down the beach in search of other mother turtles to help. It was a very rewarding experience that I hope to someday repeat. If you or anyone you know would like to get involved, please contact Sherri Davis through HYPERLINK "http://www.cozumelinsider.com/turtles"www.cozumelinsider.com/turtles.