A Little “Peace” of Heaven: Saving Turtles

March 1-7 is Peace Corps Week. The Third Goal of Peace Corps is for volunteers to share their experiences after service. I’ve decided to post excerpts of emails I sent to family and friends during my life in Suriname (2004-06). Here is the 5th of 7 posts related to my Third Goal:

July 2, 2005

Galibi Nature Reserve is situated in the northeast corner of Suriname, near French Guiana. It is run by STINASU, a nature conservation/tourism agency somewhat loosely linked with the Department of Forestry. …one part of the reserve, known as Babunsanti, [is] a 6.7 km beach where I stayed for three weeks.

Babunsanti

STINASU recruits volunteers who must pay to participate in helping the local Amerindians collect information on sea turtles. Galibi, especially Babunsanti, is one of the world’s largest nesting grounds for leatherback sea turtles. Green turtles and olive ridley turtles also come to nest on Babunsanti, which is on the Marowijne River-Atlantic Ocean. … all these sea turtles are or have been or have the potential to be considered endangered species.

In recent years, STINASU has cut a deal with Peace Corps to let volunteers work as STINASU volunteers at Babunsanti at a reduced price for two weeks.  …I got a lot more than I bargained for.

WEEK 1

The schedule for STINASU volunteers was to walk the beaches at least once if not twice in the evening and middle of the night and look for turtles. …Our supervisor was Loor, a Javenese guy with STINASU who has worked with turtles for 24 years.

Loor

I did our first walk with Loor and saw no turtles that first evening as it was still early and the tide was low. I opted, however, to walk a second round with Loor at 2:30 a.m. that first night… Although it was dark, we were discouraged from using our flashlight as the bright light could scare away the turtles back in the water, so we were told. So you get used to seeing in the dark very quickly. The 2:30 a.m. walk was during high tide, during which I saw about 7 leatherback sea turtles nesting on the beach. These are a gigantic species, about 700-800 pounds, and spend about an hour and a half on land, from the time they get on the sand to the time they leave. Nesting is a slow process, as the turtles push themselves on the beach with their flippers, dig a nest with the back flippers that’s about 75 cm deep and then cover the nest, camoflauging it to keep it out of site from predators, which include crabs, vultures and poachers.

Nesting leatherback in the morning hours at Babunsanti

Thanks to Loor, I also got to see up close one leatherback that night dropping eggs into its chamber. The leatherback lays about 80 to 100 eggs, many the size of golf balls. Green turtles, the second most common on the beach, have eggs usually the size of ping pong balls.

Leatherback covering her eggs in her chamber

WEEK 2

Wendel is like a gentle giant, and one night we came across a leatherback who had dug up an old nest that had already hatched and started laying eggs. Of course she was oblivious to this but there were live green turtle hatchlings scattered all over the place. For the next 20 minutes, Wendel combed the sand and frantically handed me one to two hatchlings at a time to release into the water. We were in such a rush to save the creatures that at one point I was merely tossing the hatchlings into the water. It was quite intensive and overwhelming, searching for baby turtles around this expansive body, but finally after a while, Wendel could no longer find any more, and he was exhausted. I was proud of him and me for taking the time to at least try to save them. What happens to the hatchlings at sea is out of our hands, but at least we got them there. I think we tried to save about 40 hatchlings that night.

Wendell

During that week, I also saw Marcus and Linda work on some excavations of hatched nests, which they do to determine how successful the nest was. After the nest is hatched, [they] dig up the nests, and count how many have hatched… Marcus and Linda were hard-core diggers, and I wanted to do a do a dig myself, just to say I did. So at the end of Week 2, Marcus allowed me to do the first of five digs.

Excavating hatched green turtle nest from the 4th dig. Photo by Mark Tordoir

The goal…was to find a flag marking the nests. I got down on my stomach… but much to the hilarity of Marcus I kept my glasses on the entire time – all while getting sand in my hair, ears, face and arms. I smelled like rotten eggs as I dug and pulled out handfuls of sand and eventually pulled out handfuls of turtle eggs. After I had pulled out the eggs, Marcus had me count the number of hatched eggs. The ones that did not hatch he had me rip open so he could identify them as rotten, late-term or other. Of course it was a mess and I smelled bad.  But I was excited to do this and Marcus was ecstatic that I found both flags …the smell would stay with me for at least another day…

My fourth excavation revealed 35 green turtle hatchlings. Photo by Julie Maashoff

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To read the previous posts on this series, click on the respective days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

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About accentphoto
Accent Photographics specializes in on-location baby, children and family photography, and special-event photography of weddings in eastern

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