Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My First Encounter!

We were just arriving at the Banyan Tree Hotel for our well-deserved lunch break. Making ourselves clean and thus ready to go for lunch, Vanessa had a look on to the beach and saw a turtle track. Per se, nothing really special for us since there were still quite a few tracks on the beaches during patrol. BUT: she followed the tracks thinking they look new and guess who was still on the beach? That’s right; a female hawksbill turtle getting ready to lay! When she came back and told me, I started screaming and not just any screaming but a really loud high-pitch screaming because it was so awesome I couldn’t believe it, my first turtle :-) Everything got light and I just wanted to run to her and have a look which would of course be the worst thing to do.

 While Vanessa informed Rachel and Imogen (from the Banyan Tree Conservation Centre who are the ones responsible for patrolling this beach), I tried to calm myself! We moved in closer to see her, staying at a point where she wouldn’t notice us observing her while she was doing a body pit. When two tourists arrived from the opposite side, Vanessa started waving like crazy and did the quietest half-jumping I’ve ever seen trying to get the tourists to stop. She gestured like a madman, but the tourists understood (‘though still looking confused) and went further down the beach towards the water. Then they came over to us wondering what was going on and finally saw the turtle. It’s crucial at this point that the turtle doesn’t notice us since she could feel threatened and just go back into the water without laying! Sooo, that explains the madness :-o And it had to be repeated quite a few times as  more and more tourists were walking along the beach, not knowing that they might cause the turtle to go back to the water if they came too close. This spectacle of course made everyone really interested and a huge group of people formed behind the female who was still trying to find the right spot. At one point she started moving and I thought “Oh my gosh, will she go now? Have we been too noisy behind her or has someone been in her field of vision? Is this it?”, but luckily it seemed that she was just not satisfied with the place. Maybe there were too many roots or some rocks in the sand. 

When she arrived at a second place, it got critical. She had started digging right on top of two other nests! If she dug in the wrong place, she would destroy the nests and dig the earlier eggs right out!! I started praying “Please do not destroy the other nests. You wouldn’t want that for yours neither. Please let the eggs be.....”. And it seemed to work. The turtle stayed above the two nest, dug the egg chamber and reeeeally took her time. 
Kristina counting eggs with the turtle laying between two other nest markers!
She was sooooo slow and took lots of breaks. It clearly was exhausting for her. This gave the chance for more tourists to come join the crowd and ask lots of questions that we were happy to answer. Especially the kids were really excited thus reflecting my inner state :-) And all the time, we just saw her back while she was digging, and digging, and digging. And all the time I was thinking “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, I wanna see your cheeks. Show me your cheeks. I wanna see your cheeks and see if I can recognize you!” which of course didn’t make her turn and come to me to show me her cheeks :-(  I was almost going nuts of wanting to know if we had seen her before or not. There was some white colour on the back of the carapace which I thought I had seen on one of the pictures I had. But I kept on saying to myself that it’s gonna be fine and I’ll see it eventually. 

Then when Imogen then asked if I want to count the eggs, I got even more excited and it seemed the kids would also have liked that! We slowly made our way closer to the turtle and once she stopped digging and prepared herself to lay, Vanessa and I got some more sand out of the way to enable a clear view of the eggs. I was laying flat on the sand counting eggs slowly coming out mostly one by one. Sometimes there were two or three coming out at once. While the turtle got into a trance-like state and Vanessa took pictures for later identification, I got pretty trance-like myself counting. 

At some point I got so covered in ants that I woke from my trance and tried to get rid of them while not losing sight of the eggs and I realized that everyone but me could now already see the cheeks. I was hallucinating already imagining how they could look like, seeing matched pictures in my software getting all excited of a possible re-encounter (hopefully between years as this means more data to investigate interesting periods). Besides all this, I noticed some of the tourists talking in German about the eggs, so I just jumped in and told them in German how many there were so far and a boy tried to count from where he was starting with that. After the turtle finished laying, she took all the time in the world to safely cover up the nest with sand. She did a good job and made sure both of the previous nests were nicely covered up as well (‘though I’m sure that was not intended :-). 

Sooooo, I still couldn’t see her cheeks which frustrated me, but I did not want to get into her vision now that she awoke from her trance. However, I used the chance to check the photographs that Vanessa had taken to see if they were good enough for identification. It could well be the case that there was a lot of sand on the turtle’s cheeks or that there was some reflection which would decrease the software’s ability to match the individual. The pictures were okay to use and I got a first cheek-glimpse that way :-) 

Nearly perfect ID photos of the left and right sides!
But still not the real ones… Then again, I did not have that much time to think about this since the German tourists realized that I am German as well and started asking a bunch of new questions and I was happy to explain. The boy who was so into counting the eggs before almost got upset realizing that the small ones would never know who their father was and that their mummy would not come back for them. 

Once hatched, the little turtles will have to find their own way. They won’t recognize any family members, but the females of them will know how to come back to this exact same beach for nesting. It really upset him and got him thinking which was so moving and sad in way, but this is how it works. Finally, the turtle was done recovering the nest and slowly, slowly made her way back into the ocean. While she was crawling back to the sea, I finally could get a look at both her cheeks and….recognized her!! That turtle really made my day. Not only was she the first encounter since I am here, but she also was in the data-base!! :-)     

Goodbye Interns, Hello Kristina!

The French interns have left and so now I will be taking over this blog, muhahaha : I’m Kristina and I will be here for the next couple of months writing my master thesis. What  will I be doing? Great that you ask! I will develop a photo-ID catalogue for the hawksbill turtles here on Mahe using the software I3S Pattern (it is similar to the one they use for whale sharks and works okay so far). Since it hasn’t been evaluated for turtles, my job is to test the software and see how good it performs:-) 
Anais (right) and Kristina (left) digging up the nest.

Some of you might miss the French interns writing here, so here’s a last post including one of them. It happened a couple of weeks back on my first patrol ever here. On the first step of the first beach of my first patrol, we happened to come across a nest right at the entry of the beach. 

There were quite a few dead hatchlings dug up BUT there also were a lot of them left alive. They did not look the best and were dehydrated. Usually, we do not help hatchlings because it is important that they imprint on that beach in order to be able to come back. However, these hatchlings really needed some help. We decided to help them out and leave them to try and make their way. Ana├»s and me, we were digging up the nest and helping them to get out of the nest. After a while that they have been trying (or well, not really) Vanessa took them closer to the sea and watered them. From then on, they were able to make it and once in water, they seemed happy and were much more active :-) 

Hope you enjoyed a last French contribution; stay tuned!