Midnight With a Leatherback

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My first memory in sea turtle conservation is a night time patrol on an incredibly remote islet on the Caribbean. We worked on a tiny stretch of beach with a scattering of rustic homes built by local fisherman. This beach was only accessible by small boats navigating through crocodile-lurking canals, deep in a lush, viny jungle overhanging with noisy howler monkeys and sleepy sloths.

We ventured into the night, barefoot, clad in black, carrying dim, red-light flashlights in our hands following our local guide who spoke only Spanish. We trekked quietly in single file through the dark — myself, our Costa Rican guide, a dark-haired Canadian girl, and a dread-headed Swedish guy for our shift from 11pm to 3am seeking out nesting Leatherbacks.

The four of us had only met that day, but here we were, trusting strangers, on the same mission seeking “tortugas”. We would relocate newly laid eggs and deliver them safely to the hatchery. After hatching, they would climb up through the sand and crawl safely down the shore to the sea, protected from hungry crabs, digging dogs, poachers, seagulls, the sun, and begin their 25-year voyage into adulthood.

The narrow beach was unpopulated and littered with driftwood. The jungle loomed high to our left, dense with palms, coconuts, and jungle insects. On our right, the unruly sea crashed loudly, and foamed rapidly all the way up to our feet. And above our heads, a sparkling spray of stars. We walked in silence, harboured between the jungle and the sea, following our barefoot guide onward into the darkness.

We saw nothing for a long, long time. Then, without warning, our guide stopped. He didn’t turn around, but held up the back of his hand in a “halt” motion and whispered back towards us: “Tortuga”.

Ooooooh… Tortuga!!!! We became instantly excited and so jittery! And quiet, of course. We couldn’t risk scaring the poor creature with our loudly hushed whispers — It was our first night on patrol, our first time in Costa Rica, and after 3 hours of walking in the silent darkness the moment was finally here . .HERE was a tortuga!

We squatted down in the dark sand and waited while our guide snuck off to investigate.

It was thrilling.

I remember the waves, the jungle, the dark, the padding of our guide’s feet as he returned, and gestured for us to follow him.

I don’t know what I had expected to see as we walked a little ways up the bank. A picnic basket-sized turtle, perhaps, splashing around in the damp sand; a mess of a dug up hole …

As we crept up, I extended my arm and held out my red-light to see more clearly.

But my light did not reflect on the entire body of a turtle as I imagined. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until I slowly waved my arm to the left, and then horizontally again to the right, very cautiously, taking it all in.

She was huge. Five feet in length, at least. And heaving. My light only extended over a portion of her shell at first glance. She was a beautiful beast. Her wide shell was as big as a dining table, her flippers, seemingly rowing waves into the black sand as she heavily dug her nest, her pre-historic face leathery, a little scale-y, with a wide mucus-y mouth.

I remember her eyes — dark and bright. Looking right back at me. I could hear her breathing. Working so hard to lay her 80 eggs or so, cover her nest and then return to the sea, hoisting her huge body over the sand towards the waves. Only then, did we turn and begin our conservation tasks with her nest.

There are many reasons that we should travel, and should get involved in such important and “do-gooder” projects: to see and to feel what the experience of wildlife conservation is really like, and to experience that within another culture. As an educator, I create opportunities for individuals to have these moments of immersion, of interacting, and of learning. It’s an experience of growth for my groups. Spending several weeks or months in another country isn’t always easy, and the hands-on projects are usually pretty challenging — but sometimes that’s what it takes to create such impactful memories. Life-changing experiences. Deep learning. A cultivation of education and cultural immersion wrapped up into an overseas experience that does something good in the world. In this case, something good for sea turtles.

What was in that moment on the beach that night? Contact with an incredible species? Cultural interaction in its most unique moment? Discovery? Connection with others? Learning? A hands-on “save the world” moment?

We can label these moments later after they’ve gone, during our reflections, when these moments become memories we are re-live. But in the present moment, it’s truly only awe that we feel. Watching a nesting sea turtle up close in the wild is AWEsome.

These are the experiences and feelings that strike a chord inside us. Makes us think. Makes us feel. Makes us understand what making an impact truly means. Makes us know how incredible it is to do good things for those that need it, and how much of ourselves can change for the better when we choose to travel, to learn, to help.

It’s the reason I travel, and the reason I do what I do.

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