A mama turtle nests, and we get to witness it
Hello, my friends.
This morning, I was waiting with Beanie for her school bus to arrive. “It’s raining,” she said. I looked up in surprise since the skies were clear and blue. That’s when I noticed a little black lump on a branch. As I stared at it, the lump moved and four limbs stretched out to grasp the branch. A baby monkey! Rustle, rustle, went the leaves in other parts of that big tree, and I saw two more little monkeys.
I often wake up at 4 or 5 am and hear the howler monkeys making their early morning racket, but it’s been weeks since I’ve seen any of them. And I would have missed these baby monkeys too, if I hadn’t been searching the skies for rain. Must remember to look up more often—there are probably all sorts of interesting things I’m missing with my head down.
Two-and-a-half hours south of where we live is a town called Islita, with a beautiful secluded beach—Playa Islita—and an adjacent eco-resort called Hotel Punta Islita, where we stayed this past weekend. The hotel has been around since 1994 and has a strong presence in the small surrounding community. When we went “off-campus” for dinner, for example, the restaurant owner told us he’d worked at the hotel for 20 years in many capacities—from gardener to front desk receptionist—and his wife, the chef of their restaurant, had also been chef at the hotel for many years.
Affiliated with the hotel is the Macaw Recovery Network, a nonprofit group that works to save and breed red and green macaw species. We visited to learn about their conservation efforts over the past decade.
We watched as a volunteer put out breakfast for the macaws that had been released from the center and were now living in the wild. She placed a bowl full of seeds and fruits on a wooden platform, and hoisted the platform high up the tree with a rope. Within minutes, four macaws showed up for their meals. As we watched them feast, we learned that macaws are the rare group of birds where birds are all identical, males and females. Our guide said it might be because they mate for life, so the males have no need to impress their lady friends with superior plumage or size.
Like so many other animals, macaw populations have been decimated because we have destroyed their habitats—the mountain almond trees these birds like to nest in have been cut down for wood and to clear the way for land development. Macaws are also desirable as pets, and sadly are often poached and trafficked.
Hotel Punta Islita houses a small museum down the hill, and we took part in a couple of cultural activities there. We made a dessert local to this region called Mazamorra, from purple corn, water and sugar. We made candles from wax and the sand from Playa Islita, to take home as a tangible remembrance of this place and time.
But the most memorable experience we had was watching a mama olive ridley turtle lay her eggs on a beach. On a moonless night, we walked through a muddy grove of trees to the beach with a guide and some other curious tourists, to search for nesting turtles. When we arrived at the beach, the guide made us turn off our flashlights and phone lights, and handed us long-wavelength red lights that wouldn’t disturb and frighten the turtles.
Then we waited.
When our guide spotted a turtle on its way to nest, we all turned off our red lights and waited in the dark quietly. The guide’s light shone again soon after, highlighting a single turtle that was moving up the beach. She picked a location to begin digging with her fins. We were buzzing with excitement: the nesting had begun! Mother turtle alternated using her left and right rear fins to dig and sweep sand away from the growing hole. After a few minutes, our excitement grew muted. Every time I thought she was done…she was not. Because the hole needed to hold the 80-120 eggs she would be laying, it would have to be quite deep—about two feet deep, our guide said.
After about half an hour of watching the hypnotic dig-and-sweep motion, the turtle placed both rear fins firmly on the sand and hovered her back end over the hole. “She’s going to lay the eggs now,” said our guide.
Sure enough, perfectly round eggs that looked just like ping-pong balls started dropping into the hole, 2-3 at a time. A steady plop-plop that went on for perhaps 20 minutes while the mother turtle stared ahead fixedly, seemingly unperturbed by the group of humans gathered behind her. At first the eggs disappeared down the sandy crevasse, but as more piled up, we could see them build into a gleaming mound.
After laying her eggs, mother turtle worked on covering them with her fins, in an opposite motion from before, sweeping her fins inwards so vigorously that her shell bounced clumsily left and right. She wanted to do a thorough job covering the hole to keep the eggs safe. The guide gave her a helping hand and so did Beanie, pushing piles of sand to the mouth of the hole (Beanie is quite the expert at digging and filling sand holes, if I do say so myself).
A few times while we were standing out on the beach, our guide swept his red light around and pointed out the eyes of raccoons shining red in the distance. They were lurking in the periphery for the first opportunity to steal and eat these turtle eggs. With their keen sense of smell, they could find the eggs, well-hidden are they were. Everywhere on the beach, we saw what looked like deflated and torn white rubber balls—the remnants of hundreds of turtle eggs, their insides long gone, first devoured by raccoons and then picked over by the hermit crabs that scuttled about underfoot.
Out of the 80-120 eggs in a clutch, only one or two will make it to hatchling about 45 days later. The rest will be eaten by predators or poached by humans. But the odds for sea turtles are even more terrible than that: emerging as a baby turtle is only the first challenge. They must then immediately make the treacherous journey down to the water without getting picked off by a bird or other predator. Later and throughout their lives, they must avoid poachers or getting accidentally caught in fishing nets.
On this beach, volunteers watch over the baby turtles as they migrate to the water. They can’t just pick the babies up, as the young animals are very delicate and they also must crawl on the sand by themselves to “imprint,” so they can find their way back as adults to nest on this same beach. The volunteers can only hover nearby, shooing away other animals that mean the turtles harm.
It’s always good to hear of situations when us humans are watching over other creatures, rather than just participating in their extinction. As I mentioned in last week’s post, another species of sea turtles that nests near Tamarindo are the leatherbacks, which are now endangered. While olive ridleys are the most abundant of the seven sea turtle species, they are still listed as “vulnerable” and their numbers are headed in the wrong direction. Without intervention, they are likely to become endangered like other sea turtle species.
When her eggs were well covered in sand, mother turtle turned around and crawled back to the sea while we followed her, many of us videoing or taking photos. At the water’s edge, she stopped until the tide came in and covered her fins before paddling toward deeper ocean. The tide receded, and she stopped again. Slowly, slowly, over and over, while we followed behind her in a semi-circle, documenting her return to the sea.
Finally, the water carried her away altogether, and we said, “Adiós, turtle!” A lady with us said it was one of the most magical nights of her life. Seeing the turtle disappear into the dark current under the dim red glow of our lights was surreal, like a dream. It did feel like she had shared a vulnerable and intimate moment of her life with us, and now we were letting her go.
We asked Beanie if she’d enjoyed the evening, and she said she had. Beanie was as excited to be out past her bedtime as she was about the turtle-watching. I hope, though, that this is a memory that stays with her for a long time. These are the kinds of experiences that come to mind when I think about “worldschooling”: special activities that spark an interest and might grow into something more—a greater connection with our fellow creatures and the imperative to conserve them, or perhaps even a future calling. I’d like her to see herself as one part of this great and magnificent world, a global citizen in every sense of the word.
That is the hope.
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Pretty Good Things
Mileage hacking—the actual best use for it
Some of you know that Taz and I have been mileage hacking for a long time—Taz started this hobby when he was a consultant and traveling a lot for work, about two decades ago. Since then, the miles-and-points space has expanded enormously and there are bloggers and vloggers galore, discussing all the intricacies of how best to collect and spend airline miles and hotel points. We don’t need to rehash all that here (although if you’re interested in talking shop, just drop a comment or contact me). I do want to point out one of the biggest benefits of mileage hacking that is hardly ever discussed because it’s less glamorous than fancy hotels and first-class flights.
The most effective use of airline miles is when you need to take a last-minute flight. We just decided to go to Mexico City in a few days and we bought flights using miles. Prices in cash for reasonable flights were sky high, unsurprisingly, but prices in miles were same as usual. Many times, miles have saved us significant sums—like when we’ve needed to travel for funerals—or given us options to get away on an impulse.
(And the most versatile way to accrue miles is to do so with a program like Chase Ultimate Rewards that allows you to transfer to many airline partners.)
Here’s a short and silly video to laugh at
There’s no finesse here—just primal silliness.