Friday, May 25, 2012

Hallelujah for Hatchlings

Alli had been staring at the sand for awhile. It was moving and making some noises here and there. She knew what was going on. I had strolled down to the beach at the end of the work day to take a swim, rest and read some book. I never got around to any of those activities. I then preceded to stare at the sand with Alli for another 30-40 minutes. I then knew what was coming too: hatchling Hawksbill sea turtles! The inaugural batch of 2012.

We did this for awhile. What can I say we were hog-wild for hatchlings!

*** Note: all photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

The only problem was this was the first time Alli and I had ever been around when the babies make their way up out of the sand. We didn't know if they'd take another 10 minutes or 4 hours. Before sunset for photos? Takeout dinner in the hatchery? Sprinting pee breaks? Vital questions we had no answers for. We were glued to the wiggling sand, continually watching it move about. You could hear the hatchlings rumbling below. Amazingly these tiny creatures (the shell is around 3.5 cm long) can take a day or two to dig out a nest 40 cm below the surface. That don't sound too jolly, but we had a feeling they were bout to hit pay dirt, or in this case, outside air.

Are them turtle heads poppin' up!?! Come on buddies...
For the record: this all took place on 10 May, I've just been a bad chronological blogger and haven't posted it yet. I'll try to be more timely, but one of the things you definitely learn in journalism school: always push the deadline. 

Moving on. After over an hour of staring one lil' bugger broke free. Another head poked out, a new flipper popped up and then it was a full-on turtle stampede. Flailing around and scurrying everywhere the hatchlings kept coming, like deranged Black Friday shoppers blood-thirsty for flat screens and video games. I can't undersell the moment. It was frickin' incredible. Watching a boil (who came up with this term!?!) of sea turtles come up like that is a surreal sight. And they just keep coming.

The winner of the grand sand race finally shows! First one is out.
After picking our jaws up and toning down the exciting expletives we kept repeating Alli and I started to transport the babies into a large cooler, counting as we plopped the manic turtles down. Dani and Izati were there too. One cool sight: while the turtles were still in the mesh net milling about, all were trying to get out and go toward the ocean. None were facing land or the jungle!

Can't stop, won't stop! More and more making their way to the top.
When all were accounted for 117 had made the vertical journey out of 140 eggs. That's a solid 83% hatching success rate, pretty dang good for Hawksbills. We then measured the length and width of 10 hatchlings and secured them in a huge tub. When you got 6 cats on the premises you need security.  In the days that followed another 5 made the journey out and then one loner a few days after that, pushing out total to 123.
Counting babies and into the cooler they go!

These babies came from a nest on Penut, a beach south of Juara Bay we monitor by boat. At 1am that same night we loaded up and headed out to release them. We always release from the location they were found. Some rocky reef was exposed on our walk in even though it was high-tide. These rocks are slippery. I was the one with the cooler full of hatchlings. I was concentrating a lot to not be the late-night dufus that dropped the babies. Nobody likes that dude or dudette.

Alli lookin' good with a turtle...
... and this dude lookin' creepy.
We got in position. Found a nice spot on the beach. Alli positioned the cooler, tipping it over just enough that they exploded out! Flippers gone wild, maneuvering over sand then rocks, but after that? Only ocean. Into the surf and disappear they did.

Above: the entire crew before release. Alli: set them free girl!
The hatchlings were released about 9 meters from the water line. Most of 'em took about 1.50 minutes to get into the ocean. One slow poke (he had some issues moving around a large rock) dragged behind, but after 4.30 minutes even this tortoise in the gang got to the finish line. Our job was done. They made it into the water. Hopefully in 20 years or so they'll make it back.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Goodbye Toilet Paper, Hello Wet Toilet!

I haven't used toilet paper in over 6 weeks. That's right, 6 weeks.

Ever since we exited Singapore and entered Malaysia toilet paper in my world has gone the way of the Dodo. Extinct. Why you ask? The wet toilet. It's quite the change from U.S. bathroom procedure, but I'm not gonna lie, I don't miss it at all. It's actually completely different from Western bathrooms in general. Every country I had been to before rocks the TP. Mexico, Canada, a hodge podge of east and west European countries, plus Singapore, too.
The hiney hose with a Western style toilet.

Now at the turtle project we have western bathrooms and TP, but I have chose not to partake. I figure we're going to be in Malaysia, Indonesia and other nearby places for the foreseeable future so I might as well get into it. Question number two: if you don't use toilet tissue then what? A hose that sprays water. Simple as that. Juara has a steady and safe supply of water - originating from a river up in the jungle hills here on Tioman. So there's no use for bottled water, we drink it straight from the tap. We got a lot of water, which is splendid: we consume it, take showers with it, keep the garden satisfied, and rinse my derriere too. Full disclosure: this column is just on my bathroom preferences, Alli asked me to leave her out of it. No turtle talk today people, the bathroom is the center of attention!

But that's it. Rinse off with water and it all goes down the drain. Here at the project we have western toilets, which enables you to sit and take a load off, but more commonly around Malaysia they have squat toilets. That's a hover-over-it situation. No seat to relax on.
Haven't seen you in awhile toilet paper.

My fondness for the wet toilet (and its accompanying hiney hose for lack of a more proper term) got me thinking. Could this work in the U.S.? For sure the idea would gross people out and toilet paper is so ingrained into our psyche that it would be an uphill battle to change ways. We're so used to it by now we even have a variety of TP lingo: double roll, two-ply, four-ply, and so on and so on. For the last four-plus years I had been living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Is there room for the wet toilet in a water starved state? I don't know. My past residence of Colorado would be a tricky sell as well, considering the freezing temps and lack of water. In my childhood state of Maryland then? Maybe. I think in some parts it could be a sweet solution to the using too much paper problem.

Enter globalized commerce. Indonesian rainforest has been hacked down in the last few decades by paper companies at an alarming rate. Guess what one of their main products is? Well what lives in those rainforests? Besides unique herps, pretty birds, beneficial bugs, you got some mega-predators like tigers, which are very endangered. The dominoes fall like this: trees get cut, tigers lose ground, people get TP. But it's Western countries buying the toilet paper, along with other products (read the whole report here; more shorter news items here and here). The reality is never that simple though. Logging in the U.S. has been shut down entirely in some areas (SW and NW states especially) because of endangered species (the Northern Spotted Owl in particular). But does that just push the threat to biodiversity somewhere else? As I mentioned before, the globalized world is a strange beast. I didn't really mean to go off on a tangent about deforestation, toilet paper, endangered species and the economic engines of this millennium, but I did. Something to chew on eh?

Wait a sec!?! How'd I end up in a blog post about toilets. You gotta read to find out folks!
In the meantime, I am a wet toilet convert. I keep thinking how easier Alli and I's mayonnaise malaise of 2010 would have been if the wet toilet was there for me. I wish I had discovered it sooner. But just before I turned 28, I did. That's a-okay with me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Funny Field Work Follies (and the letter F goes wild!)

Field work, just like life, can be spectacular, routine, drab, infuriating or just plain silly. Sometimes when you're on point and luck is rolling the dice with you, I've seen things that have gave me goosebumps. Witnessed events that have caused me to yell out joyful curse words and pump my fist, Arsenio Hall style. A few weeks before we departed I was lucky enough, after following her for 1.5 hours, to watch a Gila monster we were radio tracking dig out a juvenile Cottontail rabbit nest and scarf down some furry youngsters. Incredible. I was on cloud nine for the entire ordeal. That's about as amazing a day you can have in the field.
The female Gila on her way to finding a Cottontail rabbit nest. This is one healthy lizard.

But then there's days where all you do is sweat and are exhausted, you forget to take a specific data point, leave all the vital gear you need at home or totally just blow it. The key to it all: laughing at yourself when you mess up. A lot. And then making sure you don't do the same idiotic thing twice. I once dropped my keys out of my backpack while tracking a Gila monster at night by myself. Over 3 hours later I found them. Never again have I pulled that move.

Charlie (face bomb!) cruising the boat to Munjur beach at the sun sets on Tioman. Juara Bay is in the background.

That being said, Charlie and I recently spent two nights in a row camping (err, maybe being on a stakeout is a more appropriate term) on Munjur beach in anticipation of a re-nesting Green sea turtle. Hmmmm, I just didn't do any foreshadowing about how this endeavor worked out. Munjur is one of two uninhabited beaches we monitor that are directly south of Juara Bay here. It's probably about a 15 minute boat ride. So let's see: camping near the beach in hope of finding a nesting Green turtle so we can measure the mama and tag her plus get a nest for our hatchery, yup I can get to that. Cue Ziggy Stardust lyrics though: it ain't (that) easy!
Will Smith bearing down on Munjur Beach, one of the 3 sea turtle nesting beaches we monitor daily.

The first night started off with a solid sign: two turtles were mating near the beach as we rode in. For the record: JTP's boat is named Will Smith. I would have gone with Jeff Goldblum, but that's another story. We then walked in with our gear and started looking for a place to camp. We chose some ground on the north end of the beach between the high tide line and end of the jungle. More sweet news: an Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina, AHPR) greeted us in the leaves. It's a graceful snake that moves through trees and other vegetation while looking for lizards and frogs to munch on. First time I've seen this one. Only bummer news is I forgot my camera. So all the photos on this blog are from the second night.
A gorgeous underneath view of the Oriental Whipsnake (Ahaetulla  prasina, AHPR).  These guys can be a variety of colors, but this one was like Laffy Taffy green.
Overhead view. Sweet view of its wrapped around the branch and leaves.

Well, hammocks got set up, a small, hidden fire burned, and then Mega-moon came out around 22:30 hours. Talk about bright! The beach was lit up for real, for real. To miss a turtle on this beach would be tough, but alas, we did. As high tide rolled in we got sleepy. Charlie dozed off and I fell asleep for about 10 minutes. After waking up I had a weird feeling of panic that maybe we missed her. So I scampered down the rocks and started walking the sand. The strech in front of us was track free but as I walked up to the southern end of the beach, which of course turtles don't visit too often and you can't see from our makeshift campsite, two sets of turtle tracks were there! One for the way in, the other on the way out. No turtle. No nest. She came up, just like the day before, moseyed around and then headed back to the ocean. I woke up Charlie, we checked out the scene some more, hung our heads in despair as sand flies bit us on the beach, and then decided it's a wrap. We swam out to the boat and got back to JTP around 2am.
North end of Munjur at sunset.

Not to be defeated, we were very sure that after coming ashore two nights in a row this mother turtle was ready to drop a clutch on the third night. Back to the camping spot. More jolly times at Munjur! This time I remembered my camera (and binos!), but forgot shoes. Walking on wet coral and rock is not a skill I have mastered yet out here. It took awhile for me to even walk in with our gear. Looking at the photo of low tide you can understand why. Back to the same spot. I had a warm and fuzzy feeling the turtle was gonna show. I searched for more snakes after the sun went down, finding another AHPR in the trees. Then we scarfed some take-out noodles, shot the shit and waited on the tide. The moon came out. No turtle seen. I had a feeling again I needed to get down to the beach. With no red light on (we were being extra careful to not spook the turtle) I made my way and in the first minute I saw tracks on the stretch of beach in front of us. One set. Then noise. Tossed sand and the movement of a flipper. She must be starting to dig her nest! It's always feels glorious when you find what you set out for.
Low tide, slippery rocks, sharp coral and an uncoordinated Brian make for slug-like walking. But I got no open gashes on my legs so that was a plus.

I woke Charlie up and we crept back. She was still flinging sand so after checking out the rest of Munjur we took a seat away from her on the beach. She continued to fling sand. Time passed. Chit-chat here and there. Silence for a little while and then I heard a noise behind us. Holy Toledo that's a turtle heading back to sea. She ran into our cooler we use for the eggs and almost head butted Charlie's backbone. She was on the move and we misjudged her big time! Her nest was layed and she was covering it up when I first saw her. Maybe we should have at least shined some light on her once. We thought about tagging her on the way back, but decided not to. She was ready to get back in the water and make us feel like morons. I couldn't help but laugh. Two nights of camping and no nest collected, no measurements made and no tags placed on her flippers. We laughed a ton and she swam away. I hope she was chuckling too.

Our improvised (and in the end failed) stakeout location. That piece of driftwood  we found made for a lovely bench though. 
Since midnight was on deck and the tide was high we decided to call it, bail on camping and boat back to the JTP. Swimming out to the boat, trying not to slice my foot open in the dark water, I couldn't stop smiling. I knew we'd get the nest in the morning so no worries about that (yeah, Izati brought the eggs back, 98 total). I had to admire how well we succeeded in failing. I think we'll do a few things differently next time. As Will Smith motored back under the night sky I didn't feel too much like he did at the end of Independence Day. Heck, I wasn't even feeling much like Will Smith at all, since he's usually doing everything right and saving the world from imminent demise (ID4, iRobot, Bad Boys, MIB, the list goes on and on). But at least we gave everyone else here something to joke about for awhile.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Turtle at our Doorstep

In the early morning on 27 April, Joris (a volunteer from Holland) spoke through our open room window and asked if we wanted to see a turtle. Well, it was about 2am so at first I had no idea what was happening. After I got my bearings and stopped dreaming about the new Neil Young and Crazy Horse album (just guessing on that one), I realized hell yeah I wanna see a turtle. I tried to get Alli up, but the lady was too sleepy this time around.

Back to the sea, trudging along!
The lucky part: this very wide Green turtle mama decided to nest right at the beach in front of the JTP. Boom-shack-alacka! Like NBA Jam used to say. By the time she had been spotted she already had her eggs covered up and was going nutty with her front flippers. Sand was moving. She was only a couple meters from our hatchery so there was no point in digging up the nest and moving it there. We left it in-situ. We missed our window to tag her front flippers so hopefully on the return visit we can get that done.

Dani and I measuring the outside width of her tracks after she left the beach. I a like this photo!
She should return in the next 4-5 days. It'll be her second time coming back to Mentawak Beach so we don't know for sure what her re-nesting interval is gonna be yet . The portly turtle gave us our 8th nest of the year. The ocho.

The in-situ nest right in front of the JTP.
On her saunter back to the ocean is when we measured her shell, took some photos and then bid her adieu. She took 15 minutes to get back to the water - entering just a smidge before 3am. She probably first came ashore right around midnight. Her tracks were measured and shortly later I was back in bed. Whether Neil Young crept back into my dreamscape I can't recall. He definitely wasn't in Alli's. She hates that dude (an unfortunate trait I think she inherited from her Mom).

Her nest in relation to where our hatchery is.
And her tracks the next day before her mesh enclosure went up.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sweeter than a Plate of Yams with Extra Syrup

To be concise, Malaysia likes its sweet and sugary. When it comes to drinks and food the sweet is on. Big time. The drinks are loaded with enough sweetness that I imagine consuming too many per day would probably wreak havoc on my teeth's enamel over the long haul (and I gotta keep the chompers in solid condition cause for once in my life, right before we left Tucson, my mouth was deemed a 'no new cavity' zone).

But back to business. This blog post isn't to complain about the sweet, cause the truth is: I'm a huge fan. So much of a fan in fact that Alli is already harping on me to cool out on my sweet drink consumption and bring it down a few. I know she's right, but I'm stubborn.

Nestle Milo: chocolate powder awesomeness. You basically can dunk like that dude once you down a few cups.
The thing is the drinks are glorious and a lot are coffee flavored and such, so you know I'm a sucker. My favorite so far is the Neslo Ice. This concoction is Nescafe (yup the instant coffee crystals), Milo (chocolate powder), sweet milk (of the condensed variety) and sugar. You got that? Top it off with some ice cubes and whammo!, taste explosion party is on. Straight up Milo Ice is on point too, as it tastes like yummy cold chocolate milk. You also can get tea with sweet milk in it (amazing!) and a variety of juice drinks, such as Iced Lime Juice (with real limes and some generous spoonfuls of sugar).

Now some of you who know me probably are aware I'm kind of a coffee snob. Alli would say that's an understatement. It's true: I prefer my coffee whole-bean and with buckets of flavor. I also look for certain traits that are ripe for a Portlandia sketch: shade-grown, organic, fair trade, etc. A hefty red tub of Folgers was never to be found in any of my recent U.S. residences.

Am I drinking this liquid swill in Malaysia!?! You must read my words to find out!
But then I'm moved to Malaysia and the game done changed. It's mostly instant coffee round here, mixed into the delectable combos I described above. That was hard for me to deal with, the instant coffee part. Straight up that stuff mostly tastes like sawdust and cardboard dipped in a 13 day old pot of coffee. But when mixed with condensed milk (we'll see if Alli will make me a Tres Leche cake for my birthday comin' up here!) and other sweet treats, it's on! I bought a few bags of delicious coffee in Singapore but they didn't last long.

Soon I was tapping into the tub o' Folgers and drinking it alone while crying crouched behind the chicken coop. No it wasn't that bad. I now love Malaysian coffee, chocolate and tea drinks. It's just different. I've even started drinking tea! The coffee drinks are like iced versions of those fake cappuccino machines gas stations have. I always had a massive weak spot for those.

The real best part of waking up is a slow dribble of sweet milk in your cup. Poppin' tops!
So let it be known Malaysia's got quite the sweet tooth. I didn't even ramble on about the food (sweet baked beans, sweet sauces, it's lovely), maybe another time. It's interesting to note though that a lot of the time I was drinking so-called good coffee in Tucson, the beans hailed from Indonesia or East Timor (tack on those carbon miles! More Portlandia fodder). Now that I'm neighboring these countries I can't even find their coffee here. The globalized marketplace is a strange beast. It reminds me of something Alfred Russell Wallace (the kick-ass field biologist) said in his natural history travelogue 'The Malay Archipelago.' He always wondered why when in countries that produced lots of coffee one could never get a decent cup of it. He might have came up with the idea of evolution, but unfortunately for him, he never had a Neslo Ice on a warm evening.

P.S. - Shout out to whoever can tell what song I'm quoting in this blog's title...