Friday, July 13, 2012

Saved by Sound

I've been doing the field biology thing for a little while now. Over the last couple of years I scoured the desert ground for a lot of herps, sometimes for official business, but mostly for thrills and pleasure - the pure fun of it. One thing I came to know quickly: listening matters, a lot. Sure, you need a solid set of eyes to find what you're looking for, but keeping your ears open and paying attention to the audio cues around you is also mightily important and useful. Good thing I’ve only seen two Dinosaur Jr. shows in my life, cause a collection of their ticket stubs has to affect one’s hearing.

Listening enabled me to see Desert tortoises duke it out and a Tiger rattlesnake woof down a mouse. I found a lot of Gila monsters and tortoises this way, plus zoned in on quite a few snakes. And since they shout out for all to hear, following the calls of toads and frogs usually rewards you with a slap-happy monsoon pool of amphibian copulation that is always comical to see. The point is: keep your ears open and sometimes it's alright to just shut the hell up in the field. And soak up the sounds.

Louise the Green turtle laying her first nest of 2012 on Mentawak Beach on  April 14th.  All red light photos of Louise are from previous landings, not the night I'm writing about now. Call it red-light photo turtle fatigue.
On June 6th turtle watch was on. Louise (named after my Grandma and pictured above) was expected to grace us with a clutch of eggs for the sixth time. Since Green turtles can nest up to seven times, but often fall short of this number we weren't completely positive our first Mentawak Beach mother of 2012 would return. At 20:23 hours Alli and I saw that she did, except we messed it all up. 

When patrolling a nesting beach the ideal spot to walk is between the high tide line and vegetation, which is up on the beach away from the water line. The Lady and I were not following this rule at all. We were strolling at the water's edge for some reason. I honestly don't know why. Alli shined her red light ahead of us and there was our large female breaking the surf and coming onto land. The light went right into her eyes. After a few quiet, but startled "Holy shits," we retreated away in hope she would still come on shore. She didn't. We scared her off. She was coming ashore between JTP and Lagoon, a resort at the end of Mentawak. Now she was back in Juara Bay and (hopefully) plotting to get onto the sand sometime later tonight. Usually when you interrupt a turtle like this it's the equivalent of being walked in on in a bathroom stall. You feel semi-violated for a moment and stop what you're doing, but eventually the process continues. Past experiences say the turtle would make another landing, especially since it was still early.

She fell in the pit definitely to the tune of Parks and Rec.
I did a stealth walk of the beach with no light and (of course) up higher, but this discovered nothing. We then decided to continue our regular walking schedule in hope she would return.

At 23:05 I was strolling the beach and heard some intriguing noise, which sounded a lot like sand whacking leaves (I need to work on more mysterious foreshadowing). Not much on the beach this hour makes noise besides turtles flinging sand, tourists being soused, or your occasional cat mucking about. I heard it again and again, the sand ramming against the vegetation. I was walking near the high-tide line and saw no turtle tracks in the area though. None. The moon was assisting, and along with my red light, I couldn’t find any tracks at all. I kept hearing the noise and after a minute or so decided to investigate regardless of the lack of tracks. I got down low and crept toward the sound, eventually losing all my dreams of becoming a suspense novelist, but I did scope out the turtle we spooked earlier.

I rang the gang and since she was close everyone got there fast. She laid 125 eggs between 23:50 and midnight, and left for Juara Bay about 70 minutes after that. But this is merely the standard data and numbers I’m regurgitating back to you all.

Slip slidin' away... to the tune of Paul Simon, duh...
This night is inimitable for another reason: no tracks existed because they were covered up by people. When folks showed up they commented on the absence of tracks too. After she was done laying eggs, we started to poke around. There were no standard turtle tracks leading up to the body pit, but a lot of other markings made a nice trail to our female. Zig-zag patterns from the ocean to her were present. Imagine slowly walking on a beach and moving one of your feet back and forth, left and right, like the scraggly line on a heart rate monitor, but vertical instead of horizontal. At the water’s edge a smattering of footprints existed too, with the zig-zags heading up from there.

Before long we knew what the jig was. Other folks found the turtle before us and covered up her tracks, with the hope of leaving us in the lurch. We never see the tracks, find no nest, stop our patrols for the evening and they come back, dig out the nest and have 125 eggs at their disposal. No other options were feasible.

The kicker is no one was around when I found the turtle. And nobody was seen while we hung out in anticipation and then collected the eggs. After our people-covered-up-the-tracks hypothesis was agreed upon, we all hung back as Louise covered up her now empty nest. Sitting in a quiet circle, enduring the dead wind and ravenous sand flies, we chatted quietly about the covered-up tracks. It’s disheartening to think people, only a couple minutes walk away from JTP, would so obviously try to trick you so they could take some eggs. Frustration and dismay were in the air, along with relief that we got the leg up this time. Nights like this exemplify in bold letters with an exclamation point why our daily beach patrols are necessary. JTP’s been going for six years and after all its time here people still want to take eggs next door from us. Conservation work is a prolonged slog. We obviously haven’t convinced some people a turtles’ eggs are worth more in the ground than out of it.
Her one-way track back to the sea the next morning. I tried getting a photo of the covered up tracks but  after so long they just looked like plain ol' disturbed sand.
Around 00:45, as Louise was still covering up, we heard the “bip bip bip” sounds of an alarm on a stop-watch. A reminder for the covered-up track crew that it might be safe to dig out the nest? Maybe. Nobody showed and shortly after Izati and I sleuthed around with our torch lights to see if anyone was milling about or hiding. Nothing. Five minutes later though we heard two motorbike engines rev up relatively close by and head off. Coincidence? Could be. We’ll never know.

People were thrilled I found the turtle without seeing tracks. Not me. If we had followed protocol and walked the beach the correct way, Louise wouldn’t have gotten rattled. Eggs would have been laid much earlier in the evening. Considering the location of her first attempt the tracks, most likely, would have remained intact and not become a thing of the past. Saved by sound tonight? Yeah, you could say that. But I wonder if there are a collection of past ghost tracks we’ve never found. With tracks being deliberately disguised on the beach JTP resides on and having already endured our first poached nest of 2012 in May, it’s going to take a lot more than open ears, and even eyes, to alleviate the challenges these sea turtles face on their natal beaches. We’ll gladly take this nest for now, but it just shows the present and future have a noisy disposition.


  1. This story is crazy! And sad...but I am so glad you guys won that battle. Do you ever have security issues with people trying to nab right from the project at all?

    1. Eyyy hey they Crystal! Glad you enjoyed this doozy of a narrative. We glad we won too. Luckily no one messes with the hatchery at the project, which is unguarded and unprotected on the beach at our place. That would be boatloads more stressful. We've even left two nest in-situ this year since they were laid right next to our hatchery.

  2. The bathroom stall violation analogy is top-notch. I can totally sympathize with Miss Louise, now.

    1. I'm glad Tara. It was very inappropriate for us to interrupt her like that.