Friday, July 31, 2009


Monday morning, July 20, I met David Godfrey at the airport in San Jose for the short flight to Tortuguero. Also on the flight was Dan Evans, the CCC's chief satellite tracking researcher, accompanied by his wife, Gayle, and six year old son, Noah. The Nature Air, 20 passenger Twin-Otter, made a smooth landing on the cement landing strip, so different from the Cessna's landing on the sand beach 50 years ago. There to meet us was Juan Carlos Barrantes, the manager of the research station. Our bags were carried to the small dock and into the station's outboard motor-powered boat. A 15 minute ride on the river and we were at the station, named for John H. Phipps, one of the original sponsors of the CCC. For me, what a change. Now I saw in the coconut grove, modern buildings with marked paths to the little museum, three dormitories, a dining hall, and an air conditioned building housing the library (named for Joshua Powers) and an office, complete with computer communications. We were met by Dr. Emma Harrison, the CCC Scientific Director and the Field Coordinator, Clare Atkinson, who carries out the daily work on the beach. I was taken to one of the dormitories for visiting scientists (me being upgraded). I had a room of my own with four bunks complete with a wash basin, FLUSH TOILET, and a HOT SHOWER. (What a change from a hammock and an outhouse over the river.) The research station has electricity and water piped in from the nearest city.

After a breakfast of scrambled (chicken) eggs, cereal, fruit and coffee, we met a number of the volunteers, young college graduates studying for advanced degrees.

Then Dan Evans gave a presentation about the transmitters which were to be attached to the backs of two turtles on the next two nights. One, which looked like a small, black laundry iron, was manufactured in Australia and, he added, cost $2,100. A second transmitter, manufactured in California, was smaller, and had a built-in GPS system, was $3,600. Dan explained how the two transmitters were to be attached with a special epoxy (a little more complicated than "Elmer's Glue").

After lunch we repaired for a little rest because we looked forward to a night of walking the black sand beach of Tortuguero. I had been advised (warned?) that I could expect as much as four hours each night.) The research station's volunteers patrol the five miles of beach each night, counting each turtle, and tagging it after it has made its nest, laid its eggs, and then lumbers back into the sea.

Tortuguero, of course, is now a bustling community on both sides of the CCC research station. To the south, a ten minute walk, is the community of Tortuguero, and another short walk is the Tortuguero National Park. Also along the river, are several new hotels and resort bungalows, as well as outboard motor boats plying the river. And to the north, just a ten minute walk, is the Mawamba Lodge, a five star hotel complete with swimming pool and a butterfly enclosure. All this means tourists, lots of them, and so there are rules now as to who and when persons can be on the beach. From eight p.m. to midnight, tourists with guides are allowed on the beach. There are two periods - one from eight to ten, and the second from ten to midnight. From midnight until four the beach is open only to the volunteers from the research station.

The capture of the turtle is now "politically correct." No longer is it flipped until morning. Now, the reasearch station has built boxes--roughly three feet by four and with a side that opens, no top. Once a turtle is spotted, the station is alerted and the box is carried to the beach, on long pipes, with six volunteers carrying it. That first night a turtle was found only 50 yards from the station in the first 15 minutes (so I didn't have to walk very far). And the volunteers were helpful, making sure I didn't fall in the dark. The volunteers carry small lights (like a miner's cap) with red and white bulbs. When the turtle has finished laying her eggs and has covered her nest, she is gently nudged into the box as she makes her way to the sea. She is then carried (like a casket at a funeral with pall bearers) to the research station where she stays for the night.

In the morning, Dan Evans brings out the transmitters and his cleaning utensils. The back of the turtle is scrubbed, and then Dan sand papers gently the shell before he applies the epoxy. It is a process which takes close to an hour to complete.

Meanwhile, tourists arrive. They have been alerted about the operation and they are taken in small groups to the box to observe the turtle and the transmitters. Once the demonstration is complete, the box with turtle is carried to the beach. A large sign advertising the CCC is erected and the box side is opened as the turtle flaps her way to the sea watched by swarms of tourists. It's a great show.

The second night, we were lucky again. A turtle was found close to the station, but when it was examined, it was found she had barnacles and thus the volunteers searched for a second turtle. Again, "hlucky", one was found close to the station. This one had a clean back and again, once it had finished its nesting, it was urged into the box and carried back to the station, a distance of some 200 yards. The next morning, more tourists arrived to watch Dan attach the transmitter. Among the visitors was a group from Merrit College in Oakland, California. On this morning there were about 200 watchers. Sabine Berneret, a French nature photographer, who has published her photos of animals in Africa, was with us both nights and has made her pictures available to the CCC. (When I figure out how to add pictures to this blog I will include some in future blogs.)

For those of you who are computer literate, you can follow the tracks of the turtles by accessing the CCC web site. I'm advised that the first transmitter was a product of a company called Sir Track, which uses the Argos wildlife tracking system to provide basic location data on the turtles' whereabouts. The second unit was produced by Wildlife Tracking and uses both GPS and the Argos system to provide location data. The GPS information is far more exact than the Argos data and lets us know exactly how the turtle is behaving and which habitats it is using.

Also the CCC has set up a website for the upcoming 50th anniversary Gala in New York CCC 50th Anniversary Gala.

Look for pix in future blogs, or visit My Photobucket.

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