Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Turtle Time at the Flower Refuge Part 3

Eco ocean recently visited Nicaragua and enjoyed some inspiring interaction with the local marine fauna. This is Part 3 of 4. Part Two.

The tour group made the move for the border after the lecture. Well, almost the border. Costa Rica is a swim away across the Bahia de Salinas from Nicaragua's La Flor beach. The trip to the La Flor refuge is a butt bouncing, one hour ride down a Nicaraguan road that’s more pothole and dust than road. It is also a river in two places where a substantial and swift flow of dark water pours out of the dense growth. We slowed considerably there, and crossed it with care.

Our bus is also not really a bus. It’s a green truck with a long flatbed behind the cab and one row of seats like a spine down the middle of the bed. People sit back to back and squeezed next to each other side by side on one long wooden bench covered with a thin cushion. We climbed aboard quietly and rarely spoke as the truck motored through the forest.

I was sure to sit on the side facing the ocean as we drove along the coast -- forested volcanic slopes on one side, ocean on the other. The goal was to catch a view of the ocean along the way but mostly it was just trees and more broad leafed brush obscuring the view of water. However, I was rewarded with the occasional glimpse. The forest thinned out at Coco Beach to reveal spare palm trees here and there on a bright sand beach as white as coconut flakes shining in the moonlight, licked by the reach of calm surf.

We arrived at the Flower Refuge dusty and ready to get off the truck. Like most things in Central America, the refuge starts with armed soldiers. In Nicaragua, it is rifles toted by short guys in blue camouflage jumpsuits. I am glad the turtles get such protection but I wonder what the soldiers think of this duty.

Is it machismo enough for them to guard turtles or is it ripe for ridicule by other soldiers who guard places like airports and banks? Are the refuge soldiers themselves necessarily turtle lovers? Maybe it is sweet duty -- hang out on a gorgeous beach, shoo the occasional poacher, and check out the blond tourists.

The guards greet us at the entrance to the refuge and we walk up to the guard house. The beach is just through a thin grove of palms.

We sign in, pay a small fee, and line up for the hand held red lights we will use to observe the turtles without disorientating them. When they hatch, turtles head toward the brightest spot, which without human lights, is the stars over the water.

On the cement block porch of the guard house, there are two rows of white, heavy duty canvas bags filled with sand, and a large plastic basket frenetic with live, apparently just-hatched turtles.

Our guide, a petite local with an endearing accent and a jet black ponytail, hands out the red lights. She sports an official bright green Tortuga Refuge windbreaker. We are to follow her lead.

She calls the infant turtles “babies”, and I don’t think I’ll follow her lead on that one. We were told to refrain from touching the turtles but she clearly is touching them from the get go starting with the turtles in the large plastic basket. She pulls one out and pets it and offers it for other people in the group to pet.

I ask about the large sandbags on the porch. As I suspected, they’re nests, apparently of the rarer leather backs that also lay eggs on this same beach. Since they are close to extinction, their nests are dug up and they hatch in the safer, very makeshift lab.

Our guide picks up the plastic basket of turtles and tells us to follow her. We all make our way to the beach single file, various red lights flashing and blinking here and there. For a moment I am disappointed and smell a classic tourist trap. We’re not going to see turtles hatching from a wild, untouched beach nest, I’m thinking. We’re going to simply release this active crowd of just-hatched babies on the beach.

Happily, I quickly find that I’m wrong.

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