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The Gap Year Blog

Operation "Nurtle" and my Dance with Death!

9 Oct 2019 11:50 AM
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In Carate, Turtle conservation is a huge part of what we do. Currently it is peak season for nest laying, and so our night patrols are more crucial than ever. We alternate with Planet Conservation (the other group who helps us patrol Carate Beach), and we walk the length of the beach during the night in order to find mother turtles laying their nests. The majority of turtles come up on the incoming tide, so we start our patrol at around 2 hours before the high tide point. It is not always guaranteed that you will see a turtle on the beach but failing that there is sure to be easily distinguishable tracks from where a turtle has waddled up. When we find a nest, we either relocate it to a more suitable position higher up the beach, or simply tag it and record the date, time and location in our book. We also normally put a protective cage over it to help prevent predation from dogs and other mammals.

On Sunday evening, I went on my first ‘Nurtle’ Patrol – or ‘Night Turtle Patrol’. I was quite excited, as those who had already done it had seen some mother turtles actually laying their nests! Also, the high tide time meant that we would be on the beach for sunrise, which was sure to be stunning. At 2am, we dragged ourselves out of bed and down to the beach. Turtles are highly sensitive to light, so we always patrol the beach in darkness without using our torches, so as not to confuse the turtles. On a clear night, this isn’t so difficult, especially once your eyes have adjusted. On Sunday however, it was not fully clear, and while I could vaguely make out the shape of Matt in front of me, I still stumbled over just about every single log on the beach, and numerous bamboo cages, impaling myself on one and managing to rip my leggings. Off to a good start…

We started at sector 26, the top of the beach, and walked the whole way down. The tide was so high (due to a new moon) that we were virtually in the shrubbery, occasionally having to manically dash to avoid an incoming wave. Despite there having been more than 100 new nests recorded on the beach last week, we didn’t see a single track on the beach. Perhaps it was the high tide, which may have swept away any hint of a turtle track, or perhaps it just wasn’t our lucky day.

We paused for a quick break at the bottom of the beach – it’s 2.6km long – and then started to walk back up at 3:30, the exact time for high tide. At one point, the river comes onto the beach and the combination of the lower sand level and the higher tide meant that we were faced with a channel of water, easily up to our knees. Instead of wading through in our walking boots, we went round onto the road, taking the path through the trees. Matt, in front of me, suddenly stopped in his tracks, and I almost went crashing into him. Barely 20cm in front of his foot was a Fur de Lance, the deadliest snake in all of Costa Rica, and possibly Central America too. We stood stock still for a frozen minute, then carefully all retreated backwards, inching our retreat from this metre-long king of the Reptiles. Matt, being the snake fanatic that he is, grabbed his stick and began to try and get a bit closer again. We had caught the snake unawares, but now it began to coil it’s upper body as it sensed danger and prepared to strike. I was already a long, long way back from this beast – snakes, after jellyfish, are perhaps my biggest fear in the animal kingdom. They are just downright creepy.

While Mateo snapped a quick photo and Matt danced with death, I marveled at how quickly this could turn into a horror story. If one of us was bitten, we would have 7-8 hours to get the antidote, and even then there would probably be significant long-term damage. Presuming that we even got the antidote – Carate is separated from the nearest town by a long and bumpy road, which takes two hours to drive. And then there would be the problem of getting to a hospital, which would be done by place…..I could go on, but I think it’s fairly obvious that we would be in a bit of a situation.

The Fur de Lance soon slithered back into the damp hole of death it had crawled from, and we were on our way, Matt cheerfully saying that was only the second closest he had been to death. After reaching the end of the beach and seeing not even the slightest inkling of a turtle track, we decided to call it a day and go back to camp before anyone else felt the cool breath of death at their shoulder.

By Katie Tincello - Frontier Costa Rica NGO Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!