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Night Of The Turtles - Part  1

It was mid-January when I arrived in Costa Rica and it was only on my second day that I had that first fateful encounter with a sea turtle while on survey. Witnessing a nesting sea turtle is an experience of time travel, as these animals have existed unchanged for millions of years.

Witnessing these living dinosaurs returning to the very beach on which they were born to carry out their ancient ritual of nesting is a spiritual experience, unforgettable to even the most casual of observer. I was immediately inspired to attempt to record this spectacle on film.

Now looking back, that weeks-long endeavour we took on to capture on video the nesting of a female Olive Ridley turtle stands out as the most perfect example of the inherent challenges of filming animals in the wild and as a source of the most incredible sense of accomplishment after we succeeded in doing so. The following is an account of that ambitious task we took on and all that went into making it happen.

I knew it would be essential to accurately coordinate a small film crew to converge upon a nesting turtle in precisely the correct moment, as Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, the species of sea turtle we were most likely to encounter, can build a nest and lay her eggs in about an hour. So, prior to attempting any filming, I participated in a few more of the turtle surveys without any camera equipment, so as to fully learn the steps of the survey and to devise the best approach to filming the nesting process. During those scouting surveys, it was made abundantly clear that hoisting the camera equipment up and down the beach looking for a turtle would not be feasible, due simply to the bulk of the necessary gear. I proposed to the science team, instead, that two teams would be required, one survey team and a second filming team that would be positioned directly in the middle of the survey area. The filming team would have the camera and audio equipment setup at the staging area and would be on standby to hustle to any position on the beach, should a nesting turtle be spotted by the survey team. Both teams were equipped with two-way radios, so that if the survey team was to find a turtle preparing to nest, the call would go out to the filming team, and we would hustle to the specified location to begin filming upon arrival.

On our first night out in this manner, I felt excited and confident that our strategy was going to pay off. Sea turtles always nest at night, so our surveys were also always in the dark.

Furthermore, surveys are coordinated with the tides, always attempting to begin the survey at mid-tide, just before the tide begins to come back in. So, survey times vary anywhere from 7:00 in the evening to beginning around midnight, all depending upon what the tide cycles were doing on that day. On our first night out attempting to film the nesting process, our survey began at 9:30 in the evening. The survey team was to walk the beach for the next four hours looking for tracks in the sand from a sea turtle that had come ashore. Melanie Kouters, my fellow communications officer on the project and unofficial filming assistant, and I would be positioned in the staging area on standby should an animal be spotted. Both teams set out from camp at 9:15 pm and made our way down towards the beach. Melanie and I parted ways with the survey team at the end of our little road, Shady Lane. They were heading directly onto the beach, while Melanie and I were turning right and heading about one mile west on the only road in Carate, to where we determined was about the midway point in the survey path. The survey team would be walking the same direction, but on the beach, eventually passing us at the staging area, and continuing on their way to the end of the survey area. Once they reached that point, they would take a few minutes rest, then turn around and head back the other direction until reaching the opposite end of the beach.

Again, they would rest a few moments, turn around, and do it all over again. This process would be repeated for the next four hours.

After reaching what we determined was the midpoint of the survey area, Melanie and I left the road and made our way to the top of the beach. There, we set up the camera, tripod, microphone and boom, turned up our two-way radio, and waited, listening for the call.

In the weeks leading up to this point, Olive Ridleys were spotted regularly on surveys, and so I watched our radio with anticipation, expecting the call to come at any moment. After what seemed like a long while, I saw the survey team pass by in front of us, walking two by two along the water’s edge. Their headlamps were turned off and it was only by the faint moonlight that we could make them out. Another hour passed and again, we saw the survey team marching along the beach in front of us, this time heading the opposite direction. Eventually, the survey team would walk past us five times, all the while the radio remaining silent. On their final lap back towards camp, they stopped by our staging area. They said no tracks had been seen and that we probably would not see a turtle that night. Dejectedly, we broke down the equipment, and made the walk back to camp…

By Ben Blankenship - Costa Rica Field Communications Officer

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