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Monday
May082017

Night Of The Turtles - Part  2

Over the next two and a half weeks, we repeated this process three times per week, and every time, the results were the same. No turtles. And the surveys began later and later each night, in coordination with the tides making their slow march back in a little later every night. We took to taking naps after dinner, only to rise again at midnight, don our boots and equipment bags, and head back out to the staging area to wait once more. Those long hours in the dark on that beach became arduous and disproportionately slow moving. Paranoia and superstition began to seep into our trains of thought. I became convinced that the radios weren’t working at one point, and began frantically running down the beach to find the survey team. Once finding them, I found that they had simply turned their radio off to conserve power, as there was no reason for us to be calling them. And every additional night spent without results we began to think more and more that it was, in fact, our very presence on the beach, with our intention of filming the nesting process, that was somehow keeping the turtles away. This now obviously sounds ridiculous, but after so many nights sitting silently in the dark, for hours on end, our minds wandered uncontrollably and in all manner of directions.

As the third week of our attempted filming was beginning, I began to despair and think that the nesting season must have have ended far more abruptly than anyone expected, and that it would not be until next year, months after my contract had been completed, that the turtles would return, and I would never again have the chance to film one nesting.

On that Monday, a survey was planned, and I nearly decided to not go, thinking that it would be just more waiting, more darkness, and no results. But Murphy’s law was echoing through my head. “If it can happen, it will happen….” And, I knew if I chose not to go, it would indeed be that night that the nesting sea turtles emerged. Again, we laced up our boots, pulled on long pants and long sleeve shirts to protect from biting flies and mosquitoes, and headed out with the survey team to give it another go. This Monday’s survey was significant though for other reasons than our filming. It was to be the last survey of Bella Jack, the assistant research officer (ARO) who had been leading all of the turtle surveys and nest management work for the last four months. She had the most experience working directly with nesting sea turtles, and it was upon her that many of us leaned for her expertise. She was moving on to a different sea turtle project several hours away, and would be departing our camp for good in the following days. Also in attendance on the survey team was one of our newest ARO’s, Jenna Keany. She had a great deal of experience in conservation and working with animals in Africa and the US, but had just joined us here in Costa Rica. This was to be her first turtle survey, and a “passing of the torch” from Bella to Jenna. And to be there for Bella’s final survey, Laura Exley, our project manager, joined us as well.

And as we had done so many nights previous, we, the filming team, made our way to the end of Shady Lane with the survey team, and then parted ways to make the walk down to the staging area.

Upon arriving at the staging area, we powered up the two way radio, mounted my Canon 5D

Mark III on a fluid head tripod, connected it to a Sennheiser MKE600 microphone which was then mounted on the end of our boom pole.

I hadn’t yet finished testing the camera and microphone before I was startled by a sound that we had yet to hear all these nights on the beach. Our little two-way radio crackled to life, and I could distinctly hear Bella Jacks’s voice saying, “Ben, can you hear me?” Melanie and I looked at each other through the red light of our headlamps with slacked jaws and wide eyes.

 

Fumbling for the radio, I held the talk button and replied, “Loud and clear!”

Bella responded immediately. “We’ve got a turtle down here, and she’s just begun to nest.”

Her voice was calm and matter of fact. I replied, “We are on our way!”

 

I hoisted the camera and tripod over my shoulder, and Melanie followed with microphone and boom. We could see the red headlamps of the survey team down the beach, and we trudged through the loose sand in their direction as fast as we could. The little red lights in the distance seemed to grow so slowly as we made our way down the beach. Ten minutes later, we arrived within ear shot. Two of the volunteers stood near the water, and silently pointed towards the tree line where the rest of the survey team’s lights could be seen. We slowed our pace and approached quietly. And there, basking in the red light of our headlamps was a sea turtle! She had very nearly finished digging out her nest, and was preparing to lay her clutch of eggs. We knew time was short, and we hurriedly began filming.

Red light has a funny property in regards to digital photography or video. It shines brighter than any other color. And because only red lights can be used when observing sea turtles on land to avoid blinding them, the camera was able to see clearly the spectacle in front of us. The combination of the red lights and the presence of a prehistoric animal filling the camera frame gave the footage an otherworldly ambience. There was something indescribably beautiful and spiritual about observing this rite of passage that sea turtles have been carrying out for millions of years. And to be capturing it on video, it was an experience like no other.

It seemed we had only been filming for moments by the time the turtle began burying her freshly laid clutch of eggs. I knew that the footage we were gathering of that animal was beautiful, but also incomplete. We had not been able to actually film her laying her eggs. And as quickly as she had begun, the sea turtle applied the finishing touches to her nest, packing the sand down tight by slamming her enormous shell down on top of it, turned around, and crawled down the beach disappearing back into the waves.

We were left feeling both elated, and somewhat perplexed. Due to the speed and efficacy with which she had built the nest and laid her eggs, we were left with only a portion of the process captured on film. We knew our mission was not yet over, but the prospect of waiting three more weeks to film another turtle was daunting to say the least.

After the turtle had swam away, we picked up our equipment and headed back tot he staging area, expecting to spend a couple more hours there while the survey team completed their search up and down the beach for anymore nesting turtles. But, we had barely sat down and had a drink of water before the radio crackled to life again. It was Bella, and she said, “we have another turtle!”

This time her voice sounded lively and excited. They had found another turtle, just out of the water, making its way up the beach. Again, we hoisted our gear over our shoulders, and began another long, slow sprint down the beach. And this time, our luck was far better. This turtle was taking its time in selecting the best location for its nest, and we were able to arrive on site just as she was beginning to dig. We were able to capture a much larger portion of the process on film, including her laying her eggs.

I won’t go into too much detail trying to explain what we filmed, instead, you can see for yourself.

In hindsight, those nights spent waiting on the beach made the successful filming all the more sweet. And, I am so proud of the footage we captured. Enjoy this short edit of some of the footage from that night, and stand by for a longer edit, complete with commentary to be completed soon.

By Ben Blankenship - Costa Rica Field Communications Officer

Find out more about Costa Rica Big Cats, Primates & Turtles Conservation.

Check out what volunteer in Costa Rica are up to right now!

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