Thursday, October 4, 2012

Visa Run Day 5: Trits, tides & turtle time

DISCLAIMER: Alison here . . .  I’m writing a series of guest blogs covering 9/30-10/7 – the dates where Nick, Minh and I joined Vic on his visa run to Nicaragua and the journey through Costa Rica back to Costa de Oro.

Date: Thursday 10/4/12

Location: Costa Rica: Playa de Costa de Oro

Word of the day: Buenas – a common greeting in Costa Rica. We’ve all learned “buenas dias,” buenas tardes,” and “buenas noches” in our elementary school introductory Spanish classes – but it was cool to hear this more localized greetings from local Ticos. Sometimes local folks do use these complete phrases above, but in general the greeting is the more informal “buenas,” which literally just means "good." To me – this exemplifies the friendly and happy nature of Costa Rica as a whole

Costa Rica Fact: The Pacific Northwest area of Costa Rica – the Guanacaste province – is infamous for rip tides. The deep waters and shallow beaches that make it world famous for surfing are also common predictors of strong undertows that can pull swimmers (and turtles) out to sea. We could feel the strength of the tow while swimming – but we were armed with the knowledge we needed to escape it just in case. I’m sure the turtles prefer the beaches this way

 2AM comes early and Vic quietly tries waking us all after only three hours of sleep for the first turtle patrol. After two attempts, Minh and I are in; Nick opts for sleep.

We get out of bed to find Vic has made us coffee – CLUTCH for a 2AM patrol on the beach – and we down a cup before heading to the hatchery for the first check on the baby turtles that may have hatched.

We have our red light flashlights since the typical white lights would be harmful to the new baby turtles eyes. We walk into the door of the hatchery and see tons of little baby turtles that have crawled up out of their nests! 

Each nest is surrounding by a green fence to keep the turtles within the nest area when they crawl out of the ground. They still try and get out though and we find them crawling furiously into the mesh wall, poking their heads through and looking for a way to get to the ocean.

Vic has us put on rubber gloves and count out the babies who have crawled out of each nest. We count them and put them into a bucket that we will carry down to the water and release them with. 

Each count is tracked per nest so Vic and the other researchers can accurately report the hatch rate of each nest. We are careful to report the number of babies in each nest and excited to release them on the beach! The first release in the dark is so fun! They little turtles know exactly where to head when they are set on the sand. 

Some are quicker than others, but they all head toward the water to catch that first wave out with the tide. Vic instructs us to set them on the sand 5-10 feet about the wave line so they can practice walking on land. They need to learn this so they can do it again in 12 years when they come back to this same section of beach to lay their own eggs. Crazy.

After watching the last of those little babies make it into the water, we continue on patrol down the beach. The moon is out and almost full so it lights our way very well; we don’t even need to use flashlights. What we are looking for as we walk is a line in the sand that indicates a momma turtle has walked up onto the beach to dig and lay her nest. In the moonlight, it’s easy to think a log laying across the beach or a shadow is a turtle track – so we walk up to all dark objects with trepidation. 

Almost immediately, we see a real turtle track! We follow it up the beach, careful not to step on it and disturb the markings which will need to be analyzed and measured. When we start following the subsequent track back down – that’s when we see her: the momma Olive Ridley turtle responsible for the tracks!

She was all finished laying the eggs – but seeing her walking down the beach was beautiful. It was hard to capture with the red light camera effect, but the moonlight providing plenty to take it all in by eye. 

Vic measures her as she walks diligently back into the ocean. She doesn't mind us or stop at all as he measured and we all walked beside her as she crawled down into the water. It is quite a sight! We are very lucky to see a mom turtle and feel appropriately excited and grateful.

After she is back in the ocean and swimming away, Vic takes us back up the tracks to find the nest. This involves a CSI style evaluation of the sand to see where she walked, stopped and tossed the sand. Where we see the piles – we know she flipped it behind her and the nest is most likely positioned just in front of those.

Vic finds a stick and starts gently poking at the sand around the area we thought was the nest, explaining that when he finds sand that gives way to the pressure of the stick – that is where the eggs are buried. He finds it after a couple tries and started digging. He hits the eggs pretty quickly and tells Minh and I how to retrieve them. Basically, they are pretty durable so we can scoop them out with two hands and count them before putting them in a drawstring bag to carry back to the hatchery.

Minh and I take turns scooping them out and counting them – we ended up with 104! Very exciting. After they were bagged and ready to go – Vic takes a few more measurements for the record including the width of the turtle tracks and the depth of the nest, and we were on our way.

The rest of the walk is uneventful – all the way down until the beach meets an estuary. At this point – we turn around and walk back, always checking to see if any new turtles came up to make nests. We don’t find any, but the walk is relaxing and the moonlight and sound of the ocean is meditative.

When we got back to the house, it is nearly daylight. We walk into the hatchery to dig a new nest for the eggs we found and bury them safely. At this point a couple straggler baby turtles have come up and Vic goes to wake Nick to join us for their release. Nick comes out to the hatchery to meet the new turtle babies.

After Nick arrives, we all count them and record their nests. With gloved hands, Nick, Minh and I pick up the six little turtles and head to the beach to let them go. 

Releasing them post-sunrise, we  see the action in the morning sunlight as the baby turtles chug their way down the sand and into the water. 

After the last wave carried the last baby out to sea, we decide it is time to try some coconuts! They grow right on the trees that grow in the front yard of Pretoma just before the beach. This piece of land – between the house and the beach – is technically owned by the Costa Rican government, so anyone can come along and pick some coconuts to eat. However, they grow in abundance – so no problems there. 

Vic demonstrates how to pick them by twisting the young, green coconuts from the tree and pulling down. 

Then he smashes it against the trunk of the tree and a little crack appears in the surface from which you can drink the water inside. It’s warm from the sun, sweet and delicious! We pick a couple more and Vic tells us we can do a taste test with coconuts at varous stage of ripeness to see the difference in taste of the water and meat. If this sounds like a family scientific foodie experiment, it is! Check out this first time Vic tried this here. He tested out the method a few weeks ago and had perfected is in time to share it with us, his new students. 

We all work to pick a few green, yellow and brown coconuts in various stages of each color. We bring them back to the side porch of Pretoma where we line them up according to age or “ripeness”. 

Vic assembles his tools – a small carving knife and a hilarious large machete – and creates a prep area. His first move it to carve small jackolantern-eye sized holes in the tops of the coconuts so we can pour of the water through a strainer and into a glass for tasting. We do this with a few coconuts and then the real fun begins. 

Next, Vic grabs his machete and the first coconut and without much announcement or fanfare just starts wacking away! He explains that he had previously been doing this with an ax but the machete is the real way to go. His housemate Courtney, who has come out to watch, laughs and tells us how freaked out the locals are by the huge machete. Well – freaked out and super intrigued.

Vic is right and the tops of the coconuts come off with only a few whacks of the machete! At this point, he hands us the newly opened coconuts to put back in the line where we can taste the meat soon. 

When everything is open and ready to go – we start the taste test. 

Our findings are much the same as Vic’s early experiments – young, green coconuts have the best water and the medium yellow coconuts have the best meat. Delicious and tropical.
At this point, we all grab a spoon and start scraping out the coconut into a large bowl. Vic has a special breakfast of caramelized coconut pan-crepes that he has been mentally preparing for a week and it’s time to put the plan into action. 

Nick and I hollow out coconuts to fill the bowl. I’m sure the process would have gone much faster had we not been eating every other bite ourselves – but the freshness and deliciousness was unreal. 

After the coconut is ready, Vic gets to work in the kitchen. We sit at the kitchen counter and chatt with café con leche while Vic carmelizes up some of the coconut meat.

After that is complete, he spoons the pan-crepe batter he made into the pan for the cakes, adds the caramelized coconut and VOILA!
It is sweet and delicious. The coconut is extra sweet, crunchy on the outside and a firm and chewy on the inside. The pan-crepes don't even need syrup since the sweetness of the coconut did the job. 

Needless to say – breakfast is delish. After chatting and eating up all the pan-crepes that were humanly possible, we clean the kitchen and Vic makes the most exciting announcement of the morning: time for siesta! We are all running on less than five hours sleep so we welcome the idea with excitement.

Vic has brought a couple camping hammocks from home and helps us set them up between coconut trees on the beach. Minh opts for a lounge chair in the sun so he can tan while napping and Nick and I take the hammocks. Vic opts out of a nap for now to get things settled around his house since he has been away for nearly a week. 

The  siesta in the hammock is incredible. The coconuts trees have a slight give the allow the hammocks to continuously rock slowly in the wind and the beach waves roll in and out creating a sound that sound machines everywhere have been trying to mimic. The sun is still low in the sky and the tree tops provide ample shade. I am asleep within moments. 
We all nap for a couple hours and awake when the sun starts getting a bit hotter. I am the last to wake up and notice no one around so I head inside to see what is going on before FOMO (fear of missing out) set in. Everyone is just hanging out and chatting. We all decide the best way to wake up is a swim in the ocean! We change into our suits and head down to the beach in front of Pretoma.

The tide is somewhere between high and low and the current and waves were crazy! The water is warm and inviting as we swam. The beach stays fairly shallow a long way into the water out so we can walk out pretty far to take a swim. We enjoy swimming and just floating in the water.  

The further out we get, the more strongly I feel the pull of the undertow. It makes me think of how riptides must feel. As the waves rush back out to sea, the water definitely pulls. It exemplifies how those baby turtles get their little bodies out to sea without a ton of effort. 

But none of us get out into the ocean and instead decide to towel off and head into town. There is a festival going on so we want to check it out before buying a few groceries for dinner.

The town of San Francisco de Coyote, Costa Rica is small and only a ten minute drive from the Pretoma house. It is comprised of two grocery stores and a couple other buildings all centered around one main half kilometer strip of a dirt road. It is small, but very cute. 

We find the grocery store closed for the festival – but see no festival. We either missed the festivities, or they only include the closing of a few local establishments – but either way we wait it out and eventually buy some tomatoes, garlic and a whole chicken. Vic’s got his sites set on chicken empanadas! We also get a little surprise mid-afternoon snack. 

TRITS! Vic has been blogging and talking about these suckers so we are excited to try. 
 Basically, it’s the world’s most delicious thin cookie (tastes like cookie dough) with ice cream in the middle! We all love it . . .

 But Nick has an other-worldly experience with his and finished it in what felt like approximately five seconds. 

After the Trits, Vic has another project ready for us: finger painting! He has us collect some driftwood to create our own home town signs for his project on the beach of Pretoma.
As we assemble the painting area on the back porch, Vic prepares us more coconut water mixed with pineapple juice and a beautiful presentation and we enjoy some tropical refreshments while we paint! 

After finger painting and the chicken had cooked up in the rice cooker - they real cooking began. Vic asks Nick to chop up some items for guacamole and I’m stuck with the unhappy task of de boning the chicken we had cooked up in the rice cooker. This isn’t hard work or bad work – I just have a crazy fear of handling any sort of poultry or meat in a cooking fashion . . . which is precisely why I think they have giving me this job. But after a bit of complaining and a lot of face-making – I master the task! I am now invincible and can do anything. 

Vic sautés up the subsequently pulled chicken and some veggies. While we were assembling guacamole and pulling apart a chicken, Vic had made up some empanada dough that will encase the chicken before we put in the oven to bake. 

The pieces are all coming together as the time rounds 4PM: nest exhumation time. 

The Pretoma team makes a practice to exhume the nests 24-48 hours after they have hatched to find any straggler babies that are still in their nests and to pull out all the un-hatched eggs. They will count the egg shells of those that successfully hatched and then examine those that didn’t to determine why. Common reasons could be fungus, crabs, bugs or just plain nature (sometimes those little guys just don’t hatch).

With our dinner assembled and slow cooking in the oven, we head out to the hatchery to begin this task. First things first – we exhume the nests and find mostly shells to be counted and a few straggler babies to be added to the total hatch count for this nest and included in the next release. The un-hatched eggs are a little hard to look through as you are not sure what you are going to find (partially developed baby turtles to be honest) but we make it through with a resolve to maintain an air of scientist about ourselves as Vic records the various reasons we can see that certain eggs did not hatch. 

After this semi-unhappy task – it’s time for more baby-saving! We have about 15 babies that came up earlier in the day and couldn’t be released until the sun was going down (we stored them in a bucket with sand and covered with a t-shirt in a cool dark room until the time came) so it was time for those guys to be set free.

Throughout the day, another nest has also come up and been collected by Courtney and Kayla to be released at sunset. This time has become meaningful to a few locals in the area, and they join us on the beach ready to set free this batch of baby turtles. It’s a cool community experience seeing everyone there to watch. It makes the threat of poachers seemed rivaled in a real, meaningful way by the care of the other people in the community.

As the sun was setting over the Pacific ocean behind us, Courtney carefully slides the 100+ turtles out of the bucket and onto the beach about 10 feet from the waves to make their way into the water. The site of all those babies and the sun setting is a truly picturesque Costa Rican moment. 

As the sun goes down and the last little babies make their way back into the ocean, we head back up to the house to eat our delicious dinner. The empanadas are in fact so delicious that we eat them without time for a photo. But Vic did surprise us with a homemade dessert – Rice Pudding made with coconut milk! 
It’s only about 7PM by the time we are done with dinner – but we are all ready for bed knowing that we will be waking up at 2AM for the second turtle patrol (Courtney and Kayla will take the 8PM-10PM patrol). Sleep with a full belly and a happy heart.

  • In the grave will be sleeping enough. Well, that’s actually Ben Franklin’s lesson . . .  but the man had a point. Waking up for the 2AM patrol even though I was exhausted and on only three hours of sleep was one of my favorite parts of the trip
  • Green coconut = drink
  • Yellow coconut = eat
  • How to debone a chicken . . . and mash up the leftovers for the broth
  • The power of community is meaningful, even in small doses
  • I suck at finger painting
  • Café con leche
  • Café con leche round two
  • Coconut tasting!
  • Trits
  • Caramelized coconut pancakes
  • Pulled chicken empanadas
Animals: turtles turtles turtles! Babies and a momma!
Something I am thankful for: the moon! On the patrol, it lights the way even when it's not entirely full. It reflects in the waves and provides enough light that you don't need to use your flashlight. Vic pointed out to us this night that the moon can be seen so clearly from the beach, that you can see a distinct ring around it, which was apparent and reflected in the clouds.
Something I don't want to admit: Even though Vic explained the poacher-Pretoma relationship to us (the poachers don't bother them at all and even say hi if they pass each other on patrols), I couldn't help but feeling a bit scared of the poachers. We encountered them a couple of times on patrol and everyone just politely said hi and moved on. So bizzare.
Total Nest I have saved: One!!
Total Nests Poached on my Patrol:  Zero
Total Turtle Eggs I saved: still 104 (next patrol is 2AM tomorrow)
Total Baby Turtles I Released: 150+ (I’m not the scientist – so we will be dealing with rounded numbers on my count :)
Days of Rain: still only the one in the rain forest
Miles traveled: Zero!! We stayed put this day! Well – actually, we patrolled the beach twice – but same town and no traversing the country in the car

1 comment:

  1. So crazy about the poachers. It's like good and evil co-existing. Creepy and true. So proud of you for de-boning the chicken. To get Vic back, make him hold your hand while you get a shot! That'll teach him!