|The National Park's field station on Isla de la Plata, |
known in Ecuador as the 'poor man's Galapagos'
because of the diversity of seabirds, reef and
associated fish, manta rays and other animals,
including sea turtles. © CI/Photo by Bryan Wallace
We started the next day by taking a trip out to Isla de la Plata, which is within Parque Nacional Machalilla, and another nesting and feeding site for sea turtles monitored by Equilibrio Azul.
Isla de la Plata is often referred to "The Poor Man’s Galapagos" because it is encircled by vibrant reef communities and hosts sea turtle and seabird nesting, among other biological wonders. After surveying a nesting beach, we spent most of the day in the water, tending a net used to entangle juvenile green turtles.
In about two hours, we caught 11 different turtles, six of which had been tagged previously with metal identification tags, and another five whose flippers displayed no tags.
|Tracks left by a nesting turtle on the beach at Isla de |
la Plata, Ecuador. © CI/Photo by Bryan Wallace
All turtles were brought aboard the boat, measured, weighed, tagged (if necessary), photographed and released again. Judging from one day's work, Isla de la Plata appears to be home to a notable number of juvenile green turtles, which could belong to the same population of adults that nest on the Park's beaches.
This kind of connectivity would present a rare opportunity for conservation of a population of sea turtles within a single protected area.
A juvenile green turtle is hoisted onto the research boat to be tagged, measured, and weighed (© Alexander Gaos) and a juvenile green turtle entangled in a research net used to capture turtles in order to collect data and assess populations of feeding turtles (© Alexander Gaos). The nets used by researchers to catch sea turtles are different from those used by fisherman. Researchers' nets are thinner and unweighted, which allows the turtles to rise to the surface to breathe.
After a long day touring the island, we returned to land to prepare for the following day's major event – releasing a juvenile hawksbill from a small aquarium down the coast. Regional and national media outlets were coming to cover it and the Minister of the Environment was scheduled to help release the turtle and speak about sea turtle conservation in Ecuador. While we prepared our presentations until well after midnight for the workshop for later the next day, Equilibrio Azul's volunteers patrolled the beaches in the pouring rain in case a hawksbill emerged to nest.
On sea turtle field projects, sleep is often a luxury that logistics don’t allow.
At around 2:30am, Andrés woke us up with the news from the beach that a hawksbill had arrived at La Playita! Half-asleep and still groggy, we dashed out into the dark, rainy night with our gear and another satellite transmitter to deploy.
We shuffled awkwardly but hastily along the long footpath to La Playita, slipping and frantically grabbing at branches to stay on our feet as we moved. When we arrived, we found that the turtle was well-hidden about three meters (10 feet) into thick underbrush. We hunkered down in the drizzle to wait her out, grumbling about having been ripped from the warm, dry comfort of our beds.
She made us wait for almost three hours.
|Dr Jeff Seminoff, NOAA; Andres Baquero, Micaela Peña, and Felipe |
Vallejo, Equilibrio Azul. Researchers prepare the surface of a nesting
female hawksbill's carapace to attach a satellite transmitter. The turtle's
carapace must be smooth, cleaned, and dried completely before the
transmitter can be attached. Hawksbill shells are made up of overlapping
pieces (which is where the scientific name imbricata comes from) and water
can collect between the layers. The researchers use rubbing alcohol to make
sure all the water is removed. Not easy to do in the rain! © Alexander Gaos
When we heard sticks snapping from behind us, we knew that a big animal was heading out of the bushes and toward the sea (and us); luckily, we knew it was our turtle.
Happy to have some activity to warm our numbed extremities, we hopped up and into action. The rain posed a special challenge, as we had to completely dry the surface of the turtle's carapace to affix the transmitter.
Because we were soaked, several of us erected a makeshift tarp roof (someone's poncho) over the turtle and her taggers to keep the rain from falling directly on them. Removing all of the sand and water from the turtle was quite a chore, but once that was completed, the transmitter attached smoothly.
As the epoxy dried, the sun began to rise. Despite having hands that looked like prunes, and sand, mud and water stuck to clothing and skin, we reveled in the natural light breaking over the horizon, the dawn greeting us warmly, as Machalilla the hawksbill, named for the National Park she calls home, scuttled her way back to the ocean.
– Reported by Bryan Wallace
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