searching for turtles

nighttime visitor
Madera and Majagual

I had heard about the “turtle runs” in my travel book, from other travelers and from our hotel owner.  It seemed that this month the turtle eggs were hatching and if you arrived at just the right time you could watch them crawl up out of the sand, across the sandbeach and into the ocean where they would begin their lives and someday come back again and lay their own eggs.  I really wanted to see baby turtles in the wild.

As I had my own truck, getting around was a breeze.  My intended destination was the Marine preserve at the La Flor Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes south of San Juan del Sur.  I invited Jeff and some Canadian girls from our hotel but no one wanted to get out of bed so I went (truck) trekking on my own.  After driving inland from the beach I headed south on the isthmus.  Towards the east I could see Lake Nicaragua and Ometepe Island with its volcano making some steam high up in the sky (top photo).

As I neared La Flor I came to a bridge that spanned a lagoon that led in from the ocean towards Lake Nicaragua.  Everywhere I looked I saw hundreds and hundreds of beautiful white birds.  I pulled off the road and enjoyed the nature and scenery and captured some photos (below).  I am quite impressed with the untouched wilderness and unspoiled natural setting of this area.  There is no way that it will stay like this.  I can foresee, in 20 or 30 years, this entire area packed full of high-rise hotels and condominiums.

As I turned off of the main highway and back into the hills separating the ocean from the isthmus I came across these two young lads who were selling their “fresh catch” to passing motorists.  I had never tried Iguana and was quite curious to know what it tastes like.  Later, as I talked to some of the locals I found that there are quite a few recipes for it (as well as for turtle eggs).

I found the parking lot and set the blazer.  Immediately after I exited the truck I noticed several magpies and vultures sitting around just “waiting.”  They seemed to know that the turtles were hatching and they were just ready to pounce on any that surfaced.  As I neared the sea I could see that the high tide had exposed some eggs and the birds were digging and feasting on the helpless turtles who had not yet hatched.  My guide book says that only 1% to 3% of the turtles will survive to mate and make more turtles.  I guess this is why so many eggs are laid.  It is sad to think that humans contribute to lowering the turtles odds.  I’m sure that the 3% batches are in remote areas and the 1% are in areas where men can find them.

Looking up the beach towards the northwest I couldn’t see a living thing aside from the sea birds.  There were no people, no signs of civilization, no buildings, nothing but clean sand and unspoiled nature.  I was wishing that some friends had come along and that we had brought a picnic lunch and maybe a few beers.  It would have been nice to spend the say on this beach and have it all to ourselves.  Well, I was alone so I just enjoyed the peace and solitude and wandered around soaking in the view.

Along the hills there was thick jungle and in the sand I could find large shells – something new to me having grown up in Los Angeles where the beaches are picked clean by millions of tourists.  There were no life guards here, no beach patrol and certainly no trash collector to haul away the drift wood.  It was nice to see a “natural” beach after so many years.

I walked around for a few hours looking to see if I could spot a place where the turtles might emerge in the moonlight that was coming this evening.  I wanted to scout out a good spot so that I could come back, flashlight in hand and watch these little creatures experience their first fresh air and dash to the beach.

As I walked down the beach I came to a large lagoon that fed inland.  Inside I could see hundreds of baby fish as they darted about in the shallow water.  I took my shoes off and waded in and found the water to be surprisingly warm.  The sea wind blew through the jungle trees adding another unfamiliar sound as my ears were familiar with the sounds of the crashing waves and chirps of the seagulls but not at the same time as leaves and branches swaying in the wind.  It was an amazing view and one that I will always cherish.

Later that evening we came back to this lagoon and watched as the bats skimmed the water catching the baby fish as they broke the water surface to eat bugs and mosquitos.

After spending a wonderful (albeit lonely) day at this pristine beach, I eventually headed back to the truck and drove back to San Juan del Sur.  When I got to the hotel I found that Jeff was a bit under the weather and wasn’t in the mood to go out that evening.  I asked around the hotel to see if anyone else was interested in coming out to see the turtles run and two Canadian girls agreed to come along.  As we drove back out to the reserve, this time in the darkness, they told me a bit about themselves.  They were both park rangers at a National Park in British Columbia, Canada.  They were on their winter leave and thought that a warm locale would be a nice break from frosty Canada.

As we drove towards La Flor I was glad that I’d gone on my “scouting trip” earlier in the day as it was dark dark dark!  It was so black outside that if my headlights broke we would have to pull over until morning.  Eventually we found the beach parking lot and headed out to the beach.

One of the first things that we noticed was a pair of men who were poaching turtle eggs.  They had a long thin metal rod and were probing the ground.  The man would lower the probe into the sand, pull it out and then run his hand along its length.  If he felt the moisture of the yolk sack on his rod, he and his friend would greedily dip up the eggs and then take them to local restaurants for sale in the morning.  And all this in a wildlife “preserve.”  We were quite incensed, but what could we do?  We were guests in this country.  It was quite aggravating to watch them and to be able to do nothing about it.

We tried to keep the flashlight turned off to save our night vision but in no time we were stepping on little crunchy things and when I turned the light on I saw there were thousands of crabs running around on the wet sand searching for food.  There were little hermit crabs in spiral shells and these odd looking crabs with purple claws and orange shoulders.

We continued walking along the beach.  The moon was not due to come out for a few hours and it was sooooo dark here that we could see the great expanse of the Milky Way and all of the stars and the planets.  I took out my little pocket size tripod and aimed the camera at the sky and set a long shutter exposure.  After a few tries I found that an 8 second exposure would allow me to see the stars without too much white noise.  In the photo below you can clearly see Orion’s Belt and the Orion Nebula on his sword (lower left side).

We walked around until the moon came up and then we searched and searched for turtles but never saw any.  It seemed that we would not have any turtle luck on this trip and I mentally noted that seeing the baby turtles run is something that I’d like to see in my life time.  I’d sure love to come back to San Juan del Sur again and try on several different nights to see them; I think that it would be a unique life experience.


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nighttime visitor
Madera and Majagual

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