In the dark, wet sand, a tiny turtle flips with all the energy it can muster. The little fins barely scrape below the surface as she desperately struggles towards the sea. It’s Christmas Eve and just a few hours since this one burst from the cocoon of her shell into the world. Now, she faces an epic battle for survival. And the odds are slim.
We’re at the Surfing Turtle Lodge. Getting here from the nearby town of Poneloya involves a very quick boat ride across the estuary then a bumpy horse and cart trip. But it’s worth the hassle. The hostel is an isolated playground for travellers offering the dual promise of catching a few breaks and helping to release baby turtles.
Fighting for survival
Turtles are native to Nicaragua, but due to poaching, harmful fishing practices and pollution, all of the seven species are currently endangered. That’s why the lodge works closely with the local community. Unfortunately, turtle eggs are a local delicacy. Changing hearts and minds here will be a long process, so for now the lodge simply buy as many eggs as they can to interrupt the vicious cycle. “We pay $25 to $30 for a nest,” a volunteer explains, “which is higher than the going rate at the market. The people here are very poor, and we don’t want to interfere in their way of life. At the same time, this allows us to save as many eggs as we can. Each baby turtle we release is one that didn’t end up on someone’s plate.”
So far, the hostel have released thousands of hatched eggs back into the sea. Each nest contains anywhere between 40 and 120 eggs. Today, we’re releasing close to 100. They’re carried to the beach in a big plastic storage box. Inside, a wriggling mess of heads, shells and flippers is in constant motion. A newly hatched turtle is like a wound-up clockwork toy. It bursts from its shell brimming with the store of energy that will propel it into the first perilous days of life. The turtle won’t begin to feed for three or four days. A countdown starts at the moment of hatching so the baby turtles must be released as soon as possible to give them a fighting chance.
The great escape
We release the turtles at dusk. Usually, they would follow the moon, but it’s a cloudy night, so a volunteer stands in the ocean holding a torch instead. We’re asked not to use flash photography or our phones in case we confuse the turtles. In some places in Central America, baby turtles mistake the lights of beachfront bars and hotels for the moon. They travel in the wrong direction, missing the sea altogether, and their chance of survival.
As the baby turtles are removed from the box, the group of international travellers and holiday makers coo and gasp. Some place verbal bets on which will soonest be scooped up by the waves. We stand in a semicircle, giving the newly hatched a wide berth as they navigate their way to the ocean. Their trails arc as they curve a path towards the sea. The speediest of the bunch begin to approach the tantalising foam of the waves. And suddenly the first is taken, whipped away by the tides.
Flip to win
“Watch your feet,” a voice warns. As the tide flows in, then out, then back in, it carries the tiny turtles where it will. It’s hard to make out in the failing light, so we stand motionless, suddenly fully conscious of each toe wiggle. “Careful!” I whisper to Anton, painfully aware of the deadly threat his size thirteens pose to the little creatures.
Just a few minutes later, the last few are making their way to the waves. I fixate on one in particular, who seems to really struggle to push the sand away. Her course keeps veering 90 degrees to the left and then to the right. She takes ages to get close enough to the waves, and at one point her frantic movements barely inch her forward. At last, she becomes a dark blob borne away by the ocean.
Once every turtle has been claimed by the waves, their future seems like a fete accompli. But the reality is that 99% of baby turtles will not make it to adulthood. Most will perish in these first few hours or days, targeted by predators from air or sea. And for those who make it to adulthood, they will face dangers from humans too. Caught up in fishing nets, blasted by dynamite or choked on discarded plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish.
Coming home to roost
Two days later, it’s Boxing Day and we’re at the beach just after sunset when a call goes out. A mother turtle has been found nearby on the beach laying her eggs. As she’s so close to the hostel, the poacher will help her to lay her eggs then hand them straight over to the hatchery. We’re kept away while she delivers the bulk of her eggs, then beckoned over in the dark to where the poacher crouches.
She’s huge! The turtle’s shell measures perhaps a metre in length. We approach from the back, so we only see her head later. The rear view is of the back of her shell, the hole in the sand beneath and her contractions as she pushes out the eggs.
Leaving the nest
The poacher crouches behind the mother, occasionally shining a torch up her backside to see whether an egg is coming. As she shifts to get comfortable inside the hole where she rests in the sand, he assists her. When, after a few tense minutes, a perfectly round, white egg appears, he gently picks it up and places it into an adjacent hole he has made to collect her nest. Once he knows that no more eggs will come, and she starts to dig herself out, he shovels sand in beneath her so that she can start to move.
Afterwards, she manoeuvres herself around slowly, like a wide-load freight truck executing a many-pointed turn. I take the opportunity to speak to the poacher. How many eggs? I ask. Forty-eight in this load. “She’s old,” he explains. “so she doesn’t lay so many eggs.” Each yield will bring fewer and fewer eggs, with an ever slimmer chance of survival.
Poacher turned eggkeeper
It’s a strange relationship. This man’s income is tied to these creatures, and he seems not only knowledgeable but fond of them too. And he sells here, where he knows the eggs will be released back into the wild. But in all probability, he will sell to the market too, when the price is right. Altogether, he occupies a strange position on axis of dependency, destruction and salvation with these turtles, the decline of his own income implicit in their demise.
It’s an agonising walk back to the sea for this exhausted older mother. We shuffle silently behind her as she inches the sand aside with fatigued flippers. Eventually, the poacher steps in. “I’m going to help her, she’s too tired,” he announces. He gently lifts her by the shell and advances her several steps. It’s clear from his crab like walk that she’s extremely heavy.
Fully five more minutes pass before she reaches the sea. The moment a wave passes beneath her, and she knows she’s made it, something incredible happens. She throws her neck back all the way so that we see her head lifting above her shell in an anthropomorphic gesture of triumph. We all sigh in relief for her as the waves start to take her weight and carry her into the secret, submerged universe she calls home.
In 15 years, the volunteers tell us when we release the babies, the female turtles will return here to the beach to lay their eggs. Their internal compass guides them back to the place where they were hatched. “Just imagine,” I overhear one of our group say as the mother is carried away. “All those years ago she made this journey into the ocean for the first time, and now she’s making it all over again.” I think of the baby turtles madly flipping their way for the first time, and of this duchess of the sea repeating her journey yet again. I consider every predator she has avoided, every human trap she has dodged, every cruel caprice of the sea that she has miraculously escaped. It’s exhausting just to imagine. Exhausting, but truly incredible.