Turtle preservation is a tricky topic – the locals here have eaten turtle for their festive meals for a very long time, and to stop them can be seen as culturally insensitive.
They are not the biggest problem: that position is reserved for poachers that come from far and wide and indiscriminately catch and butcher large numbers, as well as poaching all the eggs in a clutch. As a result of the market for turtle meat in Asian countries, some of these turtle species are on the brink. Conservation International (CI) has donated money to the locals and provides a floating school to educate the tribe’s children about the need for preserving the turtles. CI also has provided funds for training of local men to patrol the nesting beaches in certain areas; these guys are trained biologists and undertake important work tagging and measuring the laying females, as well as relocating nests if they are at threat from beach erosion or too much heat.
Our turtle nesting observation happens at night: the females generally come ashore in the dark for safety, and usually with the light of a moon. We are accompanied by three of the local researchers and guardians; they live on the island for months-long stretches to guard against poaching; they have fashioned a machine gun out of wood which looks so realistic, the few poachers that have approached have had second thoughts about testing the seriousness of these young men.
They mark where the nests are, using whatever flotsam and jetsam they can find. And God, there’s a lot. Plastic, plastic everywhere, anything from rubber thongs to baby’s dummies to bottles of drink or shampoo. Picking it up is pointless – the tide will only bring in more the next day. It’s heart-breaking, because so much of this plastic ends up in the stomachs of the sea creatures.
White plastic bags are particularly dangerous to some of the bigger turtles: floating in the water they are indistinguishable from the jellyfish that makes up the turtles’ diet. Once swallowed it brings a long and difficult death.
But the guys find bits of plastic useful to affix to the top of sticks to mark the location of clutches. This has to happen as soon as she’s dropped her eggs; once she’s finished she camouflages the position by flinging sand all over the place in a random manner and you wouldn’t know where the eggs are.
So we hop into the dinghies to make our way to the beach, and before too long we are shown a green turtle who is doing her business of making the next generation under the trees. Her powerful hind flippers dig out a perfectly round chamber in the sand, and she deposits anywhere up to 100 or so eggs in one clutch. She then covers them in sand, and proceeds to camouflage the location of the actual nest by making pretend depressions in the sand around. Don’t get behind a turtle who is flinging sand about – you’re likely to get sand blasted due to the force of the flippers.
When she’s a few minutes into laying, she goes into a trance, and is not disturbed by the measuring and cataloging that goes on around her. The researchers can even hold aside her hind flippers so we can have a look at the eggs as they drop into the chamber. I’ve seen it through David Attenborough’s eyes, but seeing it in person feels like a rare privilege.
Our instructions for photography are clear – don’t take photos before she is significantly into her laying, and only from behind or the side. The flashes will disorient her and may make her journey back to the sea much more difficult. Needless to say, one of our voyagers decides to have the full frontal, and flashes away into her eyes. She is obviously disturbed, because she changes course away from the flash, and as it happens away from the beach. Dearie me, there has to be one so-and-so for whom the shot is more important than the instructions. I growl silently to myself…..
But taking flash photography of a turtle at night in pitch darkness is difficult – the camera has nothing to focus on…. Only in the light of a torch or another flash can the lens find something to latch on to – I now have a far greater respect for nocturnal nature photographers
For more photos, please visit photodelmundo.net or caughtincolour.com.au