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Sea Turtle Nesting Season Is Here PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
June 2019

A tribute to my dad, the first velador

CPix_GoingGreen_6-19lose your eyes for a moment. Now you know how dark it is most evenings on the beaches of Tortuguero, along Costa Rica’s northeastern shore.

This is where Archie Carr, the father of sea turtle conservation, left my father, a college sophomore at the time, during the 1959 nesting season, which runs from May to October. His instructions were to learn everything he could about the mysterious, majestic sea turtles there. Little was understood about their basic biology or life history. About all we knew was that their numbers were decreasing and Carr was alarmed.

Under Carr’s tutelage, Dad spent every summer for the next decade living in a (still) remote village on the Caribbean coast. Over those years, he lived what seems like ten lifetimes’ worth of adventures, near misses, and formative experiences -- as one is wont to do when one is an Ogren in a jungle working with the Carrs. It became a family affair and has led to my serving on the board of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which Carr founded under the name Caribbean Conservation Corporation.

Many of Dad’s best stories from those years were recounted in the book Turning Turtles in Tortuguero: Stories from the Origins of Sea Turtle Research by Anne Ake. You can get a glimpse at www.turningturtles.com. Dad helped build sea turtle research from scratch in Tortuguero. Today’s data-gathering methods are built on the ones he started. They’re also in use by field biologists studying turtles and other animals all over the world.

He did his best to sleep during the hot, steamy days, and every night walked 16 roundtrip miles of soft black beach. With no GPS, he marked the beach in quarter-mile increments. To this day, quarter-mile markers are painted on that beach -- in a country that otherwise relies on the metric system.

Because he surveyed alone -- as the first velador, or night guardian -- he’d turn a nesting mother turtle on her back, then find her early in the morning to measure, tag, and set her upright again. Rather than turning turtles these days, teams patrol the nesting beaches and share the cataloging responsibilities.

In one study, Dad taped shut hatchlings’ eyes in order to understand what senses they used to find the ocean. Turns out, they crawl toward the light of the moon on the water. The current use of special amber beachfront lighting is a significant conservation practice that helps ensure the little creatures don’t confuse the city for the ocean. On their way out of the nest, baby turtles consume their egg yolk, which acts as the necessary energy boost they need to swim like hell away from predators, get out into the Gulf Stream, and generally hang out in the Atlantic for years.

These early years are known as “the lost years”; in-water turtle research is relatively a recent phenomenon. But modern genetic testing has confirmed a critical connection: Many of the juvenile green turtles found in Florida's waters originate from nesting beaches in Tortuguero.

With Dad’s help, we know that after about 25 or so years, the males and females make their way back to their home nearshore waters to mate. If you think about the odds of that return, you’d swear it was a miracle.

The female turtle heaves her heavy seafaring body on a beach to nest like an amphibious tank emerging from the surf, inspiring even greater awe. The mother turtle is an ancient cosmological and mythological symbol, said to carry the world on her back.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy offers citizen science trips in Tortuguero. Student assistantships are also offered, and graduates have gone on to lead significant conservation all over the world.

It’s a hell of an experience. After a drive through the mountains and an hour-long small riverboat ride through rainforest, you can stay at Miss Junie’s Lodge, the hotel of Tortuguero’s first family and my Dad’s friend from the 1950s; at the STC research station; or in a luxury eco-lodge. You’ll be asked to choose a night shift with research scientists and decide who’ll use the measuring calipers, who will count eggs, and who will take notes. You’ll wear black clothing. At the appointed hour, you’ll stand just through the wall of sea grapes adjacent to the humid surf for about five minutes to let your eyes adjust.

My dad’s encounters in Tortuguero were life changing. I’d love to help connect anyone with opportunities to learn about, encounter, or conserve sea turtles. Right here, Bill Baggs State Park is offering Adopt-a-Nest classroom opportunities and allows volunteers to participate in nest excavations. Assistant park ranger Lu Dodson is excited to share her experience, passion, and knowledge. Write me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and I’ll help you find your way to Tortuguero or other magical places to have life-changing experiences.

 

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