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Leatherback Returns to Playa Grande

“Coqui Girl to Peaches, do you copy? Movin’on to number 2.”

“Copy that.”

It was 8pm and we were on our first round of walking Playa Grande, monitoring the nesting sites of the leatherbacks and watching for the massive turtles to emerge from the ocean to dig new nests. And for a good reason. So far, in this Vieques nesting season, which lasts from mid-April through June, there were 21 documented leatherback nests, a number down from previous years and a concern to biologists worldwide.

So, while many on the island were dining and dancing away the Sunday night before Memorial day, a team of four women were packing snacks and headlamps to spend from 7pm – 4am patrolling the beach, hoping to aid the critically endangered leatherback. The danger is two-fold. We could come across a turtle depositing her eggs in a nest too close to the water, which would require us moving them to a safe location. Or, hatching “tinglares” could emerge from a nest and need assistance to make it to the ocean.

Our team leader, Francheska Ruiz, radio handle “Coqui Girl”, is a 28 year old biologist from Fajardo and field biologist for Fish and Wildlife Services. The three volunteers are Sandy, aka “Peaches”, visiting from Georgia who has worked with FWS for 30 years, Ambar, a volunteer with Ticatove. And me. I’m in search of not just the chance to witness a mama leatherback. I want a story, and if I’m very lucky, a few photos – a real challenge without flash or lights. But I’m soon to be rewarded with all.

The radio crackles.

“Coqui Girl to Peaches, Better turn that truck around. Looks like we got a turtle on the beach.”                                        “Copy that.”

And there she is, 5 feet long and aproximately 800 pounds. Francheska knows this leatherback, recognizing VQS017 from a scar on the turtle’s face. She feels under the left front flipper for the PIT tag (Passive Integrated Transmitter) that she had inserted into the turtle’s fin twelve days previously.

Alternating from right to left back flipper, and breathing heavily, the leatherback digs the hole aproximately 3 feet deep. Satisfied with the depth, she begins to drop her eggs one by one into the nest.  Turtles go into a trance-like state to lay eggs and, at that stage, are not bothered by movement or sound. Now, Francheska snaps into work mode methodically delegating jobs to each one of us. We take measurements of the tear shaped, hydrodynamic body, inspect old and new scars and injuries, take GPS coordinates and double check the PIT tag and the second metal tag attached to the flipper.

In the meantime, VQS017 deposits approximately forty eggs and a few “decoys”, smaller yolkless eggs to fool predators. Then she begins covering and hiding the nest. “It’s really the only thing she does as the mother,” says Francheska, because after disguising the nest, the eggs and babies are completely on their own. Except, of course, for the help of the FWS monitoring program.

Statistically, out of all the eggs laid in this 2014 turtle nesting season, approximately four hundred to five hundred eggs, it is possible that none will survive to adulthood. This living dinosaur, which traces its evolutionary roots back more than 100 million years, is now in critical need from humans to save it from extinction. It is a global (and local) effort. Employees from FWS and Ticatove volunteers patrol the beaches during the nesting season for nine hours every single night for almost three months. Their efforts increase the probability of the baby leatherbacks’ survival immeasurably. It is a long three months of night-shift work for these caring guardians.

It’s time for VQS017 to return to the ocean. She is breathing heavily as she pushes her way down the beach. Just before the water’s edge she turns her tail to the water and stops moving, looking at us. “Turn off your headlamps,” Francheska says.  We comply and we wait. VQS017 doesn’t move.  “Go,” Francheska says, pointing to the ocean, “that way.” And in another wave, she is gone. I like to think she turned to check her eggs one last time, as a mother would do, and thank us for watching over them. Maybe, maybe not. But I like good stories.

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