Sea Turtles, Lightning Storms and Life

by Jon Look  (March 2013)

Protection and Conservation of the Sea Turtle in Chiapas

It seemed like a good idea at the time. My friend Wes Nations (AKA Johnny Vagabond) and I were looking for an excuse to do a road trip and the beaches on the Pacific coast of Chiapas were calling. We chose to go to Puerto Arista because it is a one-street town right on the coast and has a reputation for being fun, laid-back and quite beautiful. What we found was a mellow place with uncrowded, gray volcanic sand beaches, a smattering of beach bars complete with hammocks, and very friendly locals. We found a double room at a slightly run-down hotel near the beach, with swimming pool and air conditioning for $30 US a night. This was no five-star resort but if I wanted to operate inside the one-vacation-a-year tourist bubble I wouldn't be traveling the way I do.

I have always wanted to see sea turtles nesting on the beach and while I was in Puerto Arista I discovered this town is THE place to see it. While Wes was recovering from an alleged shrimp allergy, I decided to go on a quest to see what could be found. After asking around a bit, I was told that I needed to go to Campamento Tortuguero Nuevo Puerto Arista (New Turtle Camp Puerto Arista), about 3 kilometers north of town. No problem. I found it but it was after hours and there was not anyone around. Not one to be deterred, I drove around a little more and found the state of Chiapas’ Environmental and Natural History agency's Protección y Conservación de la Tortuga Marina en Chiapas (Protection and Conservation of the Sea Turtle in Chiapas) office.

It was kind of a nondescript concrete block building on the beach with various storage areas and utility sheds spread over the approximately three-acre grounds surrounded with chain link. The front gate was locked but I did see some activity inside. I wandered around a bit and let myself in through the back gate. There I found Yolanda, one of several college interns who are getting university credit for working with the turtle program. I explained that I was visiting Puerto Arista for only a few days but it has always been a desire of mine to see these endangered creatures in the wild. She explained that this was a state of Chiapas project and there was no official program set up, but if I could come back the next night she would arrange “something.” Yolanda also advised that we bring warm clothes, rubber boots, rain gear and be prepared to be out all night. Seemed a little strange given the balmy night and starry skies, and I told her I didn't really have that stuff and then joked about how tough I am. She gave me a knowing smile and I told her I would see her mañana.

The next morning Wes, now mostly recovered from his battle with prawns, and I had had a great day exploring the area and driving down to the beach at Pijijiapan where we had a huge lunch of fresh fish and talked to some wonderful folks. As the day wore on and we drove back to Puerto Arista the weather was starting to look a bit iffy. The skies were darkening, there was a fresh wind, and some lightning could be seen in the distance. We decided to go have dinner and a couple of beers at one of the roadside grills that line the main road in the evening, and see what happened. The steak was delicious, the beer was cold, and the weather was getting worse. We decided that the prudent thing to do would be to cancel whatever had been arranged and try again another night; this of course that was NOT what we did. This, whatever “something” was going to be, was too good of an opportunity to pass up and besides, if anything too dangerous was going to happen, surely those 19-year-old college interns had common sense, right? Wes mumbled something about how this was going to be among the “top 20″ stupidest things he had ever done.

Fresh Fish Lunch at Pijijiapan

Undaunted (that does mean acting stupidly, doesn't it?), we arrived at the compound around nine o’clock and we were greeted at the front gate by another intern. It seems they were expecting us and he opened the gate so we could park on the grounds. I had no idea why they were treating us with such hospitality. We were basically trespassers from the night before and they were treating us like invited guests. Yolanda explained that “our ride,” whatever that was, would be there soon. We found some chairs, kicked back and had the kind of small talk that travelers who speak different languages and come from diverse backgrounds have. In the meantime, the storms that had been offshore started creeping inland. Sheet lightning was lighting up the night but there was no rain yet. We asked if turtles came on shore during bad weather and the consensus seemed to be that they like it.

Our Ride

“Our ride” turned out to be a bright-red four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle with Roberto, a biologist with the state of Chiapas, driving. Roberto was a friendly, professional-type guy whose English was only a little bit better than my Spanish. The interns found some cushions for Wes and me to put on the rear fenders, and it was off we go to the south. Fast! Not much to hold on to and exciting. After about five minutes Roberto stopped and started putting on rain gear. He must have had some sort of meteorological sixth sense because things didn't look too bad to me—still a lot of lightning but no rain. Wes did bring a poncho but I, once again out to prove how tough I am and by virtue of having no equipment and no choice, explained that everything I had was okay to get wet. Technically this was true; my camera was in a waterproof housing and my clothes had been washed before, with no lasting ill effect.

Lightening Storm On The Beach

We got back on the four wheeler and less than a minute later, flash/boom! It was the kind of lightning strike that you hear tearing the sky apart before you see a bright flash and crash of thunder simultaneously. Then almost instantly the skies opened up with buckets of big, fat raindrops and more lightning. We were all laughing nervously and ducking our heads from the painful stinging of the raindrops. We had to yell to be heard. Wes was screaming something about this being among the “top ten” stupidest things he had ever done. Roberto was yelling something that I like to think was reassuring, but was probably like, “and you guys are here for fun?” After a few minutes even Roberto had had enough and he found a shelter we could pull under and presumably wait this out. Being under shelter however was cold comfort when I started thinking and asking questions. “How much wind can a palapa take before it blows down?” “Is thatch a good conductor of electricity?” “If lightning seeks the highest point, are you safe while under it?” “Is this place grounded?”

The storm continued raging so I figured if we were going to get killed, there should at least be some documentation, so I got out my camera. There was so much lightning, I could get pictures just by aiming the camera and pushing the shutter. The wind was getting colder and Roberto was getting restless. He made a call on his walkie-talkie, presumably telling someone that we were still alive and going to get moving again. This didn't make a lot of sense to me, because the weather definitely wasn't improving. Maybe after all my stupid questions about the palapa, he calculated we would be safer on a tiny metal vehicle on the open beach. Whatever the reason, we were moving again at full throttle making “S” turns so the headlights would rake the beach looking for turtle tracks that hadn't been washed away. We continued about another hour. Wes said something about this now being among the “top five” stupidest things he had ever done. We went past Puerto Arista, past some outlying beach houses, past the last of the electrical lines, past the point to where we could hobble back to town if something bad happened. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a beach in Mexico, driving full blast on an open four wheeler, in lightning and a tropical deluge and I was loving it!

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Finally we slowed and stopped. Roberto got out his spotlight but didn't see anything. We turned back north and started weaving our way back down the beach. There was still a lot of lightning in the area but nothing too dangerously close any more. Rain was starting to let up too. Suddenly Roberto flipped off the headlights and braked hard and turned to the right. He got off the four-by-four and pointed at something in the distance. It was hard to see her in the dark but when lightning flashed, there she was: a big olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) lumbering slowly up onto the beach.

At this point we couldn't get too close. She had just exited the water and apparently a disturbance could cause her to go back. I have seen sea turtles in the water before and they are efficient and graceful swimmers. Moving about on land is obviously a struggle for them. She slowly dragged herself to about 20 meters from the waterline and began laboriously digging a nest. We couldn’t turn on lights so we just waited and watched her from about 30 meters away. After half an hour or so she moved. Apparently she wasn't happy with the location she had chosen for the nest. Again, she dragged herself another 20 meters or so, this time into the dunes, and began digging another nest. This time after another half hour of digging she began laying eggs. At this point Roberto told us it was okay to approach.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Laying Eggs

She was beautiful and obviously tired. I could hear her breathing as she began depositing eggs into the sandy nest. It was almost like she was in a trance. Roberto began measuring her and recording details while Wes and I just watched in awe. One, and sometimes two, at a time she laid these pure white, ping pong-ball-sized eggs into the nest. She seemed to be totally unaware of our presence. After a while Roberto reached beneath her into the nest and began gathering her precious eggs. The beach near Puerto Arista is unprotected and vulnerable to poachers, so these eggs were to be relocated to an incubator back at the facility. I was permitted to gather a few eggs myself. They felt quite dense with a leathery shell and actually warm. After 20 minutes or so she was finished. She had delivered 95 eggs in total. Her exhaustion or trance was so deep that she was unaware that we had taken her eggs and she began to cover the now empty nest with sand.

We left her there to return to the ocean and began again driving south toward the conservation office. The skies were again partially filled with beautiful sheet lightning but nothing too close or threatening. In some spots you could just begin to see pinpoints of stars. The wind was a little brisk but by the time we got there, I was almost dry again. We entered the grounds of the office and went into the incubator, really just a roof over beach sand with dozens of markers indicating the location of eggs gathered on previous nights. With a post hole digger Roberto dug a hole about two feet deep and began depositing the precious eggs. He then covered the hole and compacted the sand, quite tightly over the top. As nesting season progresses the number of nests in the incubator will swell from dozens to hundreds. In about two months these eggs will hatch and the baby turtles will be returned to the same spot on the beach where they were laid and guarded while they make their way into the Pacific.

Gather Sea Turtle Eggs

This night was a clear reminder of the positive changes I have made in my life. Riding a four wheeler in a thunderstorm might not be the smartest thing to do, but it was a reminder that security is an illusion and if you let fear control your life you won't spend a lot of time living it. Trading comfort, convenience and possessions for a life filled with experiences and adventure has, for me, been the right decision. It was also a reminder that life isn't going to come looking for you. You need to seize it. Time is the most precious thing that we have and spending it in pursuit of things that really don't matter is a waste of life.


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