Commentary by Alex Shopov
As we made our way across the beach under the weak light of a moon almost completely obscured by clouds, the biologist studied the water pooling in his footprint with a quiet intensity. With a gleeful exultation, he dropped to his knees, and carefully began excavating deeper into the hole his foot had created in the damp sand. He beckoned for me to shine my light (filtered red, so as not to disturb any nesting turtles we came across) in the hole as he carefully exposed and removed the valuable buried treasure we had been searching for: newly hatched leatherback sea turtles.
As each turtle hatchling was carefully removed from the nest, I reflected with wonder on the moment I was experiencing. The biologist (who for his own protection shall remain nameless), was a native Costa Rican who had dedicated his life to studying and protecting the sea turtles who nest on these beaches. Accompanying the Sea Shepherd crew on our patrol, he had literally been able to feel the presence of a nest below his feet as we walked along the beach. When the last hatchling was removed, we watched the result of 110 million years of evolution as the young turtles instinctively followed what little moonlight there was towards the breaking surf. Someone called out “good luck!” as the hatchlings were swept out to sea by the waves, ready to start a life that will see only 1 in 1,000 reach maturity.
With the hatchlings away, the biologist turned his attention to the clutch of unhatched eggs buried deeper in the nest. Carefully removing and examining each egg, he placed the viable specimens into a bag for transport to a secure hatching facility elsewhere on the island. Costa Rican poachers place eggs in bags as well, but while the eggs in my new friend’s bag represented the future of the turtles’ species, the eggs in the poachers’ bags steal that future from them and from all of us.
As a veteran of three previous Sea Shepherd campaigns, I’ve heard it all, from “killing dolphins is part of our culture” to “the sea lions are eating all of our fish”. I’m not interested in excuses or rationalizations. Natural extinction is a part of life and evolution, but every day we see species that share this planet with us being artificially driven to extinction for no reason beyond human greed, selfishness, and stupidity. The Operation Jairo crew on Pacuare Island had long talks about this between our patrols, and all of us, from the grizzled veterans like myself, to the newbies out in the field for the first time, agreed that we were all there for the same reason: to draw a line in the sand on the side of life and the preservation of our natural world.
From the start, this campaign was like no other I had experienced. On any given day, we never knew if we would have power for our electronics, water for drinking and washing, gas for cooking, or even dry clothes to wear. Yet even when we found ourselves pumping groundwater by hand or eating a cold lunch of leftover pasta shells, there was never a word of complaint. Long nights were spent patrolling through torrential rains and across debris-strewn beaches, rough waves crashing all around. When we found ourselves lost in the jungle and climbing over barbed-wire fences because a bad tip sent us in the wrong direction, it was clear that this campaign was going to push us all to our physical limits. The rugged conditions were met with laughter and mirth, because we knew that no amount of foul weather, no poacher scurrying into the jungle upon our approach, no amount of corruption was going to keep us from our stated goal of protecting our clients, the sea turtles.
All told, with the help of our biologist friend that night, 13 newborn leatherback turtles made their way into the ocean, while 66 eggs were secured safely in the hatchery. Those eggs and hatchlings represent the future of their species. Each turtle we saved has the potential to beat the odds and grow to maturity, returning to this very beach decades from now to lay her own clutch of eggs. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my first patrol as a member of the Operation Jairo Costa Rica crew, under the moon, on a night I’ll remember for the rest of my life.