Turtle Wrangling in Brazil

to_the_sea
A loggerhead turtle hatchling goes to sea. (Image: Katherine R. Martin)

By Katherine Martin

In January 2016, I worked as a teaching assistant for a tropical zoology field course in Brazil. Fieldwork can conjure romantic images of an Indiana Jones-style expedition full of adventure and excitement. But very often in the field, I have found myself drenched in sweat, bitten by bugs, and slightly grouchy after getting very little sleep. Since 2013, I have worked on the coast of southeastern Brazil with Projeto TAMAR, a conservation organization with a network of staff and volunteers spanning the coast, devoted to protecting sea turtles and their eggs. TAMAR and my alma mater, Fairfield University, have collaborated for several years to provide Fairfield students with an immersive and hands-on conservation zoology experience. I had once been a student in this very same course, and now it was my turn to mentor and guide six undergraduate students as they learned all about sea turtles and conservation work.

As we neared the end of a week of long nights of tracking hatchlings by moonlight and early mornings of tending nests in the hatchery, we were content but exhausted. Despite their fatigue, my students were restless.

hatchery
A loggerhead turtle hatchery (Image: Katherine. R. Martin)

I mentioned to my colleague, Daniel, that the students had never seen an adult loggerhead in the wild. With an excited smile, Daniel suggested that we remedy that, and we decided to devote that night to a tartarugada, a search for nesting mothers.

In Brazil and in the rest of the southern hemisphere, January is the height of summer and of the turtle nesting season. However, the forecasted rain for that night would be working against us, and we would be very lucky indeed if we managed to see a nesting female.

With the sun setting, we left the TAMAR base and traveled south to a stretch of beach where sea turtles were known to nest. Daniel brought his kit with him, with tools to measure and tag any sea turtles we saw. This type of data collection is extremely important, as it allows TAMAR to track individuals and gather important information on the size of sexually mature females.

We left the cars and continued on foot, winding our way through the sand dunes, being careful not to get our feet caught in the snaking tendrils of the flowering railroad vine that grows there. The sun had long since sunk below the horizon and above us the Milky Way was glistening behind low-hanging clouds. The beach had experienced strong tides, so the escarpment was over three feet tall—it was effectively a cliff where the surf had separated wet sand from dry, loose sand. Still, we continued to walk.

After a few kilometers, Daniel suddenly motioned for us to be still and then crept down toward the surf. We crouched on the escarpment and peered down over it into utter darkness. What seemed like hours passed, but within just a few moments we heard a loud whisper: “Guys, come quick! She’s here!”

The seven of us scrambled down the sand, falling over ourselves to reach Daniel. With just a few dim headlamps and the starlight reflecting on the waves, we saw her: a huge female loggerhead, making her way back toward the ocean. Scanning around, we could see her tracks, which narrated the story of her arrival on shore: she had labored her approximately three hundred pound frame out of the water and after nearly ten yards, encountered the escarpment, beyond which lay the sand in which she wanted to lay her eggs. Deeming the escarpment too steep, she turned around and began to head back to the ocean. This is what sea turtle biologists call a “false crawl”—for whatever reason, a female may decide not to nest, and will often come back ashore the next night to complete her task. As soon as Daniel realized this, he called for us: she might not be laying eggs, but he still needed to tag and measure her.

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Loggerhead turtle tracks on the beach (Image: Wikimedia commons)

The students and I descended on the female, each grappling with her shell, trying to hold her steady as Daniel measured her. Her utter power as she insisted on returning to the sea was awe-inspiring: she was not the biggest female I had seen, and yet with each thrust of her rear flippers, she sent us all careening forward as we struggled to find purchase in the sand and to keep her stationary. Soon, Daniel had finished measuring and tagging her, and we released our grip. As she returned to the ocean and slipped beneath the waves, our awed murmurs quickly turned into whooping cheers of joy and delight. We triumphantly marched back to the cars, covered in sand and sea salt, buzzing with excitement at our success in seeing a wild loggerhead. Back at the base, we celebrated into the early morning hours, content with the knowledge that our mother turtle was out there, gravid with eggs, and would be returning back to shore soon to complete her task. Our previous exhaustion all but forgotten, our discomfort at the heat dissipated, we were left humbled that we had been witnesses to some small part of her epic journey. All the sweaty, bug-filled nights had been worth it, and I will certainly carry with me forever the excitement and joy that my students felt when they saw their first wild adult loggerhead.

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Katie recently graduated with a master’s degree from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. She attended Fairfield University for undergraduate, where her love for Brazil was first cultivated. She is broadly interested in the intersection of evolutionary theory and conservation, particularly in wildlife disease ecology and evolution. Katie loves doing science outside because it keeps her grounded in the natural history of her study system, and because every day in the field is something different and exciting. When not in the lab, she can be found hiking, reading, or plotting her next return to Brazil. Follow her updates at katherine.r.martin.weebly.com

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