Lefty the Leatherback
Photo courtesy of Russell Schleipman
Meeting My First Leatherback
by Meg Warren, team member

The beach was pitch black. I could not even see my hands. But we were careful not to use any light — not even our special red-filtered mini-flashlights — so as not to scare turtles from coming up on the beach. I was glad that I was not alone. Matt, the team leader for the early shift, was with me. Our shift would end at midnight.

We started walking from Marker 7 in front of Las Tortugas Hotel down towards the hatchery at Marker 6. Within ten meters Matt heard a rustling in the bushes. Directly in front of us was a huge dark mass... a leatherback trying to find a nesting spot in the dense vegetation.

There were too many roots in her way and she moved to a sandier spot. With powerful strokes of her front flippers she swept aside the sand to create a shallow pit. Using her rear flippers like little shovels — first the right, then the left — she began to dig a hole. Matt instructed me to wait until she was finished and then collect the eggs. During this stage the turtle is not responsive to her environment, so you do not risk disturbing her.

The digging seemed to last forever. Then there was a pause. The eggs began to fall. With my light I looked down into the hole, now over 3 feet deep. No wonder it had taken so long! She had only half of her left flipper, a piece of it perhaps bitten off by a shark. It was taking her twice as long to dig a hole deep enough.

While Matt took measurements and scanned tags, I reached down into the hole with my sterile gloves — my arm in the hole up to my shoulder — taking out the eggs one by one... 83 yolked; 52 yolkless ...into a plastic garbage bag.

Matt read off identifying tags: left tag, 030-361-291, and right tag: 030-383-890, which I recorded. However, to me this turtle was not just a number. I think I will really remember her as "Lefty."

Two hours later, Lefty began to haul herself back to the sea, zigzagging from side to side. Was she unable to go in a straight line because of her half flipper? Would she make it? Finally, she reached the water line and disappeared.

I was relieved. She had returned to the water, her eggs would be safe in the hatchery protected from raccoons, high tides, and the trampling feet of tourists. Tomorrow, I will find out more about this special lady from the record of her previous taggings.