Sometimes turtle tracks tell a story. More often what happened remains a mystery.
Photo courtesy of Meg Warren/Earthwatch Institute
5 a.m. Nest Count
by Meg Warren

One of my favorite team assignments here is the 5 a.m. nest count. This means getting up right before the sun rises to walk the full length of both Playa Ventanas and Playa Grande — 4.8 kilometers. The purpose is to make sure that the night patrol team did not miss any nests or turtles. Some turtles might have come up right before dawn, after the night shift went to bed. Dr. Reina wants to get an accurate count of the nests and number of turtles each night.

Sometimes the tracks turtles leave behind tell a story. More often what happened remains a mystery. This morning we started south towards the Tamarindo estuary. The sun was just coming up. No one was on the beach. But there were signs of all kinds of activity from the night before — lots of different tracks. The tracks that were most plentiful were the "people" tracks. They formed a well-beaten path down the beach just above the high-tide mark. From the tracks, I figured there must have been over 100 tourists the night before. I made a note to myself to check the data sheet to see what was recorded for last night. Dr. Reina is counting tourists on the beach as well as nests and turtles.

At about Marker 17.6, I saw the telltale sign — fresh turtle tracks. They looked as if a small tractor had come up from the water with an outgoing tide, turned to the left and then returned to the water. There was no sign of a dug-out area at the head of the tracks with lots of sand thrown about. The turtle must have started up the beach, decided not to nest, and returned to the sea.

Why had the turtle turn back? Had she been disturbed by tourists on the beach or the bright lights from houses nearby? Or perhaps she had started crawling up the beach, found the distance to a suitable nesting spot just too long a haul, and turned around to come back another night. What do you think happened?