Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dreams Do Come True: My First Arribada

One behavior that captures the imagination of the public and biologists alike is the mass-nesting behavior known as the arribada. It's maybe even more special because it's only known to occur on about 12 nesting beaches around the world (one of which is Playa Ostional in Costa Rica) and only the ridley sea turtles exhibit this mysterious nesting behavior
Olive Ridley arribada on August 1, 2016
  For years and years I've dreamed of my chance to see an arribada on the beaches of Costa Rica and I've imagined it a hundred ways. What I didn't know until recently was that I would be able to conduct my very own research project when I saw the arribada for the first time. After the "flota" was announced on July 31st, the team spent the day packing our equipment and racking our brains about the tiniest details of our plan and restlessly trying to nap as we anticipated a long night ahead. Finally, we were able to load everyone up with equipment and meet our extra volunteers to walk out to the section of the beach where we set up stations. When we arrived on the beach, myself and the other assistants that had never seen an arribada before were brimming with excitement and a little nervousness. I knew that this would be a night for the record books. We arrived early enough to beat most turtles to the beach to set up, and I couldn't help but notice the amazing clarity of the sky and how magnificent the Milky Way looked, it was as if seeing stars for the first time. After about a half hour of dancing on our toes waiting for our first female, she finally arrived. The complications of combining two separate yet intertwined PhD projects slowed our first night of work, but we worked diligently to find a flow that worked for us, and after two ultrasounds, morphometrics, egg weighing and counting, blood and tissue samples, measurements and more, we finally released her. At this point, I looked around and saw three more females emerging and thought to myself, "So it begins!" We approached another turtle and started the process over, and the beauty of the night and the turtles did not escape me, though we were quite busy. By the time we released the second female, the arribada was in full swing. Everywhere I looked around me was an olive ridley in various stages emergence, body pitting, nest digging, egg-laying or nest camouflage. You couldn't walk five steps in any direction without running into a turtle!  
Countless olive ridley tracks the morning after
  Because we work with red lights to minimize disturbance to the turtles, it can be hard to see very far around you. Luckily, offshore a few miles was a heat storm. I say "luckily" because every now and then would be a flash of lightening, and when you looked around where you stood you could clearly see that you were surrounded by hundreds of turtles in all directions. Walking among them for a few brief moments between samples, my breath was taken away. I've worked a few nesting beaches throughout my work with turtles, but I've never seen anything like this.
Brie with straggling turtles the morning after the arribada
  It's drilled into your head as a sea turtle biologist that turtles have a hardwired process to their nesting that is done roughly the same way every time, but as you look around at hundreds of turtles following their protocols, you actually get to witness how uniform each step of the behavior is. While some things are so similar, being able to see so many turtles in one location at one time also lets you appreciate the differences. I saw turtles missing limbs, parts of their carapaces, and yet still here in Ostional, making their contribution to the next generation. In that moment, looking into the faces of the turtles, seeing thousands of eggs being dropped into the sand all around me, every struggle that it's taken to get here, every disappointment, rejection, frustration along the way was worth it. When you see this many turtles in one place, following the protocols that have allowed them to survive 120 million years on this ever-changing planet, you can't help but feel hope. As a biologist, you spend so much time looking at numbers, trends, and sometimes it's sad news. Spending your days studying all the many threats that sea turtles face daily can suck the hope out of you from time to time, and the deeper you get into understanding how dire the situation is in some places, the more your excitement and hope can wane. But when the lightning flashed that night, and I could clearly see the hundreds of turtles surrounding me, I couldn't help but feel that original love brewing in my chest again, the love I felt caring for my first sea turtle in rehabilitation, the love I felt the first time seeing a nesting loggerhead in North Carolina, that love I felt as a child pressing my face against the aquarium glass, drooling over a sea turtle at the Omaha zoo in Nebraska. It was though the ice around my heart melted, and I again have hope for them. As our last female for the night returned to the ocean, I patted her back and thought, "Thanks, mama, I promise you that I will not give up, I will keep fighting for these babies you've left behind."  
A turtle returns to the ocean after nesting
  As I sat in the sand that night, collecting valuable data, I thought back to my early days of college, speaking to various adults about my dream of studying sea turtles. So many times I was told that it would never happen, that it was not realistic, that I would be better off finding something to study in my home state of Iowa or Nebraska, because EVERYBODY wants to do something like study sea turtles, and it would be too competitive for me to be successful. I'm glad I didn't listen to those people, as well-meaning as they may have been, because they were wrong. As I live and breathe, working here in Ostional, I want to scream from the rooftops, "Dreams DO come true, don't give up!" We worked all night until the sun came up, as immediately before dawn one of our radiotagged turtles was on the beach! Around 5:30 the sun emerged and there were still turtles on the beach, so you know we had to take that opportunity to take some photos. We were sandy, sweaty, sore and bug-eaten, bearing various battle scars from the night before, but we were all happy as we returned to headquarters that morning for a few hours' sleep. Shortly following, we had to prepare to do it all again, and we worked all night 4 nights in total, but I can safely say that I will never forget my first arribada. All I can hope for is that the work that we're doing here does more than add (many!) checks to my bucket list, but that it results in tools and data that will help us help sea turtles. Stay tuned with us as we continue our work, and pura vida!  
Ostional, Costa Rica

No comments:

Post a Comment