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Turtle Monitoring - A Night in the life of a volunteer

We arrive at Ranowangko II windswept from the two hour motorbike ride across the North Sulawesi peninsula from Manado. The sky is pink as the local children take us to the beach, showing off their skills at capturing tiny hermit crabs, which we eventually persuade them to put back. Bigger crabs scuttle in the rocks encasing the beach, but it’s not those that we’re here to see.

One of Manengkel Solidaritas’ projects is to support the marine life in Ranowangko II. Already it is designated a #MarineProtectedArea, which has seen a huge reduction in drift nets, but there are still some risks to the local fauna, #turtles in particular.

Sunset on the idyllic Ranowangko II beach

Ranowangko is home to five breeds of turtle: olive ridley, green, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead. which range in conservation status according to the IUCN Redlist from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. Three of the breeds officially are recorded to breed on the beaches here, whilst locals claim to have observed the loggerhead hatchlings too - surprising as data shows that these turtles don’t breed at all in Indonesia.

Sadly, these majestic reptiles are at risk in Sulawesi - whilst demands for turtle meat have declined, turtle egg soup is still popular, with poachers roaming the beaches in search of nests.

For this reason Manengkel have set up a safe ‘turtle hatchery’ and hold regular patrols to not only document the turtles visiting the beaches, but also to transfer any eggs to this safe haven.

We take a nap after sunset, ready for our nighttime activities. We’d been told be previous volunteers that patrolling can go on until almost dawn. We need all the rest we can get.

At ten thirty, our alarm wakes us and after a reviving cup of tea, it’s time to go. We’ll be patrolling the closest beaches this night, so we set out on foot, occassionally dipping into the sea to make our way around headlands. The tide is on it’s way out, leaving a long line of flotsam and jetsam half way up the beach. The turtles won’t like to cross this, I am told, so we are unlikely to spot one tonight. What we’re after is tracks and nests. Soon, we think we’ve found one.

Disturbed sand like a single tractor furrow runs up the beach. “Look, it’s asymmetric,” points out Finlay, one of Manengkel’s long term volunteers, “Olive Ridley.”

We follow the tracks up to their apex, where a circle of sand has been meticulously flattened. A nest. Archie shows us how with a stick, they probe for where the eggs are - if the tip comes out damp, they start digging. But as they keep poking, the stick stays dry. We try digging anyway, but after half a metre, we find nothing. Just sand.

Someone heads back down the beach and returns shaking his head. The returning tracks disappear at almost the same level as the approaching ones - the turtle can’t have been up here for more than five minutes. No where near long enough to build a nest and lay eggs. What we have found is a decoy.

We head on.

We find two more decoy nests before we strike gold. Or rather, strike eggs. I had all but given up, dreaming of my cosy bed back in the village, but suddenly I’m energised.

The team let me help dig down and there, nestled in the yellow sand, is a clutch of white jewels. The first egg is removed and photographed and measured for data collection and then we begin the careful task of removing the eggs. They’re softer than I expected, the shells giving slightly if you hold them too tightly, but never breaking. We pile them into a bucket, counting to around one hundred - a medium-sized nest. I am so scared of killing the tiny future turtles I find myself sighing with relief once the task is over. My heart sinking from my mouth.

The eggs rescued from the sands.

We return buoyed up. Yes, of this hatch, only 1% are likely to survive into the sea, that’s just the turtle mortality rate, but we know that none will end their life as turtle egg soup.


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