Sea Turtles Laying Their Eggs

Sea Turtles

It’s a “Labor of Love”

 

We get off the boat and walk single file through back alleys and across the soccer field in the tiny town of Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Fernando, our guide, leads us through the grass and mud, pointing out the larger puddles so our group ranging in age from 8 to 48 might make it back to our hotel later, close to midnight, as dry as possible.

We trek for what feels like hours and finally stop at a covered structure in the middle of the jungle. We aren’t allowed to have our phones, or any other light source other than the ones our guides provide. The Costa Rican jungle is a very dark place – especially in the middle of the rainy season with the moon only sporadically peeking out between the clouds.

We’re met by a man dressed completely in black: hat, shirt, pants, shoes. The only light seen is the small red dot flashing from his walkie-talkie. Fernando gathers our small group together to give us instructions and explains what to expect next: “We’ll wait here until the scouts on the beach find a sea turtle which has made her way out of the ocean and is moving up the beach to begin the process of laying her eggs. We only have two hours of time to get the chance to see this happening, and we have no idea if we’ll be lucky tonight or not. If we hear from one of the scouts, we’ll begin our walk through the jungle immediately. It might be a short hike, or it might be a very long walk – we won’t know until we get the call. Until then, we wait.”

I ask a lot of questions and our guide is happy to oblige me. Fernando, is a local Tortugueran who lives in this small town on Costa Rican’s Caribbean Coast. He’s been guiding tourists through the rainforest-covered sandbar of the Tortuguero National Park  for years as a part of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Their mission is to help protect the world’s endangered sea turtles. I can tell how much he loves these magnificent creatures that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. Fernando is 65 years old and has been doing this work for over half of his life. He’s a wealth of information, and I’m an eager student – especially given that we’re here to see something that’s right up my alley – birth.

While we’re waiting for the call, I get a tutorial about sea turtles and how they lay their eggs. Sea turtles return to the beach they were born on to lay their eggs, season after season. There are several stages that a sea turtle must go through as they nest:

  1. She must first emerge from the ocean and ascend the beach. Sea turtles are very heavy creatures and they have to crest a wave large enough to get them out of the surf and onto the beach. She’ll be looking for “just the right spot.” And if she doesn’t feel like she’s found it, she’ll turn around and head right back into the ocean. The perfect place will be one that’s dark, quiet and has the right temperature variation so her released eggs will develop into an equal number of male and female baby turtles. The depth of the track that a sea turtle makes in the sand speaks to how heavy these creatures are. (The largest sea turtle on record was close to 9 feet long and weighed over a ton!)
  2. Once the right spot has been chosen for the nest, the sea turtle begins the digging process. She creates a “body pit” by using all four of her flippers. First, she removes the dry surface sand which will be used to cover up the nest once she’s done laying her eggs. After she’s created the body pit, next she has to dig the egg chamber using only her rear flippers and alternating between the right and the left, to scoop out all of the damp sand.
  3. When the egg chamber is deep enough and her flippers can no longer reach down farther to scoop out any more sand, she pauses and begins to have contractions which make her rear flippers rise up off of the sand.
  4. She then enters into a trance-like state and begins to lay her eggs. With each contraction, she might release anywhere from 1-4 eggs at a time. She continues to fill the egg chamber almost up to the top. (On average, sea turtles will release 110 eggs with each “egg clutch” and the range for egg clutches is 2-8 per season.)
  5. When her egg clutch is complete, she’ll close up the nest using her rear flippers the same as she did to dig the egg chamber – only in reverse. She places damp sand on top of the egg chamber and fills up the hole completely. She then presses the damp sand down with her massive body and lastly begins to camouflage the egg chamber by throwing the dry surface sand behind her as she moves forward. This is done to protect her eggs from predators.
  6. Finally, she makes her return trip, dragging her heavy body along with her front flippers and then waits in the surf for a wave large enough to carry her back into the ocean. She does not tend this nest again. Her job is done.

All of a sudden, the flashing light on the walkie-talkie goes off and there are some whispered instructions from one of the scouts: some turtles have made their way up to the beach and Fernando is given the coordinates of where to find them.

We break up into smaller groups and head off through the jungle again in single file with only the light from Fernando’s headlamp to guide us. When we get to the beach even that light is extinguished and we’re told not to talk above a whisper and to not move any closer as nesting sea turtles can feel vibrations through their bellies on the sand and will avoid nesting if they feel a potential threat or think a predator is nearby.

We huddle together at the tree line and wait for the scout on the beach to give us the go ahead to move in closer. We’re told that it’s important to not move in until she’s in the process of releasing her egg clutch. Once that part begins, it can’t be stopped until all of the eggs have been delivered. Her trance-like state during delivery would allow us to have a closer look.

After what seemed like a really long time, we’re told to come out of our hiding place and move in closer – but not because the sea turtle is laying her eggs. She’d started the nesting process and had found what appeared to be a great spot, but changed her mind and was now heading back out to sea.

We keep a safe distance, but are able to watch and follow this magnificent creature as she makes her way down the beach. She’s massive! Her shell is at least 4 feet from top to tail, and while we have no scale to weigh her, the track she leaves in the sand is several inches deep!

I’m struck by how intense this process is. She’d already put in so much work! She dug her body pit and even began scooping out her egg chamber – but something was just not right. Maybe the temperature of the sand was off by a degree or two, maybe she felt the spot was not as well protected against predators as she’d like – but for whatever reason, she stopped the process mid-birth and turned around to go back into the water.

I find out from Fernando, that each sea turtle only has a few days to release an egg clutch. He couldn’t be sure, but she might have one or at most, 2 more evenings to try and make her way back to the beach and find a better spot to lay her eggs. Those eggs, once released, will sit in the nest she’s created for about 45-55 days, on average. The eggs themselves are usually oval in shape and have a “pouch” of air to allow the baby sea turtle to breathe as it makes its way up and out of the sand. When the sea turtles begin to hatch they do so en masse, all of them working together to break free from their shells, causing the dry sand to spill out and around the other eggs causing them to rise to the surface together.  Sometimes this process is called a “turtle boil” because the sand looks as though it is bubbling up like water boiling.

Baby sea turtles are “phototactic” and use the reflected light of the moon off the waves in the surf to guide them back into the ocean where they spend their early years hiding and growing, hopefully into adulthood. Where they will begin the process of fertilizing and laying their own egg clutches back on the beach where they were born, and so on. Sadly, it’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 baby turtles will get this opportunity.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to witness an endangered sea turtle’s process of nesting. I was so impressed by this Momma’s willingness to do everything she needed to do to give her babies the best start in life. Even if that meant getting half-way through the process, only to determine that the conditions were not ideal and carry herself back out to sea and try again the next night.

It makes me think about how motherhood is so strikingly similar across species!

We, as birthing women, also need to have ideal conditions in order to give birth. And whether we realize it or not, we’re using all of our senses – including our gut – to determine if things “feel right” before contractions can begin in earnest. Only then are we able to move into the trance-like state of active labor and bring our babies into the world. And once our little ones have been born, how hard we also try to protect them and bring them safely into adulthood!

If you ever get the chance to witness any part of the sea turtle nesting process, go for it! Sitting quietly on the beach of Tortuguero National Park, with the ocean waves crashing on the shore, and a raging storm miles away providing us with a spectacular light and sound show, we got to watch these strong, determined, and powerful Momma sea turtles do the hard work of labor and birth.

And this is something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I dedicate this post to our amazing Costa Rican trip guides, Gabby & Fico, as well as our incredibly knowledgeable and passionate Sea Turtle Conservancy guide, Fernando. The work that Costa Rica is doing as a whole to help preserve and save endangered species is of huge benefit to us all. Thank you.

Take Your Kids Camping, Please!

Boler

Our upgrade from the early days: cute little Boler camping trailer. Kids are still in a tent, but not us!

If I’ve timed this right, this post is going to drop right in the middle of our annual week-long camping trip along the Oregon Coast. It is, by far, my favorite Summertime activity and I look forward to it like a child waiting for Christmas.

This week marks our 6th year of camping and there have been some changes since the early days. That first year, we piled everything we needed inside the Honda Odyssey (we didn’t even have a roof rack!) and I took us on a road trip that covered about 800 miles in total and had us setting up and tearing down camp every two days.

“Variety is the spice of life” is a personal cliché of mine, and I had no idea what kind of camping we’d enjoy the most: near the beach? in the mountains? high desert? Obviously, I also had no idea how much work was involved in setting up and tearing down camp! Which is why on the last day as we were driving home I took my husband’s hand and asked, “You sure you still want to be married to me? I’m so sorry…”

That year we had four kids under the age of 10, including one that was still nursing, in diapers, and happened to spike a pretty high fever on our first night as we huddled together in 40 degree temperatures at beautiful (freaking-cold-at-night) Crater Lake. “Oh, this is why the ranger kept insisting that I get a fire started when we arrived at 4 pm when it was still 80 degrees!” I thought to myself as I shivered while making dinner via flashlight.

Our air mattress popped in the middle of the night so we woke up on the freezing cold, hard ground and had to head into town to buy a ridiculously expensive new one so that my husband’s back wouldn’t break. Remember, it was already under considerable strain due to the loading and unloading of all of our crap from inside the mini-van. I seriously can’t believe that he agreed to do this again after that first year! Were we crazy? No, I’d like to think that even in the middle of all the nuttiness of that first year we realized a few of the “whys” of camping is so good for our family…

There is nothing like the smell of fresh air that surrounds you as you drive into your little campsite encircled by old growth pines.

We play games – Farkle, Gin, Loaded Questions, Apples to Apples, just to name a few!  And our charades are legendary.

The food! I’m a bit of a nut job in that I like to prepare all of our dinners ahead of time and freeze them – so that all I have to do at the end of the day is warm up a big pot of something delicious and we eat as well as we do at home. This gives me more time to sit by the fire, drink a beer, and connect with my family (or a really good book!)

And my kids love that they get to eat stuff that we rarely have at home: Top Ramen (Hey, don’t judge! I LIVED on Top Ramen, beer, potatoes and peanut butter for four years while I was in college, and I turned out okay!), Pop Tarts, Funions (what are these anyway? I don’t even think “onions” is in the list of ingredients…) and so, so many s’mores.

But the thing that I look forward to the most is that there is no wi-fi and because we have a super crappy phone network, no cell service. For an entire week, we are all unplugged and I.LOVE.IT. My kids, who are pretty much digging their Summer screen time which is waaaay over what I know is good for their brains, get a break from it all. Especially the older ones – for whom the world and its pain never leaves them alone for a minute when it’s all just a click away on their phones.

We engage. In the here and now. With each other. And it is good.

Take your kids camping, please.

Let them find “their” climbing tree and the hidden way to get to and from the bathrooms. Buy them fishing poles and sit quietly next to them for hours in August after the lake’s bounty has already been snatched up and hope, hope, hope that this is the year they catch “the big one” that is legend around these parts. Laugh yourselves silly and sing at the top of your lungs. Create the type of memories that matter as a family. Then sit back and wonder who gets the most out of this experience – you or them.

Does it matter? Not really.

Have you ever camped as a family before? Did you love it? Only do it “for the kids?” What other kinds of things do you do with your babies/kids that might become a family tradition? Let me know – I love this kind of stuff!

Traveling WITHOUT Children

Traveling

It’s 5:03 am Chicago O’Hare time and I’m trying to find some free Wi-Fi that actually works. I passed a Starbucks on my way to the gate and I can imagine my chai tea latte (extra hot!) in about an hour, when the place finally opens.

I’m able to sit and write uninterrupted for the next couple of hours and I’m amazed at this list of things I don’t have to do:

  1. Listen to Thing #1 complain pretty much non-stop about how bad the Wi-Fi in this place is “I can’t even stream my music, Mom!”
  2. Argue with Thing #2 that even though he thinks he “didn’t sleep on the plane at all!” he actually did – I saw him, and I know he’s tired, I’m tired, we’re all tired
  3. Navigate the obstacle course that is Thing #3 ’s collection of markers, colored pencils and fashion design books strewn all over the floor
  4. Chase after Thing #4 as he swings on the bars attached to window ledges and asks over and over and over again, “When’s it our turn to get on the plane?”

Traveling without children isn’t something that I get to do very often. And so it’s still a bit of a novelty to me. When you have four kids, traveling is usually quite the production!

You know your family is “big” when you take up two full rows on the plane. The first thing we always do is decide who’s sitting next to whom. This is not as easy as it sounds.

My hubby and I usually do some form of Rochambeau to determine who’s sitting with the littles and who’s sitting with the teens. It’s obvious who loses this game as one of us ends up having to come up with as many adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs as we can, to then listen to the resulting Mad Libs story at a deafening volume you can hear over the roar of the airplane’s engines.

We bring electronics people, I’m not going to lie. Apple products are some of the world’s greatest inventions when it comes to traveling! We download movies onto the iPad – but we have to figure out what Things 1 & 2 will both want to watch vs Things 3 & 4. It’s hard to find movies that all of our kids ages 16, 14, 10 & 7 actually like and are willing to watch again for the umpteenth time.

Plus – there’s only so many movies that can fit on a portable electronic device, so we can’t just rely on movies as our main tactical maneuver for traveling bliss. Oh, no. I have to make sure that each one of them has a book, but it has to be the right book: long enough to last most of the trip – without weighing 15 pounds! But I can’t forget all the other books: coloring, work, sticker… whatever will distract and entertain.

We try to take up two rows on the same side of the plane instead of side by side. We do this to avoid the looks of irritation from strangers who continue to a) get a kick in the pants no matter how many times we remind our kids to “Stop kicking the seat in front of you!” and b) get whacked in the head by a steady stream of our bags being sent across the aisle. 

And then there are the snacks. Holy crap! You’d think we were flying one-way to a deserted island somewhere with no hope for a food drop, based on the amount of food we bring along! Food is one of the best ways to keep kids on a plane happy though, so it’s got to be a good! I try to bring a mix of sweet and savory, with plenty of protein and nutritious stuff thrown together with a few “plane only” foods. These will inevitably get eaten on the first leg of the trip first and then the whining begins, “Why does he still have Oreos?” (Because your Dad has learned the art of delayed gratification, my friend.)

There must be gum available for takeoff and landing – not because it actually helps that much with ear pressure, but if I put a big enough wad in my mouth, I can distract every kid on the plane as I blow bubble after bubble while they laugh as it pops on my nose and cheeks.

Almost always, the flight attendants remark as we’re getting off the plane how well behaved our four kids are. And they’ve been saying this since the days when they were all under the age of ten. I’m not trying to be smug, here. The trick to successful travel with children is to remember: YOU’RE TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN!

You might get to read that novel from your book club or the latest O Magazine when you get to your final destination, but no way are you doing any of that on the plane! When I fly and I see kids really acting up it’s usually because THEY’RE CHILDREN, and their parents have forgotten this.

Traveling for hours strapped into an uncomfortable seat, with no legroom, a tiny little window that looks out into nothing, and where the only place to wander off to happens to be the world’s smallest toilet is hard enough on us adults! But when you have children with you it means you have to rally and be ready to parent every second of the flight – or at least until they fall asleep.

Sleeping children on the plane is always worth striving for! If they’re still nursing, it’s a little bit easier because they might end up sleeping the entire time – as long as there’s a nipple in their mouth! (Which may be the best argument for extended breastfeeding ever!) But if they weaned several years ago, you have to be prepared to help them make it through the flight and the best way to do that is to be as present as possible.

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s incredibly exhausting! But it usually prevents most of the meltdowns that are likely to occur if you forget that you’re traveling with children!

I’m aware of how easy this is for me to write about today, seeing as I have none of my brood with me. But this is really just a reminder for me to pack well – as we will be traveling with all four of them, on a very, very long flight in just a couple of weeks.

And I need to be prepared.

How do you entertain your kiddos while traveling? Any pearls of wisdom to share about how to keep the littles distracted and happy for those of us who will be facing a big trip this Summer? (Hint – I’m talking about me here, and I could really use some new ideas before mid-June. Help a Momma out!) Bonus points if the idea doesn’t take up any room in the carry on bags. May you all have safe and relatively pain-free travels. Don’t forget – you’re parents, now.