The Gift of a Morning Leatherback

By Dana Neel, Field Biologist

As a Sea Turtle Biologist and volunteer with The Leatherback Trust, much of our work is at night. Data shows that leatherbacks tend to nest close to high tide. For this reason, we patrol for 3 hours on either side of high tide, and return to the station as the water recedes.  

When the rest of us go to bed, one rested biologist wakes up at 5 am to complete what we call ‘morning walk’. We walk the beach early to double check the turtle tracks from the night before and to see if they missed anything after ending patrol. As a monitoring project, it is important to know when we have turtles emerging and if we miss a turtle throughout the night. This missed emergence could be a false crawl, where the turtle did not nest, or we could find a body pit, where the turtle likely nested. It is important to have this data to monitor nesting trends in Las Baulas National Park.

Sometimes, this biologist and their adjoining volunteers are granted the gift of a “morning turtle.” A morning turtle is one that crawls up to nest in the late hours of the night and is still on the beach as the sun rises. With the natural light comes the ability to take photos, which due to park regulations and disturbance of the turtles, we cannot do during our usual nighttime working hours (6 pm to 5 am).

About once a season or so, this morning turtle is a leatherback. With a morning leatherback, we radio into the Station to rally the troops and get everyone out on the beach for this special moment.  

Many friends ask what it’s like to see and work with a sea turtle, to which I often reply: it’s like you’re dreaming. You’re working under red light, you only see parts of her at a time, you’re so focused on collecting the correct data that you often have to remind yourself to stop and enjoy the moment. When patrol ends you go to bed, wake up the following morning, and ask yourself if it all really happened. With morning turtles, it’s different. Suddenly the leatherback isn’t a flipper, or a tail, or just an egg dropping machine; when you see her in her entirety, you can truly appreciate the species, their size and details of her leathery carapace that are hidden from us during our nightly routines.

During this current season, we have been one lucky team. So far we have had not just one, but three morning leatherbacks! There is always a burst of excitement when you come across a track and realize it’s only an “up” track out of the water with no return. Due to the timing of our morning walk, this is often just before the sun comes up. The biologists and volunteers on the beach will begin collecting nesting, identification, and size data while the station becomes a flurry of energy. Everyone is sparked out of their slumber and begins running around grabbing cameras and shoes and rushing to get to the van as fast as possible.

Once everyone reaches the beach, we become less a group of biologists, and more a group of sea turtle enthusiasts and wildlife photographers. The soft early morning light and the backdrop of green vegetation, tan sand, and blue water make for beautiful shots. One such photo, taken by TLT’s Executive Director, George Shillinger, was selected as the inspiration for Costa Rica's 2100 colones postal stamp.

Of course this scenario works great when you have a team of biologists patrolling the beaches every morning, but what happens when you, your friends, or your family find a turtle nesting on the beach? If the beach is a protected area, the first line of action would be to contact the local rangers or authority.  Many large turtle nesting areas have a monitoring project in place with phone numbers readily available online. Be sure to give the turtle plenty of space, avoid crossing in front of her head, and take a moment to really enjoy the process of nesting and the hope of new life.