Hi! My name is Mr. Bergstein. Please travel with me to Costa Rica to study Sea Turtles!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Biologists

The Goldring Marine Biology Station in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, is run by an incredibly enthusiastic and dedicated group of young scientists who are at various stages of their careers. Every day the list of chores and responsibilities that need to be attended to would wear out the most energetic of us. These folks greet each day with enthusiasm and gusto.

Dr. Frank Palandino, Purdue University in Indiana, started this project twenty years ago, but is still heavily involved with the overall operation. He stops down every once in awhile to see how things are going and to spend time doing the thing he loves.

Tera Dornfeld, a graduate student at Purdue University, and originally from Minnesota, has been working on this project for the past four years, but has been running the day to day operations this season. Her responsibilities include everything from determining the daily assignments to coordinating logistics to making sure there is enough food for the volunteers. Her bubbly personality makes it clear that she is incredibly dedicated to the work she is doing.

Celine Campana, a veterinarian originally from New Zealand, is mostly in charge of excavating nests that have already hatched. The number of hatchlings from each nest as well as what happened to the unhatched eggs needs to be determined. She has been on the project for three months, coming over from Greece, where she has been working with loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean Sea for the past six years.

Nathan Robinson is from the UK and responsible for taking the temperatures of the existing nests on the beach. This takes a few hours and involves walking from one end of the beach to the other, uncovering the thermacouple, opening up the film canister, reading off the number of the nest (146 at last count) plug in the thermacouple reader, read off the temp, unplug the the reader, close the film canister, and cover it all up. Sound simple. It is, but try it a hundred times on a hot, sunny afternoon. He is in the process of applying for school to get his PhD.

Kim Gieras, a graduate student at Purdue University, and from Indiana as well, has been here only a month. She helps out with the temperature readings by starting at the north end of the beach and meets Nathan somewhere in the middle. She’ll finish out this season and then head back to Purdue to finish up her degree.

Christine Figgener, originally from Germany, but now living in Costa Rica, is finishing up her thesis in behavior physiology and animal ecology at the University of Wuerzburg, but has been working for the past four years with leatherback turtles in Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea. Her thesis was on the reproduction biology of leatherbacks. She is heading off to be the field coordinator for the sea turtle conservation project in Gandoca, Costa Rica which is run by WIDECAST. Her main responsibility here is to work with the volunteers on triangulating the new nests.

Jason Howard, a graduate student at Drexler University and originally from Maryland, is new to the project this week. He is getting to know the ropes as he takes the place of Christine who is heading back to the Caribbean Sea to continue her work with leatherbacks in that portion of the world.

In addition to the work I have already mentioned, they are responsible for finding lost nests through reverse triangulation. Triangulating nests that hatched the night before is very important so they can be checked every other day. Relocation of nests has to happen immediately after the laying so is performed by the person on patrol. This involves catching the eggs in a plastic bag, digging a new hole that is in a safer location (sometimes the turtles lay their eggs below the high tide line) and placing the eggs in that hole. The hole is dug in the same bottom-half of an hourglass shape that the turtle would do itself. Repair work on the hatchery is also quite necessary as the raccoons are quite a pest around here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding a Day Hatch

One of the jobs that must be done every few days or so is reverse triangulation. This is necessary when the nests are lost over time. Either people or dogs remove the sticks marking the nest. When this happens, the every other day temperature readings can’t take place. It’s not a difficult job, but it does take time.

The day after a nest is created, measurements that mark that nest are written into a book. Basically, measurements are taken from two fixed points and the nest lies where those two measurements intersect. That spot is marked by three sticks poking out of the ground.

So, we (Chris, Kim, Susan and I) were marking the first arc and Chris yells out that she has found something. We rush up to her and she is digging in the sand. She found four dead hatchlings with the upper half of their five inch bodies poking out of the sand. Something had gone awry and they scrambled to the surface of the beach in the heat of the day. The sun completely dried them up and they never made it out of the nest alive.

Chris kept at it and found another layer of hatchlings below the first, but this time they were still alive. As soon as they saw daylight, they continued their crawl to the surface. Time was very important as the sun was still blazing. I ran to the ocean to soak my bandana and Chris continued to uncover wriggling hatchlings.

All too quickly, my bandana filled up and I removed my shirt to enclose more hatchlings in a wet, shady environment. That's right, I gave the shirt off my back for these little fellows. We were about a mile from the Goldring Marine Biology Station and we needed to get them back to safety. While there were a few more dead hatchlings uncovered, we did save fifteen of them and released them that night under the cover of dark with nothing but the moon and crashing waves showing them the way. If you follow the link to my website, you'll see a longer version of this clip.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Stuggle of the Leatherback Turtle

Tamarindo is a nearby town, just a few miles south of Playa Grande, which used to be a popular surfing spot and a fabulous nesting place for the leatherback turtles. Now, even though the surfers are still there, all the turtles have left. What happened? It’s a pretty simple answer, but the process for stopping it from happening again is riddled with politics, miscommunication, lies and people who just don’t care. That’s what Dr. Frank Paladino, from Purdue University, is battling and why he created this project twenty years ago.

Development: we, as humans, often measure progress with bigger and more buildings and making money. That’s essentially what doomed the nesting population in Tamarindo. At night, the lights of all the big buildings from Tamarindo illuminate the sky, whereas the beaches just north in Playa Grande are completely black.

White lights frighten off and disorient the female turtles who wish to nest and they don’t come onto the beach. In addition, hatchlings head towards the light of the town as they think it is the moon reflecting off the water, which is where they want to be immediately after emerging from their nest.

Most of the beach no longer exists in Tamarindo. Beachfront development chopped away the vegetation, which was holding the sand in place. Once the vegetation was gone, the sand just washed away, and so went the beach. Now all that is left is rock with a little bit of sand, which makes it impossible for the females to dig into, even if they did want to come to the beach.

Without Dr. Paladino’s work, the same thing could be happening in Playa Grande. The Leatherback Trust, started by Dr. Paladino, worked with the Costa Rican government to create this National Park that has preserved a nesting spot for the leatherbacks. Much negotiation and discussion with the poachers helped turn them into tour guides so they didn’t lose a way of making a living. The Leatherback Trust continuously endeavors to educate the locals and the national government about the importance of keeping the beach intact. Any houses that do exists along the beach are encouraged to use red exterior lights.

Dr. Paladino’s project is one the longest running Earthwatch projects. While his work in known around the world, the battle is slowly being lost. There were over 100,000 different nests on the beaches of Playa Grande only twenty years ago. Now there are fewer than 300. Awareness is a huge step to helping these creatures not go the way of their former contemporaries, the dinosaurs.

Skype with the Fayston School

Spoke to the Fayston Elementary School this morning over Skype. Technology sure does open up the world. I was able to show some video, do a little demonstration, have a round table discussion with some of the biologists on site and take questions; all from several thousand miles away. The students at the school appear to be real excited about all that is happening. I think it's a great model for getting to understand what the field of science can be all about.

I commend National Life Group for brainstorming this idea for sending me to Costa Rica. I think it is money well spent and will make a large impact on many children.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Assisting a Leatherback Laying Eggs

January 17-18

My first evening on beach patrol.....

January 17

7:15pm - Home from dinner and settling in for a couple hour nap.

7:45pm - A call from the hatchery, four of the nests broke through the surface and were scurrying within their corral, searching for the ocean. The hatchery watch jumps into a frenzy as the first twenty hatchlings from each nest need to be gathered, measured and weighed...and this takes time. (The night before I sat for six hours and absolutely nothing happened.)

8:30pm - I settle into bed for my nap.

11:30pm - The alarm goes off and I grab a cup of coffee.

11:50pm - We jump into the truck and drive to marker 25 for drop-off.

January 18

12:07am - Nathan and I start our 1500m patrol (marker 21 to marker 6) and a call (walkie-talkie) comes in...we’ve got a turtle emerging from the water near marker 15. Time to spring into action.

12:19am - We arrive at the turtle and she has made it to her nesting spot and is well into her digging process; the body pitting is done and she is settled into a 25 degree angle. On the way, Nathan has explained the whole process to me and what I’ll be doing. The key is that nothing happens too quickly.

12:25am - Nathan digs me a pit to lie in behind the turtle. I crouch down on my belly, counter around my neck, thermacouple in my left hand and I wait. The crowd of tourists (only twelve) closed in the circle around the turtle. We wait in silence out of respect for this 900 lb creature who works so hard to continue the process of life.

12:31am - The magic happens and the lacrosse sized eggs start coming out, a foot in front of my face. She has covered her opening with her right flipper, so I place the counter in my right hand and gently push her flipper out of the way so the eggs drop clearly for me and for the tourists behind me.

12:34am - After a few eggs fall into the onion-shaped nest, I slide the end of the thermacouple into the eggs with my left hand and hold onto the connecting end so it won’t fall into the nest. All the while, my right hand clicks the counter as the eggs fall one, two or three at a time. “It’s so beautiful!” “Amazing!” “Ohhhhh!” These are a few of phrases I hear around me as I focus on my job. “I can’t see!” was another and I try to shift my body and head to accommodate.

12:45am - She is finishing up and the sags (empty, smaller eggs) are falling to create air space before she begins tapping piles of sand on top of the eggs. Scoop after scoop get piled on the 65 eggs that she laid. I watch this process for awhile and then we begins to pack up. I tie pink ribbon around the end of the thermacouple and string it away from the next so we can find it again later.

12:55am - Nathan and I continue our first leg of the patrol and immediately turn around so we can check on our first turtle on the way back.

1:10am - We arrive back at our turtle and she is in the process of camouflaging her nest. She really messes up the beach around her nest, so that it’s very unlikely to find the nest without actually seeing her in the process of laying. We continue on our patrol.

2:00am - We have arrived back at the nest and everyone is gone. We search for the ribbon, place a scrap piece of paper inside the film canister with all the pertinent information (date of laying, location, and scanned ID number) and mark the nest with a triangle of sticks. There are a hundred of these that are active on the beach right now. Their temperatures get measured every other day.

2:20am - Another turtle!!! Start the process over again.

2:40am - 4:30am - Patrolling our 1500m stretch - 20 minutes from one end to the other - 20 minute rest - back again - 20 minute rest

4:45am - We’re back in the truck heading towards the northernmost beach we patrol - Ventana - as this was not patrolled this evening.

5:00am - Nathan and I begin the walk back to the station. We see evidence of two nests; one leatherback and one black. Other than that, our 2km trip is quiet and uneventful. The sun is beginning to rise as we arrive back at the hatchery.

5:40am - A much needed shower, a bit of breakfast and more water (2 liters downed during the night).

6:00am - In bed at last. 12km of walking on the beach tonight. I’m pretty tired.

For photos and video: http://web.mac.com/dougbergstein/iWeb/Grades5_6/5th%20%26%206th%20Home.html

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hatchery Duty

My first night on duty was the hatchery. What’s the hatchery duty entail you ask? Sit, talk, examine the nests every 20 minutes, look at the stars, sit, stretch, talk - repeat. My shift started at 6pm and went until midnight. The only excitement that could happen on this shift is that hatchlings could emerge from a nest and then you take them to the beach and let them make their way to the ocean. We actually began the evening with a release of turtles that had hatched during the day. It was quite the experience to watch them find their way to the water in the moonlight - a crescent moon with the curve upside down like a smily face. We let them go about 50 yard from the water as they really need to stretch their flippers before hitting the water. There is also the thought that they need to get a feel for the beach as the females always return to the same beach for nesting. Three of them shot out of the gate, I followed another that zig-zagged north until it finally found water. It took a few waves before it was washed out to sea. The last one took quite a bit longer. It wasn’t looking too active in the bucket, and didn’t look much better once placed on the beach. Kim and I walked with it for about 45 minutes, until, finally it touched water. It took on a few waves, was buried in the sand, and then off it went. The likelihood any of these hatchlings will make it is quite slim; maybe one in a thousand, with a 70% mortality rate within the first year alone. Once they make it to adulthood (15 years) they have no natural predators, so it’s just humans getting in the way.

In mid-afternoon, we went south to excavate a nest that had already hatched. They wait two days for this, to make sure that no other hatchlings make their way out naturally. Nathan cleared off the dry sand, creating a bit of a pit (the women and shorter armed folks have to make a bigger pit) and then he digs down and down and down, eventually getting all the way to his armpit. Once he reaches the eggs, he scoops them out for sorting. They get sorted into four categories: whole eggs (about the size of a lacrosse ball), hatched eggs, sags (generally smaller and empty) and fragments and, lastly, the unknown. These are counted and recorded, then the interesting part. We break open the whole eggs to see what’s inside. These are sorted into four categories as well: nothing but the yolk, stage 1 (attachment - an embryo is attached to the side of the egg and nothing more), stage 2 (some development - maybe just eyes), stage 3 (further development - like the one I opened which was quite fully developed, but stopped just short). Opening the egg was interesting. First you pinch the egg to create an opening and then you peel it back to enlarge the opening. Then you pour the contents of the egg onto your gloved hand (salmonella and all) and examine it carefully as it oozes over your gloves. It’s quite disgusting, but fascinating. I got right into the process and was quite mesmerized.

Friday, January 15, 2010

San Jose

Well, the experience has begun. I’m currently in San Jose, Costa Rica awaiting a morning puddle jumper to Tamarindo, which is on the Pacific coast. I can’t wait for my first face-to-face encounter with one of these giant leatherbacks. It’s one thing to read about a 1,200 pound turtle, but to experience it up close has to be unreal. Another event I’m really looking forward to is the scurrying baby turtles as they fight for their life, trying to get to the ocean. I think it will be very interesting to see the work they’ve done in the hatchery and how that has helped this endangered species to survive. While I’ll be posting my reflections and experiences on this site, if you go to my school website: http://web.mac.com/dougbergstein/iWeb/Grades5_6/5th%2%26%206th%20Home.html you’ll be able to see photos and videos, which will give you a much richer look into what I’m doing.