Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Turtle, Turtle!

Since we have been in South America, Nate and I have been able to cross a few things off of our bucket list. This past week, Nate was able to cross a big one of his list; see an endangered Leatherback Turtle come to shore to nest. We spent one night at Shell Beach located about 45 minutes northeast by boat from Mabaruma and saw not one, not two, not three, not four….but FIVE Leatherback turtles up close and personal. So close, in fact, we could smell turtle breath. We set out Wednesday morning to visit the remote area of Shell Beach to work at the health post and primary school. Here we met Mr. Audley, who was the founder of Shell Beach about 27 years ago. Fun fact about Mr. Audley, he single-handily planted all the rows of palm trees that you can see today. There must be over 1,000 trees!

Downtown Shell Beach

Mr. Audley welcomed us to his community and showed us around, and by showed us around, I mean he pointed at the seven buildings in the area due to the minute size of this community. There are only about 120 inhabitants year-round with the exception of turtle nesting season when groups of gringos visit the area.

Shell Beach, Region 1, Guyana

We spent most of the morning working at the school and health post, giving vaccinations and assessing the needs of the two sectors. Around 4pm Nate and I headed out on a premature beach walk, (you will see why this was premature a bit later) to see if we could catch a glimpse of any other wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anything on our walk, but we were able to forage for some dinner. Remember how I said that Shell beach was really remote, well Shell Beach is so remote that there are absolutely no shops to buy food or even dry goods. The people who live there either grow their own food or come out to our village’s market once a month. Also, because of so much beach erosion this community’s once produce garden has since washed away. So all we had was a small jar of peanut butter and jelly and some crackers.

Luckily, Nate’s caveman instinct kicked in and he was able to score us four paw paw’s (this is what they call papaya), one coconut and some cassava leaves, which surprisingly taste a lot like bland spinach. Once we washed down our delectable meal with a bottle of lukewarm filtered water, it was almost time to set out on our 5-hour beach walk to spot our leathery-backed enormous friends.

At 8pm we set out on our night through what can only be described as the backdrop of “Where the Wild Things Are,” as one of the other volunteers so accurately described it. You are surrounded on one side by ocean and on the other side by straight-up jungle. The only light you can see is that of your flashlight and of the moon shining on the pitch-black ocean. There was absolutely nobody else on the beach but our team of 8 and our turtle expert. By hour three we saw our first turtle in all her glory! This turtle was about 6 feet long and an impressive sight.

Leatherback turtles usually nest multiple times during the season at which time they can lay up to 120 eggs at one time. Once on shore they dig a deep hole using there two back fins; it almost looks like ice cream being scooped out with a scooper. After they lay their eggs they cover them up by flinging sand in every direction to camouflage where the eggs have been laid. Once this laborious process is done, which takes about an hour or so, our huge turtle friends make there way back to the water and disappears into the waves. Of all the eggs that leatherback turtles lay, only about 5% will actually survive and sometimes even less than that. In Guyana, turtle eggs are a delicacy and are commonly poached.

Some eggs had to be relocated further up the beach to give the hatchlings a better chance at survival.

I hate to admit this, but since I have been here I have eaten a turtle egg. I am not proud of this, but it was a cultural experience I couldn’t pass up and with all honestly I would have been considered rude otherwise. It was gross! The eggs are slightly boiled and due to the consistency of the outer shell you have to bite a small hole and suck the yolk into your mouth. I ate half the egg when my gag reflexes starting kicking in, at which time I tossed the remainder of the egg over my shoulder and pretended to be fully satisfied with my turtle egg. Moral of the story, don’t eat the eggs of an endangered species!

A mommy flinging sand to camouflage her nest.

At around 1:30am we saw our last turtle and retreated to our hammocks for the night. Oh, I forgot to mention that the mosquitoes on Shell Beach were something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. During the day they aren’t bad, but as soon as five o’clock hits, its like someone releases them out a cage. They were so bad that we had to wear socks, long pants and sleeves and bathe ourselves in repellent. Even with all our efforts, I was unfortunately attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes in the time it took for me to change from a long sleeve shirt into a tank top and get into my hammock. All it took was 60 seconds of exposed skin! Nate left without a mark, but I guess I just have sweeter skin.
My back after getting swarmed.

These shelters are build by fishermen who stay in them for a few nights at a time when they're out fishing on the river. In the background you can see a flock of endangered Scarlet Ibis.

Till next time.


  1. Words cannot describe how jealous I am about you being able to hang out with the leatherbacks. That is absolutely amazing.

  2. Excellent entry, thanks for sharing. Im heading to Guyana this summer. Could you tell me when turtle season ends please? I've found conflicting information.

    1. If my recollection is correct, turtle nesting season in Shell Beach is in full swing between June and July. Have fun and bring plenty of bug spray!

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