Save Our Leatherbacks Operation completed its fourth year of expeditions to the nesting beaches located in very remote Papua Barat.
The Leatherback sea turtle is in its exact form as it existed about 150 million years ago. When the ice age froze out the huge creatures, this Leatherback went into the sea and survived. An Expedition participant has a very rare opportunity to be “nose to snout” and actually interact with an existing real life dinosaur from the Jurassic period while they still exist.
Humanity’s increasing and wanton destruction of our seas is causing a spiral into extinction of this, the largest sea turtle and reptile on Earth.
In 2008, as in past years, we held two expeditions of 14 people each between July 14 and August 6. Each sortie lasted 11 days and 10 nights. The expeditions go first to the Leatherback nesting beaches to the East of Sorong, the port of embarkation on a quality live aboard boat.
Enroute to the Leatherback nesting beaches, divers have an opportunity to see some WWII planes, ships and ammunition in waters of 70 feet or less. Snorkelers and beach explorers have other neat experiences available to them as non-divers.
Time at the Leatherback beaches takes about two days and one night in order to gain a meaningful experience with these giant Leatherback females as they come from the sea in the dark of night to nest. Males never appear unless injured.
Day periods at the beach include an opportunity to interact with residents of two remote villages where our research staffs reside and witnessing of an almost forgotten “Leatherback Calling Ceremony” by villagers in tribal costume, complete with bamboo bows and arrows to call the Leatherback females to the beach that night (so far, works every time).
I had been curious for some time as to how accurate the Papuan men are with their bows and arrows, as the bows are bent bamboo, the bow string is of bamboo, and the arrows are often crooked with no feathers or a notch to fit the bow string. I challenged the village men to shoot at a 3 x 5 inch target placed at 15 meters (about 45 feet). ALL hit that small target. (except me) The village chief drilled the center of the target. When my turn came (and I am about twice their size, the arrow struggled about 10 feet) WHEW! Don’t get THESE Papuans angry!
The nights on this 18 km long beach are the most exciting part of the three-phase trip. We go to the beach after a fine dinner on the boat, at about 9 p.m. All dress well to protect from being gnawed on by the always present “No See Em’s”, but at times even a 100 percent bath in Deet does not repel them.
We go ashore at Leatherback Rock, usually in calm surf, to be met by the villagers who become our guides in search of the Leatherbacks. Their eyes see a lot more than ours, and they have local knowledge of the Leatherback habits. We have them equipped with hand held radios.
We all make a comfortable sand dune seat or bed and marvel at the stars, which are so bright in the no pollution air, we can almost grab one. Last trip, I counted 25 shooting stars and one decaying satellite on a burn back into our atmosphere.
After a brief wait, hooded lights begin to flash up and down the beach as our native staff locates a female crawling from the sea to find the spot where she was hatched to dig her nest and lay clutches of up to 100 eggs.
We scramble to the location in small groups so as not to ‘spook’ the Leatherback and wait to approach her until she is digging the nest hole and begins to drop her eggs.
The process requires from 1 to 1.5 hours, so there is plenty of time for photos and examining the entire hatching event. Many sit beside her and stroke the soft, velvet-like skin that protects her massive rib cage and lungs and marvel at the huge size of this Leatherback.
The Leatherback has been instrumented to dive lower than 3,000 feet in search of giant jellyfish. This is the only sea turtle that does not have a shell.
As many times I have seen this process, I never fail to get “goose bumps” at the experience. Eggs laid, sand repacked over the four-foot deep nest, she, with lots of effort, climbs out of the wide and deep hole she made and makes her way back into the sea. When a Leatherback comes to nest, she often returns in the same season to nest between four and five times, which can mean that one Leatherback can lay up to 500 eggs in a season.
Once the Leatherbacks begin to emerge from the sea, the time can speed by quickly with the intensity of running up and down the beach, filming, watching, etc. So, a glance at a watch surprises most when dawn is near. A Pacific sunrise on a remote beach can be a vision never to forget.
We return to the boat, shower and get cleaned up, have breakfast and return to the beach after sunrise to participate in actual nest research with the Papuan staff. On some trips, the research is also accomplished at night. We examine the nests that have hatched to determine how many eggs hatched and did not. Often, we locate and release babies that are caught deep in the sand and would not live unless brought to the surface.
Helping the species
Our motivation is to stop the extinction spiral. To place more hatchlings into the sea is a prime directive of our foundation. Our staffs have this purpose to accomplish each day and night as they locate and mark egg nests. Our ongoing results this year come from doing exactly that and more (relocating nests from global warming areas of egg destruction). The apparent results of the 2008 nesting data is cause for proclaiming a terrific success.
We are achieving one of our foundation objectives by increasing the numbers of babies put out to the sea to live, to grow and return to nest at a later time. In one nest at night, expeditioners assisted 16 hatchlings to the surf, which would not have lived without human intervention. During the following morning, nest researchers were able to locate and release more trapped babies. All who participated remain excited. So far, in this season, our staff have located and released over 19,000 hatchlings from deep in nests (this effort has NOT been accomplished or catalogued previously on these very remote beaches).
Our relocated nests are producing approximately a 93 percent success rate of eggs that hatch, which would have otherwise drowned or cooked deep in the nests. At season close (end October), we anticipate a summary of very encouraging results. Yessss, we ARE excited! Our volunteer science panel of PhD Marine Biologists is reviewing the data for a later release to the public.
At mid-morning, we board the ship and head west into the Raja Ampat Islands to dive out the remaining days of the expedition. We extended the venue of the dives to include Kawe and Waya, both West of the Ampats and on the Equator. Diving in this pristine region is perhaps the last great dive location left. In 2007 and 2008, the majority of dive and travel magazines and National Geographic have featured this area, The Raja Ampat Islands because of clear waters and amazing concentrations of marine life.
We continue to offer these expeditions in 2009. A cash deposit of US$500 is required to reserve a bed before April 30. A few beds remain on both trips, but they will be filled quickly. Information on the 2009 expeditions can be requested by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want a combined experience of a life time, join us. Only about 300 have sat beside this living Jurassic era dinosaur in this very remote location. ■