Full Circle

Way back when (in April) we were in Costa Rica volunteering with giant leatherback sea turtles. It was nesting season, and at the time the only thing that would have made the experience more special would have been if we could have been present for hatching season. Mission complete! Because it turns out that it is hatching season for the green sea turtles here in Indonesia. Unfortunately, the handling, procedures, and overall treatment of the turtles falls short of ecological standards. In fact, it would probably make the research assistants and directors in Costa Rica (and other organizations) cringe. However, we were lucky enough to enter the hatchery and release the hatchlings back into the sea, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. A few days later, we got to see and do the photo op thing with another bunch of hatchlings in the middle of the day. The guy with the bucket of turtles, reached in a handed one to me. I hesitated, and tried to question if it was ok (which obviously to him it was since he was calling my name and holding it out). I’m not sure why they were kept in a dry bucket for hours until their release, but with the language barrier I was only able to be told that they were fine and did not need water. There’s something weird about sea turtles not needing water, but the guys were supposedly trained members of the World Wildlife Federation and who am I to challenge the way things are done on the island? I know conservation efforts and humans the world over are trying to help, but sometimes I wonder if in some instances it would be best to let nature take its course. So in a moment of weakness and deliberate selfishness, I took the turtle from him (ok, and another one out of the bucket so that turtle #1 wouldn’t be lonely and freaked out-my lame justification). It’s like when you are a kid, and your mom has taught you not to touch [fill in the blank], but one day it’s right there in front of you. No one else is in sight (although in my case there were witnesses). The chance may never come again. What do you do? As I got eye to eye with one of the babies, I felt lucky for experiencing a dream, saddened by the slim chances of it ever reaching adulthood, and guilty for the part I had so willingly played in it.

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

*Side note: I would have felt a little better about this, but my google search on handling hatchlings revealed that although there are all sorts of pictures of people holding baby turtles (even on the conservation websites), the majority state that this is a serious no-no. Apologies to all those conservationists and animal rights activists out there.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Paradise Found

We made it.! We finally made it. Assuming you’ve read Jeff’s last blog, then you know what it took to get here. To get to the remote speck of an island that is Derawan, you truly have to want to. And probably for this very reason, it remains virtually untouched. If all the Balis, Cancuns, Bahamas, and Oahus of the world have all become (or are on their way to becoming) paradises lost, then Derawan is still paradise without all the hype and “extras”. There are no resorts on the island. Well, actually there is one-a dive resort. But it is the furthest thing from a Hyatt or Four Seasons as possible-just a bunch of nice bungalows on stilts over the water, with flush toilets in the bathrooms. For $970, one can enjoy 5-nights accomodation with 3 dives per day. Instead, Jeff and I are staying within striking distance from the resort, also over the water at a charming little guesthouse. Our room is $8 per night, with free breakfast, a clean shared bathroom and squat toilet.

After arriving and having our Oreos, we wondered what exactly we were going to do to occupy our days here. A walk around the perimeter of the entire island took half an hour. The only electricity comes from generators that power up from 6 pm to 6 am daily. Aside from a few warungs and restaurants that operate out of homes, the only forms entertainment seem to be an outdoor volleyball court and stage area, an indoor badminton court, and a concrete mini-golf course (of all things). And 360 degrees of ocean. The snorkeling is out of this world–we see new creatures each time. There are coconut, banana, and palm trees dotting the white sand, and of course the water is a crystal clear aqua blue that fades to a bright royal blue at the drop offs. But what makes it paradise, is that it doesn’t try to create authenticity. There’s just no need. We spend hours just watching island life going on around us. Men fish, do repairs, smoke in the shade. Women sit in small groups after completing their many chores. The children are some of the friendliest, funniest bunch we’ve come across. They are everywhere! They ask us our names over and over. We watch them as they climb trees (or anything climbable), sing Indonesian pop songs at the top of their lungs, play games with whatever has washed up on shore, and get a good scolding or two. The calm is periodically broken by the sound of their voices, a motor boat, a falling coconut.

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

It may be tiny. It may be quiet. But we have experienced highlight after highlight, and moments that take our breath away everyday. Now, here we are seven days later and trying to figure out a way to stay just a few more days.

The one and only day trip we have gone on was an excursion to “jellyfish lake” as we like to call it, as I don’t know if the lagoon has an actual name. This might be a good thing because it is one of those secret places that you want to keep all to yourself (although it was one of the major reasons we came to Indonesia and something Jeff has been talking about for the past seven months now). As our speed boat approached the island, I silently hoped it wouldn’t disappoint. Here’s the deal with “jellyfish lake”. At some point way back in time, there was a shifting of the tectonic plates that resulted in the creation of a lake in the middle of this island. Without any predators, the jellyfish that remained in the lake multiplied as well as evolved, losing their ability to sting. The island setting itself is picturesque, both from the outside as well as from within. The lake was larger than we expected and surrounded by mangroves. We wasted no time putting on our snorkels and fins and jumped right in. What can I possibly write that might capture the experience of swimming in turquoise waters among thousands of jellyfish? At worst, it was still magical. At best, it was practically spiritual. And if nothing else, it was therapeutic. As I moved slowly through the first few clusters of jellyfish, all I could do was try to stay at a safe distance (because who knows, what if they can sting afterall?), and stare. But within minutes, I was (gently, of course) poking, pushing, and holding each of the four species of jellyfish that inhabit the lake. Some areas of the lake were so chock full of them that I could feel them bumping into my shoulders and arms and sliding down my stomach and legs as I tried to swim through. It was like being inside a jellyfish screensaver. We stayed for hours. We stayed until the “crowds” (consisting only of a few other small families and groups) left, and we were the only two people on the lake. On the way back to Derawan, our boat driver let us out for a snorkel on the outside of the island–clear with beautiful reefs and a huge drop-off, which would have been a treat in itself, except that we had just snorkeled with jellyfish!!

Anyway, we’ve developed a basic routine for the rest of our days on Derawan. Wake up whenever it starts to get hot. Have tea and eat breakfast. Sit around, chat, take it all in. Swim with the sea turtles that come to shore daily. Snorkel. Have lunch. Snorkel. Lay out in the sun/shade. Read. Snorkel. Walk around the beach, look for seashells, other wildlife, or try to catch the sunset. Have dinner. Sit around on porch, hang out and chat with fellow guests. Take bucket shower. Go to bed. Repeat.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Leatherbacks

I guess it’s only natural that I’m the one writing this entry. I’ve always liked turtles and friends draw parallels between me and the genus a little too freely. But there is something about them that draws people to them like no other reptiles do, as evidenced by their religious significance in Polynesian culture. So on April 3rd, we arrived at Reserva Pacaure to work with Leatherback turtles, the largest of the existing species, during their nesting season. We wanted to experience a connection between these prehistoric relics and do so while improving their 1 in 1000 odds of egg-to-adulthood survival.

I started my first patrol at 11 pm under an almost full moon, the black sand beach still dark to my maladjusted eyes. The unevenness of the beach, coupled with the washed up driftwood made my first minute’s steps small and unsure. Only the constant sound of the ocean and the white of the waves kept me steady with their rhythm. About 45 minutes in, I caught up with another person on the beach, a Research Assistant sitting close to where the beach met the forest. We started talking for a couple of minutes in the dark, when she asked me how it felt. I responded with, “what?” to which she answered, “to see your first turtle,” as she leaned to the side, revealing a Leatherback a foot away. I had missed seeing this animal as big as a clown car. But now it sat there preparing her nest as those before her had been doing for nearly 200 million years. For the next hour we worked with her; measuring, relocating the eggs, and camouflaging the tracks—-but mostly just connecting with the experience. I watched her return to her element and continued my patrol.

As the night wore on, my steps gained confidence, getting used to the slope of the sand and eager to come across another sighting. Shooting stars and fireflies broke into the monotony of the trek and made me feel nature was encouraging those who tried to aid her. At 4 am, walking back to the lodges, we came across another nesting turtle. We worked with her till nearly 6 am, the sun rising as she finally made her way back to the ocean, enabling a rare site—seeing a Leatherback by day.

Since my first night, Mari and I have gone out patrolling nightly, doing what we could to help, and feeling closer to nature in the process. We were scheduled to leave on April 10th, Good Friday, but have extended our stay through Easter. So while the rest of Central America will be observing Semana Santa, we’ve opted for a subtler communion, right here with the turtles.

Posted: April 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Costa Rica | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »