Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Return to the Deep Blue

     We gathered on the beach for the nightly sunset release with two tubs containing about 600 baby sea turtles, some just a few hours old. Once released on the beach, the call of the sea was strong and they were on their way to begin what we hoped would be a long and fruitful life. We watched the sun set over the horizon, and saw groups of dolphins frolicking near the breakers. As the sun disappeared into the night, the last of the baby turtles disappeared into ocean.
     As darkness fell upon us, we headed out on foot with flashlights and plastic bags to patrol our eight kilometer area of the beach. looking ahead for tracks leading from the ocean up the beach. Then there they were, sea turtle tracks. After a bit of looking we determined the true nest site, and started digging—jackpot! Ninety six Olive Ridley turtle eggs. Once counted and secured in the plastic bag, we continued on. Occasionally we spotted a pair of eyes watching us from a distance, probably a coatimundi or jagurundi, no doubt also hoping to find a nest of sea turtle eggs.
     As our legs grew heavy and our breath short, the welcoming camp lights were once again in sight. Our hopes of finding more nests faded. Although we were pleased to discover a nest and save the eggs, we were really searching for something bigger, much bigger! We were filled with the hope of seeing a big leatherback sea turtle.
     Changing our leatherback search strategy, we left the comforts of camp about 3:30 am. We’d been walking about 30 minutes, when our guide, Joel, announced “leatherback” tracks. Tracks? It looked like someone drove a bulldozer up the beach. Unfortunately, we had missed the huge turtle by about an hour. Stunned by the immense nest site, we asked how big do you think she was. Joel replied big, very big, probably about a meter and half wide by three meters long and weighing around 400 kilos. Our disappointment of having missed seeing her was intense.
     Joel explained that it could take hours to find the eggs and we’d have to return to the camp for a shovel; the eggs can be buried up to a meter or more deep. He suggested we finish our patrol as it would be daylight soon. As we approached our turnaround point, we sighed with relief; we were beginning to feel our age.
     After the hike the night before, some of us had aching muscles that we were unaware we had. Being the youngster, I piped up and said, “ah, come on, it’s just a walk on the beach.” I’m sure I got a few of those looks. We all chuckled and agreed walking in the sand isn’t what it is cracked up to be.
     As the light of dawn began to light our path, we lamented over the amount of trash on the otherwise beautiful beach. Everything from tennis shoes to plastic bottles, and miscellaneous food wrappers and bags. As the waves washed up more debris, something caught our eye, something moving, brilliant yellow and black and it was alive! A yellow-bellied sea snake. (They are only open ocean sea snake specie,) however they are occasionally carried into shallow water close to shore, and may become stranded.
     Yellow-bellied sea snakes are air breathing, but they can dive to about 150 feet and can stay underwater for more than three hours. Unlike other sea snakes, they do not actively pursue their prey; the yellow-bellied sea snake relies on trickery and a slow, sly approach. Armed with potent venom, injected by short, non-retractable fangs, paralyzes the prey quickly so that they do not escape. Yellow-bellied sea snakes are said to be among the more docile of sea snake species; still, sea snakes are nothing to mess with, no matter what the species.
     Sea snakes usually don’t inject their venom when biting defensively; two out of three defensive bites involve no venom. Yellow bellied sea snakes may not be the most poisonous in the world, but their venom is more toxic than that of king cobras.
     If you ever get lucky enough to see a sea snake, don’t touch it, even if it looks dead. Due to bite reflex, they can still bite, and inject venom, up to an hour after death, or even after decapitation. Photos of divers capturing and holding sea snakes are common, but this sort of behavior is foolish. Even though sea snakes are typically not aggressive toward humans, the penalty for a mistake is severe.
     After admiring it for a few minutes, we convinced Joel, who had a long walking stick, to give it a helping hand back to the sea, to live another day. While we never did get to see a leatherback sea turtle, we were privileged to be able to marvel at another remarkable marine reptile.