Weighing a leatherback
Jack counts the turtle’s breaths per minute. Thomas takes blood samples from her left rear leg.
- “How many?” Jean-Yves asks.
- “33 eggs thus far,” Barbara answers. “Another 50 or 70 to go.”
- “Shit, way too fast,” the team leader mumbles and speeds up what he’s doing.
As the leatherback closes her nest, Jean-Yves drills a hole in one of the ridges of her shell and installs two small devices that will track the animal’s movements over the next ten days. Insight into what these turtles do and where they go during the ten-day interval between their two nestings will help scientists better protect the critically endangered species.
The leatherback has laid her eggs at the Amaná Reserve, in the northwesternmost corner of French Guiana. For years, La Mirette, a project carried out by France’s national research team CNRS, has been studying the turtles here.
Leatherback no. 246 is one of 350 on their list for research, and a team member has radioed us to come over and have a look. The group of six scientists works swiftly and silently; time is of the essence.
A 4.5-metre carbon tripod is put in place. Three team members stand ready with a harness. As the turtle moves back toward the water they catch her.
Short instructions, fast movements, precision work. If something goes wrong, this enormous reptile may pull the entire structure down, taking it to sea with her.
Jean-Yves works the pulley until the leatherback hangs suspended in midair.
- “443.7 kilos.”
The chain rattles. The turtle is set free.
Disturbing a green turtle
As the researchers return to their nightlong task of patrolling the 3km beach — a nightly job for five straight months during nesting season — we continue our stroll.
A green turtle breaks the surf and hauls herself up the beach. Between every few lurches forward she halts and rests. We stick to the rules of French Guiana’s sea turtle protection organisation, KWATA, and keep 20 metres distant while the turtle searches for a place to lay her eggs.
Whether it’s our presence or something else that disturbs her, the turtle suddenly halts just when she reaches the top of the dune. It’s as if she suddenly changes her mind: “Not here, not now.” She turns around sharply, rushes down the steep hill, and disappears in the waves.
Farther down the beach we see a track. The 1.5-metre-wide trail of parallel dents make it look like a tractor has emerged from the water, but the butterfly-stroke crawling design, cut in two by a straight line (from the dragging tail), betrays a leatherback. We follow the trail and find her in the process of depositing eggs.
I sit and watch — a minimum of 2 metres’ distance is acceptable during this stage. In this national reserve, flashlights and flash photography are forbidden, as they disturb the turtles. I don’t need them. This night is memory bound.
Watching a leatherback lay her eggs
Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtles, and the highest concentration of nestings is found on this beach.
As the name suggests, leatherbacks have no carapace but rather a leathery domed shell, marked by seven longitudinal ridges. I make the odd comparison of her head being the size of a football. She is gargantuan.
Her short shuffles and subsequent need for another break make me want to get up and help. I can’t, of course. Anyway, after millions of years of practice, these prehistoric animals most likely know what they’re doing.
Once she has closed her nest, she brushes sand behind her and subsequently moves her entire body from left to right around the nest for a period of 30 minutes. It’s a clever trick to cover up her tracks; after she’s gone I can no longer pinpoint exactly where the eggs are.
We keep a respectful 5-metre distance as we follow her back to the ocean, making sure we never stand between her and the water. I cheer her on in silence. One last rest, a few more sweeps with her front flippers, and her head hits the water. She disappears into the surf.
It’s 4am and the moon has descended behind the jungle that curves along the inland side of the beach. Time for bed.
How and when to get to Awala-Yalimapo
- From Cayenne (the capital) to Awala-Yalimapo: Take a minivan to Mana (234 km, €31.50); from Mana to Awala by local taxi or hitchhiking (~20 km). It’s also possible to rent a car in Cayenne.
- The leatherback, green turtle, and olive ridley turtle lay their eggs between March and July (peak in May-June). Hatching primarily takes place in July and August. The beach is open to visitors and considered a safe beach to walk at night. No entrance fee. Most turtles arrive around high tide, and mostly at night. Leatherbacks come during the day as well (high tide). Hatching occurs mostly at night, starting around sunset.
- Maison de la Reserve is located at the roundabout at the entrance of Yalimapo. Museum hours: Mon-Fri, 8am-5:30pm.
- For a 2-hour turtle spotting tour, contact l’Association Luth et Nature. Tel: 336 94 90 10 43; email: email@example.com, or visit Chez Judith & Denis (see below). Apart from French, some guides speak Dutch and Surinamese.
- La Mirette’s website gives insight into CNRS’s research at Awala-Yalimapo.
Other activities in and around Awala-Yalimapo
- Luth et Nature (see above) also organizes bird watching tours in the Reserve of Amaná, astronomy sessions, and guided tours through the Amerindian villages of Awala and Yalimapo. €10-€15 per person, no minimum number of people required.
- Kawana Experience is run by local Amerindians and offers single- and multiple-day tour packages. Activities include visiting Amerindian villages and forest trekking to see wildlife. Tours can be booked through this website.
Food and lodging
Accommodations in Yalimapo are right on the beach. Awala is 3.5km down the road and thus a long walk from the turtles.
There’s no public transport between the villages, and although hitchhiking is common there’s not much traffic (especially at night) — a private (rented) vehicle may be handy for this reason. Cars can be rented in Kourou and Cayenne.
Awala has a supermarket, while in Yalimapo there’s just a mini-grocery store. Tip: buy sandwiches and drinks for lunch, since there are no places to eat during lunch at either village.
Coming from Mana you’ll find:
- Chez Rita in Awala. It’s a communal jungle lodge (like a hostel) where you can hang your hammock for €17.50 (to rent a hammock, add €7). There are two double rooms (€45). Breakfast included. On request, Rita will cook a Kali’na or Creole dinner for €10-15 pp. Tel: 0594 341809 / 0694 381913; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ailumi Weyuli has 2 comfortable bungalows in Awala with aircon, kitchen, washing machine. For €65/night for up to four people, this is the best value around. There’s no restaurant. Tel: 0594 347245; email: email@example.com.
- Youth Hostel de Simili at the entrance of Yalimapo has four-person bungalows (€15 pp, or hang your hammock for €7; rent a hammock with mosquito netting for an additional €8). Breakfast €6. Other meals are possible on request (€13). Tel: 0594 341625; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chez Judith & Denis in Yalimale has individual carbets (jungle huts). Prices: €23 for 1 person / €32 for 2 persons / €10 each additional person. Dinner is possible on request (€15). Tel: 0594 342060; email: email@example.com.
* Feature photo: motleypixel