Turtle power!

It took three days to recover from the exhaustion of Kolombangara, which was achieved by sitting on a friend’s balcony in Gizo, ironically overlooking a cloud-covered Kolombangara.

However, once recovered, it was time to get moving again.  First stop was Munda, where we spent a lovely couple of nights hanging with the beautiful Duttons, snorkelling / diving in the area, and being “entertained” by Ashleigh almost chopping her finger off amongst the excitement of cheese and home-made pizza (requiring a late-night trip to emergency and five really interesting-looking stitches).

We didn’t dwell on that, though, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the weathercoast of Rendova for Manyoni’s and my last Solomons adventure.  Our aim was to see leatherback turtles.

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Leatherback turtles are descendants of a sea turtle species that evolved 110 million years ago in the Western Pacific ocean.  They are the largest of all the turtle species, with the biggest one recorded weighing almost a tonne!  On average, though, they’re a “mere” 300-500kg, with a carapace length of between 165-190cm (ie. longer than me).  Their flippers can grow up to 2.7 metres:  the largest in proportion to its body among sea turtles.

As the name suggests, leatherbacks don’t have a hard shell like other sea turtles, but instead are covered in a rubber-like, leathery skin that has five long ridges running down its back.  Their body is teardrop-shaped, making them super hydrodynamic.  This, along with their constant movement that generates body heat (giving them a body temp of up to 18oC higher than the water they’re in), explains why they also have the most extensive migration range of any living reptile, and can reach depths of up to 1km.

Despite these advantages, when they first come out of the shell they are scarcely larger than any other sea turtle hatchling, averaging around 6cm long and weighing about 46grams.  As little babies, their diet consists of nothing but water, however once they get older, they survive on delicious-sounding diet of gelatinous organisms (mostly jellyfish – around 50 large ones a day – but also sea squirts, salps and pyrosomas. Mmmm).

Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, leatherback turtles are also critically endangered.  Their population has declined by 95% since the 1980’s, which can be squarely blamed on humans.  Excessive egg harvesting, poor fishing practices and huge amounts of plastic floating in our oceans are our hideous contribution to the leatherbacks’ demise.

With fewer and fewer leatherbacks about, one of the best places to catch them in the Pacific is in Baniata, where we now found ourselves.  Baniata is a small village of around 300 people on the weathercoast of Rendova Island in Western Province (Solomon Islands).  There’s no phone reception within a 2 hour walk, and the school has been closed for the last five years.  However, the village is not letting this get them down, and has been busy establishing coconut plantations for copra, weaving kastom bags for sale, and setting up an organically-certified ngali nut industry. They are now, also, trying to establish a tourism industry around their turtle conservation efforts, which is how we found ourselves here.

The beautiful thing about turtles (from a tourism perspective) is that they are pretty specific about when, and where, they nest and hatch.  After their first trek to the ocean as little hatchlings, the male leatherback turtles will never venture on land again.  However, once females reach sexual maturity at the age of 20, they will return and nest every 2-4 years at roughly the same beach where they were born.  Baniata has the beautiful charcoal-black sand that leatherbacks love for nesting, as it keeps the eggs at a super comfy temperature and helps with camouflage.

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In each season, a mummy leatherback can lay 4-6 nests, each one exactly 10 days apart.  In each nest, there’ll be about 110 eggs, with the fertilization rates starting at about 90% and decreasing with each subsequent lay.  Those eggs will hatch 60 days later.  So while we ventured to Baniata at the end of the peak season, we had good reason to believe that our dates would coincide with some hatchlings and, perhaps, a nesting or two.

As the first official tourists to Baniata, we were greeted by half the village on our arrival.  Due to the steepness of the shore, we were unable to land, so had to jump from the boat in between crashing waves.  We were led to our comfortable little homestay in the middle of the village – complete with pour-flush toilets, well-equipped bucket baths, mosquito nets, mattresses, and a healthy fire ant population.

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Our digs: Baniata homestay

As us girls settled in, Manyoni wandered off by himself to check out the surrounds.  Half an hour later, he came back and nonchalantly mentioned that he had just seen a baby leatherback turtle.  Astounded, we grabbed our camera and ran.  The turtle wasn’t going anywhere.  About a month old, one of the local families had felt he was a little weak when he hatched, so decided to keep him in a bucket until he was stronger.  Whether this is good or not, it didn’t stop us from being totally enamoured, handing the poor little tyke around so we could all get an over-excited (read: crazy smile) photo.  This was just the start.

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Crazy smiles!

Later in the afternoon, our guide Johnson invited us to the hatchery to see today’s batch of emerged hatchlings.  Within the fenced yard, we found about 7 brand new babies wandering aimlessly among the coal-black sand.  A whole lotta oohs, aahs, giggling and exclamations of “So cute!” ensued.  After a million photos each, we then got to carry the hatchlings down to the beach.  We washed them in a bucket first to try to remove the baby turtle smell that sharks love, and set them on the sand to make their journey to the sea.

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The hatchery

What a journey!  Tumultuous.  Overwhelming.  Exhausting.  The baby turtles took a little while to get their navigation into gear, but once they were headed in the right direction they then had to drag themselves a sizeable distance (given their itty bitty size) across the soft, uneven sand.  About half way, they reach an exciting little obstacle called erosion, where the sand has been washed away from the last high tide forming about a 1m cliff.  Without fear, they plunge over the edge, inevitable rolling all the way down and landing on their backs.  They then squirm a lot in an effort to get the right way up, and continue on their journey.

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Outta my way!

As they reach the water’s edge, huge waves bowl them over, push them back, drag them forward, and basically give them a mighty good shake-up before they finally get dragged into the big, blue sea.  From there, they are on their own.  Kind of.  They still need to navigate the sharks.  Since most hatchlings at Baniata now come from the direction of the hatchery, the clever sharks have learned that this is the place to hang out at dusk for a delicious hatchling entrée.  In response, the people in Baniata have developed an even cleverer shark-dispersion method:  surfing.

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Shark-deterrent

Yep, every evening as the hatchlings enter the sea, the elders of the village encourage all the youngsters to get out into the waves.  Around 40 young bodies, and 80 dangling legs, do their bit to scare the sharks away by getting naked, running and smashing into the dumpy breaks, then swimming out further with a small piece of a timber that they then use to bodysurf back to shore.  Occasionally, the older boys will grab their wooden canoes and demonstrate their prowess by surfing the same waves…hopefully without capsizing.  It is truly mesmerising to watch, and made all the more magical by the glorious sunset that is happening in the background.

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Another boring sunset

After returning from the beach, and on a hatchling high, the ladies in the village had prepared us a veritable local feast to indulge in.  With bellies full of five types of carbs, we then had an early night in preparation for the next activity.

At midnight, we woke up, dressed, grabbed our torches and headed to the beach.  Here, we joined Johnson (and occasionally his team…unless they had missed their alarm) to patrol the beach in search of mummy turtles dropping a batch.  We walked one section of beach, laid down our mats to rest, while Johnson went and walked the next section.  This would continue until 4am, when we would head back to bed for a long sleep-in and lazy day in the village.

This ritual continued for the next three days:  Wake up, eat breakfast, sleep some more, eat lunch, read while the afternoon showers kick in, release hatchlings, play in the sea, bath, eat dinner, sleep, wake up at midnight for a four-hour beach patrol, sleep at 4am.  Occasionally the schedule would deviate with a small walk to one of the nearby sights:  WWII plane debris, small waterfall, football match, or to take a boat to the next village to make some phone calls and catch a giant kingfish.

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Much tastier than turtle

On one day, it deviated even further as a squad of riot police – complete with shields, tear-gas guns and a massive power trip – walked through the village and arrested a number of men who had been involved in protesting an illegal logging operation on their kastom land (59 people from a couple of villages were arrested over the course of two days).  Sadly, I doubt officials from the logging company faced the same treatment for their illegal behavior.  Injustice in this country is rife.

Before we knew, it was our last day, and night, in the village.  Although we had enjoyed seeing leatherback hatchlings every evening, an adult nesting leatherback at night still eluded us.  As the main nesting time is between 1am-4am, we decided to delay our wake-up by one hour, reaching the beach at 1:15am.  It seems after 3 nights of patrolling, everyone else had slept in, so we decided to patrol the beach ourselves.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

After 1 ½ hours, at 3:30am, Johnson came running to us, “Did you see the turtle? Hem go finis.”  Our jaws dropped.  What Johnson meant was that, despite our continuous patrols, a leatherback had managed to come up on land, spend 2 hours laying her eggs, and return to the water before we had a chance to see her.  Either we had walked straight past her (my shoe prints were literally 2 metres away from the nest) or she had come up and done her business before we even reached the beach.  We couldn’t believe it.  In fact, I refused to believe it until Johnson showed us the really clear track marks, and the huge nest that she left behind.  He then proceeded to dig up the freshly laid eggs as further proof – 45 fertilised and 47 yolk-less.  Perhaps her last lay for the season.

I was flummoxed, and a wee bit devastated that after four nights of constant patrolling, a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and we missed it.  At the same time, I was also excited that a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and given another 45 eggs a chance at bringing the species back from the brink.  Godspeed little ones, Godspeed.

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POSTSCRIPT:  For any readers out there who would love to see these amazing, and critically endangered species in the wild, I highly recommend a trip to Baniata.  Peak season is November/December, with another season June/July.  Call Harol on +677 7420 400 about a month before you plan to come – he will find out the dates with the highest chance of seeing nesting / hatching.  He will also arrange transport from Munda, and all other logistics.  It would be a perfect additional couple of days for anyone travelling to Tetepare.  The best news is that your tourist dollars will help to build Baniata’s self-sufficiency, and cement the value of conservation in this area where traditional practices of turtle harvesting are still highly regarded.

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