Jan. 12, 2013.
A dark night at Point Dick, along the coast of Gabon. The moon is nowhere in sight, few clouds shimmer above the glow of the Shell Terminal complex five kilometers north along the beach, the froth of incoming waves barely visable as the low tide whispers ashore.
We have arrived for a walk along the beach with technicians from Ibonga, a Gabonese NGO founded to monitor the sea turtle population in Gabon. Els, Vivien, Brant, Hanako, Lisa and I will be joining several technicians as we walk four kilometers north to the Shell Terminal Jetty and back again, making note of fresh turtle tracks and nests, ultimately hoping to see a turtle or two.
We begin with a talk by Ibonga to learn about the four species of turtles that nest along the coast. The largest and most common marine turtle is the leatherback turtle, with a carapace measuring up to 1.8 meters in length. Some weigh in at more than 600 kilograms. They feed mainly on jellyfish. Living their lives in the sea, it is only the females that come ashore when they are ready to lay their eggs in nests dug into the sand.
Other marine turtles include olive ridley turtles, about one-tenth the size of the leatherback, and the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle, both of which are also smaller and less common than the leatherback.
By 9:30pm we are underway walking north, headlamps off to adjust our eyes to the darkness. The taste of salt in the air and constant hiss of surf provide backdrop as our imaginations strain to create turtles from the shadows of drifted logs, seaweed clumps and other flotsam looming on the beach before us. Perhaps 40 minutes into our march we come across a leatherback. She has recently come ashore and appears to have already fashioned her nest. We have happened upon her while in the process of creating a decoy nest to throw predators off the mark. She is plowing through the crest of high-tide sand as we arrive, and after a plodding and laborious arc through the sand, appears ready to return to the sea. A carapace of 1.48 meters indicates she is average in size, her fluid contours designed for life at sea. Her rubbery grey-black skin is flecked with rosettes of light grey. Appearing a little bewildered by the presense of so many humans, she eyes us with what may be suspicion. We stay back and behind her so as to not impede her slog to the sea. Ibonga technicians note a few abrasions around her flippers that appear caused by entanglement in fishing nets, otherwise, she appears healthy. A tag gets clipped onto a rear foot and after fifteen minutes of observation, she finally lumbers to the edge of the sea where her enormous front flippers efficiently whisk her back into the black depths.
A light rain wafts in along the coast as we continue our walk. Another hour or so brings us to the channel breakthrough adjacent to Shell jetty, where the lagoon has been draining to the sea. The channel is narrow in the low tide, maybe thirty meters across, but flowing swiftly with dark waters from the lagoon. Fishing experience tells me the channel is probably waist deep at this narrow expanse, and not safe to cross, for in addition to the swift current, there have been crocodiles observed in the area.
We begin our return to Point Dick, a 90 minute walk back along the beach, encountering a set of fresh leatherback tracks left since our departure. By reading the sand-track, we can see this particular turtle appears to have come ashore to face a beached log, a meter thick by 10 meters long, and began following the log before turning back to sea. Hopefully she has found another location nearby with fewer obstacles, where she can safely deposit her eggs.
By 1am we arrive back to the shelter at Point Dick, a little weary from the long walk and fresh air, impressed by our encounter with the leatherback turtle.