Searching for turtles on Colombia’s undiscovered coastline

by Simon Willis  |  Published May 15, 2015

Few events in nature match witnessing a sea turtle emerge onto the beach at night, lay up to 100 eggs and crawl back into the depths of the ocean. Perhaps breaching humpback whales or surfacing dolphins. Colombia’s Pacific Coast has them all, and much more, in fact the only rarities in the town of El Valle are the tourists.

Photo: Simon Willis

Photo: Simon Willis

Two pearl white eggs drop into the dark sand pit. A string of silvery discharge follows.

Lying on our stomachs, chins resting on the cool sand, we shine our flashlights onto the nesting sea turtle that’s burrowed into this deserted area of Colombia’s Pacific Beach.

We’ve counted 41 eggs when my guide Martin switches off his flashlight and covers mine with his other hand. “Shhh,” he whispers. We twist our heads to the left. Two faint lights flicker in the distance. “Quick,” Martin says, grabbing a plastic bag. “We must hurry.”

This olive ridley sea turtle is one of hundreds that from September to January clambers onto these Pacific beaches to lay eggs. But due to scavenger dogs and poachers, population is in decline. So I’ve come to the small fishing town of El Valle to lend a helping hand.

Despite brimming with fascinating flora and fauna, Colombia’s Pacific Coast remains relatively untouched by tourism. Its airports are so dilapidated they’re often unable to service larger aircrafts than jeep-sized charters flying 45-minutes from Medellin. And the other route, a 12-hour boat ride from the Buenaventura port, is too unsafe to consider.

I arrive mid-September at El Almejal eco-lodge. At its gated entrance, four giant palm trees cradling bunches of coconuts stand like guards outside a palace. Two chirping yellow birds swoop across my brow as I hop burning sand into the shade of my cabin. Inside, a fluorescent green lizard, with the head of a punk rocker, scampers up the wall and into the open bathroom.

Next to my cabin, a rocky trail leads up to thick jungle and an observation porch from where visitors point at distant whale huffs. From June to October, El Almejal offers boat trips to see the thousands of migrating humpbacks, as well as dolphin tours, waterfall visits, fishing, bird watching, kayaking and river boat rides.

Part of the lodge’s eco-tourism drive is turtle conservation. The Olive Ridley Project began in 1994 and invites volunteers to collect eggs from the beach, lay them in a protected pen, then release the little scampers into the ocean.

Despite liberating 85,000 hatchlings, the project has been suspended since 2012, due to a conflict with local conservationists. However, after successful negotiations the project will recommence in September 2015.

As I lunch at El Almejal, prying the last fish bone away from its white filet, I receive an offer from the waiter Martin. He says he knows a beach with nesting turtles and is willing to take me.

We meet outside the lodge at 11pm. Martin stands in sandals, a baggy check shirt hangs off him and his loose fitting jeans are held up by a belt. He slides his glasses up his nose as we shake hands. His bony fingers feel like guitar strings.

“First, we collect my motorcycle from town,” he says in a squeaky voice. “This way we cover more ground and have a better chance of finding turtles.”

We pass breezeblock single-story houses with corrugated metal roofs. Thousands of wires stretch off wooden lampposts which illuminate the light brown road.

Four voluptuous black women sit at the roadside, their bare feet swaying to salsa music on the radio. Martin waves to them and three men stood behind whose stained white vests are rolled up over their pot bellies.

As I jog behind, splashing mud on my bare legs, Martin sidesteps a puddle without looking and tells me why sea turtle population is in decline.

“Humans steal the eggs,” he says, waving to a man in a house window.

“Dogs and birds eat them and so do humans, for breakfast.”

I stumble behind Martin to avoid a whizzing motorbike. “Breakfast?”

“Yes, they fry them. I’ve tasted it, but for me it has an ugly taste.”

Martin’s house door is open. Inside, his aunt and a shirtless boy sit watching Colombia’s version of ‘wipeout’ on a portable television.

Martin backs his motorbike out of the front room and I climb on. We ride through the town, rattle over a wooden bridge, where three teenage girls are fishing, and around his old elementary school with a mural of Holy Mary on its side.

We weave round trees, brush past bushes and skid onto a vast expanse of beach. It’s silent except for the shuh… shuh…shuh of waves, and bugs pinging into the motorcycle headlamp.

Martin revs us along the sand while I scan the ground from behind with my flashlight. I lift my legs like a starfish as we splash through the ocean’s edge. Then, I spot something.  “Allí!” (There!)

Martin slams on the breaks and skids us 180 degrees. A turtle trundles up the beach.

“Buena vista Simon,” he says – Good vision. A wave of pride washes over me.

We park the motorcycle and crawl behind the turtle to its nesting spot; so close that we can see its wrinkly underbelly.

After five minutes of watching the reptile nesting, we realize we’re not alone. Martin has spotted two lights in the distance and has begun collecting eggs.

The speed at which he’s plunging into the hole convinces me that it could be poachers. I snatch the bag from Martin so he can use both hands.

As he quickly gathers the white balls, the lights grow brighter. Martin delves further into the hole, so deep his head is completely out of sight. My heart rate intensifies as each second passes. Christ, how many are there?

The lights are almost upon us.

Then they stop. Ten yards away. Between us and the ocean. Martin stops and waits. I scrunch the plastic bag and hold my breath.

The two beams remain motionless and then slowly, very slowly, scan the beach, like lighthouse beacons. I close my eyes as they sweep over us. They scan 360 degrees and land pointing in the other direction. Thank god for that. They’ve missed us.

Suddenly both lights swivel and zone in on our position. They quickly approach. I look at Martin. “What do we do,” I whisper. “I don’t know,” he says, adjusting his glasses. Brightness fills the air above.

We stand up and squint into the interrogation glare. A man’s voice from behind the flashlight says something in Spanish that I don’t understand. Martin, who has his hand up protecting his eyes, responds and tells me to give them the bag. A few more muffled exchanges follow before I notice a clipboard in the man’s hand. The other woman is holding a book and a tape measure. They lower their flashlights.

Martin turns to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, they’re conservationists,” he says. “They can guard the eggs now.”

I breathe again and examine my pants.

They record the size of the turtle, staple a metal bracket to its flipper and gather the rest of the eggs (75 in total). We say adios and hop onto the motorcycle.

Martin turns around. “What do you want to do now Simon,” he says. “Go back to the lodge, or carry on?”

I look along the deserted beach and wonder how many coastlines on earth, with such rich bio-diversity, are so untainted by tourists. No doubt in the future, new airports will allow easier access, luxurious hotels will line the coast and night tours led by men in green turtle t-shirts will roam the sands…maybe beach motorcyclists will be banned too.

For now though, there are no warnings, no tourists and no need to return home. I grab onto the back of the motorbike, “let’s find some more turtles.”