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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Nakatajima Dunes

It is a real sorrow that I leave Japan without having seen a female turtle coming in to lay eggs. Nakatajima Dunes are part of a 70K stretch of beach near where I’ve been living and around 180-200 females lay their eggs on this beach every year, mainly Leatherback turtles, although a few Green and Loggerhead females come too. The egg laying begins in late May and continues to the end of August, sometimes into September. A group called Sanctuary Japan look after the turtles, trying to protect them and run a scientific study. This means only their scientists get to see the egg laying. It’d a good thing, but I wish I’d been able to work with them.

Turtles are solitary creatures. Only the females ever come ashore, and only when they are old enough, that’s at least twenty years old. They like soft sand to nest in and the peaceful dark. It's difficult to imagine how the Turtle Squads from Sanctuary Japan would persuade people to let them be and not crowd them out if they came ashore in the day. In a good year this part of the coast will have over six hundred turtle nests buried along the beach. So every summer morning from the beginning of May until the beginning of September a group from Sanctuary Japan goes out to spot the nests, rescue any turtles needing aid, (they are helpless if they slid into vehicle tracks,) and collect the eggs. A small number of visitors is allowed to come on these turtle walks at 5 a.m. to search for nests. I’ve done it every year and usually we find one.

It's strange being on the beach at this hour. I expected it to be like beaches at home, empty. It isn't. There are too many people. There are surfers, too many people fishing and teenagers partying. There are also drivers. 4 wheel drive recreation vehicles are illegal on many parts of this coastline yet still they come. It's a favourite place for everyone all summer and that means as soon as it’s light. Thank goodness the turtles come at night, in the darkest hours.

This July there was nothing on our stretch, but a female had nested further down. It was a forty minute car journey, but worth it. There’s something rather touching about seeing those twin furrows coming out of the sea, meanding up the beach and then making a huge loop in the soft sand above the high tidemark. But did she lay? Yes, there is the wide circular area of disturbance within which hides a nest. It would be hard to find if it weren't for the careful prodding of our experts. The female turtle hopes to discourage predators by leaving this large area of disturbance and so our Sanctuary Japan people use a thin probe, gently poked into a depth of 61cms,to reveal the nest. They can be exact for the sand plug is exactly 60cms deep. It isn’t easy to feel though and took our expert 20 minutes. The nests are always like a long necked vase - fat and round at the bottom - and very deep. The eggs then can sit in sand that is always a constant 30 degrees. Alas we had to dig up the nest and take the eggs away. We all got to fish some out and they are just like ping-pong balls. The expert casually popped them in plastic supermarket bags - I expected padded boxes - and we took them back to the artificial nests in protected cage enclosures on the beach. It is sad, but people walking over the nests pack down the sand so the babies can’t get out. Dogs love to dig the eggs up and eat them. Trail bikes and 4WDs, although banned, still come onto the beach and they crush the nests. Anyway we put 121 eggs - part of 18000 this year - into a safe man-made nest in one of three fenced and protected sites on the beach. Hopefully all the eggs will hatch in two months. I will miss these hatching. Hatchings are fun. The babies have to be returned to the sea every day from mid August to early October and Sanctuary Japan invite everyone, especially the schools, to take part. It's quite something watching the nest site sand churn and boil as the babies emerge together. The babies are small enough to sit two in the palm of your hand and they are all flipper. The children are lined up behind a rope line some 5m from the sea. Each child gets a turtle, the parents go bananas taking pictures, and the turtle is released. The children place them on the sand and let the babies scrabble and flap themselves into the water where they disappear to an accompaniment of oohs and aahs.

Those little turtles are incredible. All flipper and go, they want out of the cage nests and into the sea so badly. Pick one up and it rows itself out of your palm. They make for the water rowing those giant flippers and look like the devil is after them. One always gets turned round and comes back. Two or three collide and then the first wave arrives. The lucky babies are far enough down to float down the slope to the next wave, and they’re under it and away. The unlucky ones get bowled up the beach again and have to struggle back down. Some poor little ones get tumbled up and back fives times before they made it under the breaking wave and off. They never give up. I wonder about them in twenty years’ time, for the beach is eroding, human damage of course, and it is highly likely there won't be a beach for them then.

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