Science and Research, Sea Turtles

Nature’s Process: Observing a healing green sea turtle

By Katie Mascovich

The green sea turtle’s wounds are healing naturally

No two night patrols on the Osa are the same, but they usually have the same rhythm. Every now and then, however, something unexpected happens that makes the whole night worthwhile.

On November 3, I had one of these experiences. But to fully understand it, I have to tell you about the patrol I had on October 21. That night I was patrolling Pejeperro Beach with Emily, another Research Field Assistant. It was one of those long nights where we knew we would not be back to the station and in our beds until dawn.

At 2am, our hearts sank a little when, tired and exhausted, we spotted a green turtle that was just beginning to create her body pit. A body pit is what female sea turtles make to clear away loose sand and get settled into a spot before digging the hole into which their eggs will go. Green sea turtles are one of my favorite species, but they take a very long time to nest and when they are in the body pitting stage, it can take at least an hour before they begin laying eggs. During that time we have to be patient and wait for her, because if we approach her before she is in her egg-laying trance, we could scare her away.

Gathering up our patience, Emily and I sat on the sand and waited. We checked on the turtle every five to ten minutes. And we waited some more. Like clockwork, the turtle started laying eggs almost an hour after we first saw her. We applied metal flipper tags to her front flippers, measured her, and then did a general assessment of her health. During this we noticed that the turtle had yellowish wounds on her shell, front flippers, neck, shoulders and head. A bit confused by how many wounds she had, I decided this was a good case for taking a couple photographs in order to document the somewhat unusual occurrence.

The days passed and I didn’t think too much more of this turtle. Then on November 3, when I was patrolling Pejeperro with a volunteer, we saw another green turtle track. Again, it was late, and we were tired, but this is our job, so we sat and waited. The same routine followed in which I checked on the turtle every so often until she was laying her eggs. As soon as she was, the first thing I noticed was that this turtle already had flipper tags – not uncommon among our green turtles, but still exciting since it means somebody had seen this turtle before! We recorded her tag numbers and I began doing the health assessment. That was when I saw something that woke me up a bit more – this turtle had wounds in about the same spots as the one I had seen a couple weeks before with Emily. I leafed through our data book, found the turtle from October 21, and sure enough the tag numbers matched! This turtle became the first one I have seen twice in Costa Rica. And, if my memory was serving me correctly (something you can never be sure of at 2:30am), the wounds looked like they were healing. Filled with a sense of exhilaration, I pulled out my camera to take photos so I could compare with the ones I had taken a couple weeks prior.

After catching up on sleep the next morning, I loaded the photos on my computer and compared the wounds. What I saw proved that in 13 days, this turtle’s wounds were getting smaller. I shared these images with the other people at the research station, knowing they would share my excitement and happiness. It is always encouraging to see evidence of an animal persevering through challenges, especially when that animal is an endangered species. It is times like these that staying up until crazy hours of the night to walk a 4.5-kilometer beach makes all the work extremely rewarding.