Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sea Turtle Hatchlings

My first full day in Tecolutla, I decided to visit El Campo de Papa Tortuga.  I was excited to see Fernando again, and to let them all know that I had arrived safely.  I was unsure of how early the day began here, so I took my time getting ready, and made it to camp around 9:00.  When I arrived, the workers and volunteers, about 10 people in total, were just sitting down to breakfast.  I was invited to join, and we chatted our way through a lovely meal. 

As fortune would have it, I was unexpectedly given the chance to begin the process right away.  After eating, Fernando invited me to accompany Luis, one of his regular workers, to check on some nests (nidos) they expect to be hatching about now.  Anyone who knows me, would know that is not even a question.  So despite being thoroughly unprepared for the day (I was in flip flops, a t shirt and shorts, with half a bottle of water) we headed out.  The first leg of our trip was by pickup.  They took us a short ways through town and dropped us at the edge of a river.  We took the boat pictured here, to cross the river, where we changed to an ATV.  An hour and a half  of driving on roads led us to a small path to the beach.

Driving about 40 minutes down the beach, we first looked for any new nests.  As we drove, Luis pointed out tracks, describing to me whether they were from a Lora, Green, or Kemps Ridley turtle.  My spanish is not accurate enough to completely understand exactly how he could tell which is which, but I believe he said that the general size of the marks indicated the species.  I plan on asking more about that today.  Once we reached the end of the beach, there were no new nests to report.  Apparently several turtles had come up onto the beach to check the location, only to turn around and leave to go elsewhere.

With that done, we now retraced our tracks to check on nests that had already been identified and protected by the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project (TTPP).  We were to check on the viability of each nest, the safety of the eggs, as well as how far along in their development they were.  That day, we were checking on nests that had been laid on May 11, giving them 46 days to hatch.  Generally, eggs need about 6 weeks to mature.  If the hatchlings were ready, we would be able to set them free right then.  I couldn't wait. 

Luis had a map drawn for each nest as well as the date of when the eggs were laid.  As we located the nest, we first needed to dig.  Under about 8 inches of sand, a wire mesh was laid to cover the nest and protect it from coyotes or wild dogs that might eat the eggs.  (Already the eggs had been moved to this location from their original nesting site, in order to protect them in a more remote location, away from meddling humans.)   Once the wire mesh was peeled back, Luis carefully scooped with his hands to find the entrance of the nest.  Digging down about 8 more inches, we found about 50 eggs. 

 Carefully lifting a number of them out, and placing them to the side, Luis inspected them.  The eggs appeared discolored, brownish and deflated.  Bad news.  The eggs in this nest were not viable, with a number of possible causes--sand temperature, plant roots taking too much moisture from the surrounding sand, having been moved too long after they were laid (apparently if eggs are moved more than 30 minutes after they are laid, they will not survive).  It's impossible to know for sure what happened here, but with a heavy heart we returned the eggs to teh ground to be absorbed into nature, removing the wire mesh to reuse on another nest.  That nest was crossed off the list, and off we went to the next.

At our second nest, unfortunately, the news was the same.  It was quite discouraging.  Two nests in a row had proved unhealthy, with no possible hatchlings.  We had no choice but to carry on, and happily, the news steadlily improved.  At the next several nests, the appearance of the eggs was quite different.  They were full, bright white, and firm.  Luis held a few of the eggs carefully in his hand in order to get a sense of how far along in their development they were.  Over and over again, at about 10 mests, the news was the same: 2 to 3 more days until maturation.  Carefully we reburied the eggs, covered them with the mesh, and hid them as best we could from danger.

Finally, after 3 hours or so, I had a chance to see a hatchling.  This little guy is close, but not quite ready yet.  In 1 or 2 days he should be strong enough to make the journey.  So back in he went to mature in safety, and we will check on him in a day or two.

Finally, just as we were about to head back to the boat, Luis spottted a nest out of the corner of his eye.  Following our normal procedure, what a thrill!  2 hatchlings even further along than the previous one!  Though they still haven't fully matured, they are almost entirely out of thier shell!  Just one more day!  So close!

It was thrilling to be so close to what I consider to be miracles of nature.  These little guys were so remarkable, I found it humbling to even have the chance to see them, let alone hold one in my hand.  Though I didn't have the chance to be part of a liberacion, all told it was an interesting day, full of lots of hard work, hot sun, and the ups and downs of mother nature's process.  Overall, once I returned to my hotel, I felt inspired, but utterly exhausted.  I grabbed an early dinner, and fell asleep before it was even fully dark out.  But I am up now, and ready to do it all over again today!  I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mexico City to Tecolutla

Yesterday was my first day of travel.  I flew Boston to Houston to Mexico City, and then took a bus to Tecolutla.  It was a long day, and I slept like a rock last night, especially because of the wonderful send off from friends and family the night before that left me with only 2 hours of sleep before I left.  I wanted to share with you some of my first impressions of Mexico City, and of getting around.

First of all, it is important that I first provide background to this post to explain my motivation for writing it.  The last few days before I left, when I told people where I was going, I was met with a lot of concern.  Given the nature of our media these days, the idea some people have of Mexico is of a very dangerous place where terrible things happen to people all the time.  Even my poor mother, a bit of an adventurer herself, had terrible dreams of me being attacked by druglords....  (she has an incredibly vivid imagination).  Anytime you travel there is a very distinct need to be aware and careful, as there is always some level of danger.  But I'm glad to be able to share my experience thus far, because it is a positive one.

Overall, my observations of public travel here are that it is much more clean, organized and more safety precautions are taken than back home.  This was first evident to me when I went to baggage claim at the airport.  I found my pack, no problem, but as I started to walk away, a worker approached me asking for my luggage tag (that little barcoded receipt they give you when you check a bag).  He wanted to check to be sure my recipt matched the tag on the bag.  This was done for every passenger and every bag. 

Once I claimed by bag and exchanged some money (now currently 1USD= 12.8 pesos), I made my way to the "Authorized taxi" stand.  Here I gave them my destination  (El terminal de autobuses del norte), paid in advance, and they gave me a color-coded, printed recipt, and indicate which door/sala to exit from.  I walked down the well-marked hallway, twice double-checked by uniformed workers that I was in the right place, and was shown to a taxi, who took part of my printed recipt and left me the rest.  The taxi was a very nice and comfortable car, without the washable seats and thick plexi-glass of those in the states.  The driver was very well dressed in a white collared shirt, dress slacks and nice shoes.   We made polite conversation about his two young daughters all the way to the bus station (about 20 minutes away).

Once at the station, I made my way to the ADO counter, and asked for my ticket to Tecolutla.  Here is where I became quite impressed.  The woman at the counter gave me the details of when the next bus was, and then turned her monitor around to ask me where I would like to sit.  Much like selecting your seat for an airline, the seats are specifically assigned, and available seats were marked.  Furthermore, they also indicate whether a seat is occupied by a man or a woman, and asked if I preferred to sit with a woman.  Pretty cool.  Once my seat was selected, I had about 2 hours to kill, so I walked around the station a bit, people watched, and grabbed a snack. 

During this time, I noticed a few interesting things.  One: the station is HUGE, wide-open, and well maintained.  With tons of skylights, the building was alight and felt very welcoming, bright and clean.  I saw at least 4 different men pushing large brooms to clean the beautiful rock floor in the time I was there. 

Two: buses are clearly a common way of travel because there were so many different bus companies (must have been at least 35 bus company booths), and the station was full of all different kinds of people: from young families with children, to the elderly traveling alone. 

Three: Interestingly, in the very middle of the central area of the station, there was a large cordoned area housing a glassed in virgin mary with a small alter and donation boxes positioned around her.  While I sat there, I saw several older people cross themselves as they passed, and one man who even came up to the placard, crossing himself and Mary several times. 

I was further impressed with Mexico's system, when it came time to board the bus.  Much like in the airport, everyone's ticket is checked and every bag is sent through a scanning machine.  With that done, and large bags tagged and placed under the bus, each person is checked through security, manually searching our "carry on" bags and swiping us down with a hand wand.  With all these precautions, it made me think a lot about how little of that there is in the states.  I have boarded lots of public transit back home, and never is there any security at all.

The bus ride itself went very smoothly, aside from about an hour of car sickness when we traveled through some very windy roads and I broke out in a cold sweat....  oh, and also despite the fact that what I thought was a 3 hour drive, turned out to be almost 7 hours, getting my in to Tecolutla at about 10:00 last night.  By that time it seemed too late to make my way to Turtle camp, so I found a nice, nearby hotel, checked myself in for the night, took a cool shower, logged onto their free wifi and slept.  That brings me up until this very point in time, when I am ready to get out and explore the town, and to put some much-needed food in my stomach!  More later

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pack-king... or perhaps, queen?

 As promised, I am going to share with you some of my tips and tricks for packing for a long trip.   Far too often I see people lugging around enormous rolling bags, which I can only assume are filled with things they probably never use.  Before I show you what I've packed, I would first like to share with you a few major rules of thumb I keep in mind when packing for any long trip.
  1. mobility.  When  doing any long-term or multi-destination travel, you want to be able to move with ease.  Given that, the selection of your travel luggage is just as important as what you put inside.  I recommend going with the smallest luggage you can and the most portable, ex: a backpack instead of a rollie bag.  As mentioned in my earlier post, this year I bought a smaller pack (only 52L).  It forced me to pare down my baggage only to the bare minimum.
  2. versatility.  It's key to find the items that can serve many purposes.  For instance, if you choose plain tops, bringing simple accessories like a scarf or bolero allows you to dress up your outfit for a nice dinner without needing to bring "fancy" clothes with you. 
  3. leave some space.  I know I always like to bring back souvenirs and gifts for friends and family.  If you stuff your pack to the gills before you even leave, that means you either need to buy another piece of luggage there, or leave behind some things to make space.  To help with that, I intentionally leave pockets and other spaces empty when I pack so that I can easily bring back items.
  4. what does it mean to you?  For everything you bring, think to yourself: "What if I lost this?"  If the loss of any item would leave you heartbroken, don't take it.  Pretty much anything you bring should be easily replaceable, or at least definitely not sentimental or valuable.

Ok, with these basic principles in mind, here is what I am bringing with me, and a few more tips.
Tip #1, pack in stuff sacks.  Rather than cramming everything into your backpack, invest in smaller stuff sacks.  This way, you can easy find what you're looking for, without creating an explosion of clothes.  I have invested in water-proof bags, which is a bit more expensive, but these silicon-impregnated nylon sacks are colorful, lightweight, and completely waterproof;  they are perfect for keeping valuables dry and organized without adding much weight.  With practice, it becomes easy to look for items just by remembering the color of the sack.  Here are all the smaller sacks I have within my larger pack:

(This is a photo of just about every single thing I am bringing with me.  Not pictured here: a light blanket for the plane rides, a light jacket, sunglasses, and of course, the camera I am using to take the pictures!)

Now I will share with you exactly what I have packed. 

Let's start with the simple stuff first.  Footwear.  I always bring 3 pairs of footwear with me: flip flops, chacos, and well-worn sneakers/day hikers.  Flip flops are not only great for walking around where you are staying or slipping on for a quick jaunt, but also for showering in shared space.  Always important.  Chacos, or other stiff, supportive hiking sandals are great for hot areas where you will do a lot of walking without the soreness and stiffness of cheaper alternatives.  Lastly, old, comfortable but supportive sneakers are great to have on hand for colder days, really buggy areas, manual labor or eco-volunteering, or days when you need good support for a lot of walking.  I strongly recommend bringing old, well-worn shoes with you, since it makes it easy to ditch them there if they get trashed, or if you just need to space in your pack.

Next, I like to bring a variety of tops with me.  I always keep a few things in mind when choosing my tops:  ease of cleaning/care, comfort, material appropriateness for the destination, color variety, dress up/down capability, and intermixing/coordination/layering.  Once an item has passed through those layers of selection, I pare down to the most versatile and easiest pieces.   Pictured here are 3 sun/rash guards for diving or time in intense sun, 3 long-sleeve shirts, 3 tank tops, 2 casual Ts that can dress up, 2 workout shirts with built in bra (ladies, this is key for hot climates!), and 1 wrap/bolero for covering shoulders or dressing up a shirt or sundress.
 Tip #2  Another great thing about packing in stuff sacks is that you can roll up your clothes and place them in the sack so it is easy to choose an item by opening the end.  By color, you can easily find whatever you're looking for!

For pants, I opted to bring just one pair of very lightweight, quick-drying pants, a pair of comfortable capris, yoga capris, and two pairs of casual, light shorts.  Also in this bag is a very light, easy little strapless sundress which is perfect for hot, hot days, or covering a swimsuit.

This next stuff sack hold my other random accessories: knee braces, baseball hat, swimsuits, hankercheif, and scarf.

This purple stuff sack houses a very lightweight raincoat, large quick-dry towel, beach sarong (really just fantastic quick-drying fabric I bought at a sewing store), and a pillowcase.  The pillowcase has many potential uses, the two main ones are to put clothes inside and use it as an actual pillow if need be, but also to contain laundry until it can be washed.

This next sack has a bar of soap, 2 kinds of bugspray, and Dr. Bronner's soap, which is an environmentally friendly soap that can be used for just about anything, inluding brushing teeth, washing laundry or dishes....

This red stuff sack is my electronics, and other things that must stay dry: headlamp, travel cell phone, micra leatherman-juice, travel alarm clock, divers log, chargers and power cords, diving watch, spare batteries, underwater camera, 20 of cord for a clothes line, spanish-english dictionary, eating tool (a knife, fork and spoon all in one), rehydration salts, watercolor postcards to share memories with home.
This next photo is my carry-on and day bag.  It holds my travel guides, sudoku book, earphones, netbook, art set (watercolors, pens and ink), sketchbook, passport pouch, earphones, memory card and USB memory.

Tip #3  There are 2 specific things I want to point out that I think are really important to bring on any long trip.  First, is a portable memory device, like this USB 8GB drive.  This allows me to save files, back up photos, store data, music, anything.  This will be my first time traveling with a netbook, so perhaps this will be obsolete after this trip, but I think it's worth having the extra storage as either back up or overflow, and so that you can transfer information to another computer if need be.  I also save these trip to trip so that all of my photos from that trip are in one place as a back up for my home computer.

Lastly, I am a huge fan of the convertible memory card (though I need to give credit to my old friend JC for this idea.  He got me into them years ago!  Gracias!).  As shown below, this handy gagdet allows you to directly plug your camera's memory card into any USB port by simply folding back the card.  No cords to worry about or drivers to download.  Again, the netbook may make this obsolete, but traveling without a computer, this was essential so that I could download my images without a cord or on a computer without an SD slot.

Ok....   drum roll please.  Here is the last, and arguably most important section of my packing.  Toiletries and first aid.  To note--I only bring the travel-sized amounts of things to save space since most toiletries can be easily restocked abroad.  I love this bag since it allows me two sides--toiletries on one, and first-aid on the other.  Toiletries: shampoo, conditioner, razor, face cream, sunscreen, toothpaste, travel toothbrush (thanks, Rach!), facial scrub, nail file, nail clippers, tweezers, deodorant, powder, hairbrush, and q-tips.

 First Aid:  moleskin, 2nd skin (awesome for everything from burns, to rashes or blisters), corn pads (which are great to buffer cuts or blisters), isopropyl alcohol, hand sanitizer, band aids, cotton balls, neosporin, hydrocortizone and claritin (for the many itchy bites that inevitably occur), cold medicine and nasal decongestant in case I congested and need to go diving, antacids, ibuprofin, dramamine (since I have spent many miserable, cold-sweaty hours on sharp and windy roads, stuck in a bus), and most importantly, a battery against the dreaded "traveler's stomach."  The two main helpers are cipro and diphenoxylate.

Ok folks.  That's everything!  And believe it or not, there will still probably be a whole bunch of stuff that I am bringing that I will never use!  I hope you found this helpful!  Please feel welcome to share your own packing tips or ask any clarifying questions that you might have!

Happy Travels!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Packed and ready to go... I think!

So we are down to less than 2 days before I land in Mexico City!  I've been so busy with the end of school that the reality of this is only slowly sinking in.  The last few weeks of school were full of report cards, grading final assessments, completing student files, submitting paperwork, packing up the classroom to be cleaned, and then, of course, the downturn in student behavior as they adjust to heading home for the summer.  Now that that is all over, *phew*, I can focus on the good stuff: traveling!

For those of you who don't already know, I will be spending 2 months this summer traveling, eco-volunteering, creating and seeing nature's wonders!  This should be a summer to cross a few things off my bucket list:  seeing nesting sea turtles and/or hatching turtles, seeing whale sharks, going to the galapagos, and diving with hammerheads.  To this last end, I tried to see hammerheads in Belize last summer when I dove the Blue Hole.  The day before I went, 2 hammerheads were seen in the hole, and the day after another one was seen, but, of course, the day I dove....  no luck.  So cross your fingers.  I hear that hammerheads are commonly seen in the galapagos in August because of the cooler water temperatures.

The first part of my plan is to spend 2 weeks in Tecolutla, Mexico, helping with the preservation and protection of the Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle.  I came across this project a few years ago at a lecture at the Aquarium.  (If you have never attended the lecture series at the NEAQ, I highly recommend it!)  I met Fernando Manzano, affectionately named Papa Tortuga, who spoke on his efforts to educate his community on sea turtles, having worked to create the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project, which combines conservation and education to  help preserve the endangered sea turtle.  Fernando was so inspiring to me that I vowed then and there to find a way someday to help. 

So I taught my students a lot about sea turtles, and about Papa Tortuga, too.  We spoke about how what I was going to do was just one of the ways to help.  I was going to actually provide the labor necessary to help with conservation, but I will also be bringing letters from my students, who offer praise and suggestions for Fernando's work, and a donation on their behalf.  Here are some of their letters:

So over the next few weeks I will hopefully have first-hand experience with nesting sea turtles, and fulfill a lifelong dream.  I will keep you up to date on how that goes!

After I leave Tecolutla, I will have a week to travel in the Yucatan, with my main priority being diving.  It is around this time and place that whale sharks are commonly seen, and I fully intend on doing whatever possible to see this remarkable animal.

From there, I fly on to Ecuador and the Galapagos.  Here I will be staying and volunteering at the Hacienda Esperanza (Ranch of Hope), working to remove the invasive fruit tree species that are taking over the islands.  More to follow.

For now, I thought you might like to see what packing for 2 months looks like!  Here is what I will be bringing this time around. 

If you scroll back to my past posts, you'll notice I have downsized a great deal this time.  Less is more when it comes to traveling mobility.  I got a new pack that is smaller and lighter, and was much more selective in what I am bringing this time around, so I hope to have a lot more flexibility in what I am able to do.  With more experience, I have gotten much better at knowing what to bring on long trips.  It's all about finding the smallest, lightest, and most efficient and most versatile materials to bring.  Here's what is packed inside that pack:

minimal clothes, a raincoat, 3 different types of footwear: sneakers, chacos, and flip flops, snorkel and mask, quick dry towel, first aid kit, spanish-english dictionary, fish guide book, travel guidebooks, a leatherman, travel cell phone, netbook, and of course, a camera, sketchbook, watercolors, and pens. I will make a follow up post with some packing suggestions and even a more detailed packing list for anyone who wants help from someone with experience.

For now, thanks for reading, and I hope my coming travels inspire you to have your own adventures!  And when you do, be sure to tell me all about them!