An adorable 7-year old Guna girl named Nagi arrived at Amanda’s and my doorstep two weeks ago, sweating and gasping for breath, and announced softly that we were needed at the river immediately. Someone in their dugout canoe, on their way home from gathering medicine, had just spotted a leatherback turtle that had been stuck in the Armila River for the entire day. For an animal that spends its life in salt water, I imagine this change in salinity can be quite a shock to its system, but in addition to this the poor animal turned out to also be completely tangled in a thick matrix of grassy weeds that clog the slow-moving tributary called the Rio Negro. As I jogged over to the river, several older women commented that the turtle had come into the river to die.
When I arrived, Delfino Evans and Ignacio Crespo has already macheted their way into the place where the mother leatherback was struggling with the weeds. Every 30 seconds she would push her head out of the water to take a breath. The weeds were tightly wound around her flippers, and the only way I could conceive of removing her was to tear her free with the force of an outboard motor and bring her to the mouth of the river. We had come in Demessio’s (a.k.a White Horse’s) fiberglass launch with a 75hp motor, so we took the anchor line and threaded it carefully under and around the turtle, using an oar as a needle. If any of us were to try and swim the rope under or try to get our arms around the carapace, I was afraid that either the force of the flippers against the side of the carapace or the spasmodically violent movement of the turtle itself could have seriously injured someone.
Once the rope was fastened to the bow, White Horse put the motor into reverse. The turtle slowly was pulled free of the weeds, although a large mass remained wrapped around her massive head and front flippers. After a multi-point turn in the narrow tributary, we very slowly towed the leatherback in reverse to a bank near the mouth of the river, where a throng of spectators had gathered. During the 500m or so tow, the turtle hung limp, lifting her head twice to breathe. Delfino and Ignacio flanked the turtle in the back, rowing their dugouts while standing. Once we were near the beach the motor was cut and the rope untied from the bow, and four or five men hauled the turtle the rest of the way to the bank. The turtle didn’t fight, nor did she propel herself forward, and I felt ridiculous tugging a 600+ pound turtle through the water as if it were an obedient dog.
Once the mother turtle had come out of the river and onto the beach, we removed the “leash” and advised everyone to stand back behind her to let her get her bearings. The sun was setting over the mountains to the southwest. She wasn’t breathing hard as you hear the mother turtles when they’re in the finals stages of nesting, during which they have to camouflage their precious investment and haul their enormous bulk back to the crashing waves. Nevertheless she seemed utterly exhausted, almost in shock, with her eyes unmoving. She sat there like this for maybe three minutes without moving and let me get a good look at her.
She was about about 6 feet long, lacking any identifying tags from other research projects. She had no visible scarring on any flippers, but had deep cuts on her throat and the top of her head, suggesting a confrontation with a shark or other predator. These cuts looked fairly old, with the fat visible under the torn skin, but they were bleeding very slightly near her nostrils, probably from the day’s struggle against the weeds in the river.
The life of a sea turtle has never been easy. Not only had this particular turtle survived a lifetime of attacks from deadly fungi, bacteria, crabs, vultures, seagulls, raccoons, sharks and fish of all sizes that have preyed upon her species for hundreds of millions of years, but having been born in this particular century she had also survived the loss of nesting habitat to beachfront resorts and rising seas, rapidly changing ocean chemistry, shrimp trawlers, boat collisions, long lines, and pollution. And now she’s spent a day lost and trapped in fresh water and has lived to tell the tale!