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The Sea Turtles of Uruguay

I cried when I saw the dead turtle. It was lying on the beach with a fishing line stuck in its mouth and coming out of its back-end. Its cause of death was obvious and so clearly human-caused that I couldn’t help but cry disgusted, regretful tears. This was my first lesson. Only day one of two weeks of incredible experiences and heart-breaking realities. 

For two weeks we dedicated ourselves to Karumbé, an organization committed to the conservation, study, and rehabilitation of sea turtles in Montevideo and La Coronilla, Uruguay. Just a few kilometers from the Brazil border, La Coronilla offers not much in the way of tourism, but is perfectly situated for a turtle sanctuary – near a protected area where Green Turtles come to feed on algae as juveniles before making their way back to Brazil to reproduce and lay their eggs.

We of course knew none of this when we got off the bus in La Coronilla. We naively thought our time with Karumbé would be all about happy healthy sea turtles on clean pristine beaches. Well, not really. But, I didn’t realize we would see the threats to sea turtles first-hand.

On our first day of volunteering, we set out expectantly down the beach with the other volunteers and staff biologists to take part in a capture. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was excited to see sea turtles up close and learn more about their behavior and life cycle. But just a few minutes into our walk, we found the dead turtle. A shocking sight that disturbed all of us. One of the volunteers went back to the base with the dead turtle – we would dissect it the next day.

The rest of us continued on toward Cerro Verde to safely capture feeding turtles. During the capture, we positioned a net in an area where turtles are known to feed and captured turtles for the purpose of collecting data. We donned our wetsuits and protective booties and headed out into the waves. It didn’t take long and we had captured 8 turtles. One of the most invigorating experiences was swimming back to the beach with a turtle in my hands, bobbing in the waves, peering over its little turtle head and feeling the incredible strength in its flippers. Once we got the turtle to the beach, we put it in a plastic box, or dug a little hole for them, where they would hopefully sit quietly until we could assess them. I delivered to the beach one particularly strong turtle, who did not sit quietly but repeatedly tried to escape. I named him “The Beast.”

We brought three of the eight turtles back to the Karumbé base. At the base they would make themselves home in giant tanks where we could observe them and where they would also be used to educate Karumbé visitors. Because of The Beast’s propensity to escape, he unwittingly ended up in one of the three plastic boxes headed for the base.

Back on the beach, the rest of us worked to measure, poke, prod, take DNA samples and finally band the turtles before releasing them back to their home. We systematically measured each turtle’s carapace (shell), head, and plastron (underside). Throughout this process, it was sometimes a struggle to keep the turtle calm, especially when a tiny part of its shell and underside were taken as samples to test its DNA and determine its diet. All of this investigation is crucial to better understanding the Green Turtle, its territory, diet, lifecycle and threats to its species. 

When all of this was done, we tagged the turtles on their front flippers with silver clips bearing letters and numbers. This system helps Karumbé and other conservationists and scientists determine the turtles’ territory. We know that the Green Sea Turtles feed off the coast of Uruguay as juveniles – from the age of 5-15 years. But they then return to the sands of Brazil, where they were hatched, to continue the lifecycle of reproduction. How they know where to return is unknown. 

When all of this tedious, but important work was done, we finally carried them back to the ocean and gleefully watched them swim back to their underwater home.

On day two, we took part in the necropsy of the dead turtle discovered on the beach the day before. I lived out a brief childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist and made the first few cuts with the scalpel into the plastron. This poor turtle had no muscle mass. Its muscles essentially deteriorated due to dehydration and the breakdown of its organs. The fishing line, which we followed from its mouth, through the esophagus, into its stomach and the intestines, caused intestinal blockage. Air bubbles in the trachea told us the turtle died by drowning before washing up on shore. A victim of our garbage-filled and over-fished oceans. 

Over the course of our two weeks, we learned a harsh lesson about the seemingly healthy turtles we captured on our first day. We found plastic in the poop of all three turtles. All three, including The Beast. We could clearly see plastic wrappers, a foam ear plug and remnants of a plastic bottle cap. We collected daily samples and observed the turtles for adverse effects.

Our last day with Karumbé was just as emotional as the first. Not only did we make many good friends with people from all over the world, people who shared a common interest and hopes for a safer and better world for these amazingly beautiful creatures; but, it was also the day to release The Beast back to the ocean. With no more plastic in his poop, he was ready to go home. 

After gently setting him down in the sand, expecting him to speed off into the ocean, we watched as The Beast barely moved. Apparently, The Beast wasn’t as anxious as we thought. I think he was just sad to leave me. Eventually, and with a little help, The Beast swam off in the waves just before sunset. A perfectly poetic ending to 10 magical days. Let’s hope The Beast lives a full, healthy, plastic-free life. 


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