“See that tall western man? He’s from France. He developed something of importance and received a national award for his work. He’s very wealthy and he has donated money to help the sea turtles.”
Mr. Hatanaka indicated a tall man with a round belly who looked to be in his fifties, walking with a woman who may also have been French and a couple of Japanese people. They walked past our taxi van and made their way down to the beach.
We were parked across the street from the Sea Turtle Museum, a fairly small wooden structure where photos, models, souvenir goods (proceeds going to help the turtles), and a book’s worth of information were awaiting the inquisitive visitor. I was given a run down of what I would have to do: walk into the entrance, be met and greeted by a young Mr. Koide, watch a video about sea turtles, listen to Mr. Koide’s lecture, and possibly ask some questions. Although everything would be recorded by camera and microphone, none of this material would be used in the final program. As with much of the information heavy segments, this was mostly to be used for information gathering.
Koide-san was indeed very young and not very tall either, but gentle in nature and passionate about his work if not typically reserved as many Japanese are. Here’s what I learned about loggerhead sea turtles.
Yakushima is the most popular spawning ground in the northern hemisphere for loggerhead sea turtles. Actually, three different species of turtles come to lay their eggs here but over 80% of them are loggerheads. The females come up on the beaches at night and Inakahama is the most popular beach on the island. The females are very careful about choosing a safe environment for their nests. They must go far enough away from the sea so that erosive waves during storms don’t strip away the sand and expose the eggs. The baby turtles develop head up inside the eggs and if the eggs are rolled and the position changed, the babies die in the eggs. Also, the egg-bearing females don’t like distracting light or noise, so people who gather to watch the turtles come up to lay their eggs must remain still and quiet and must not use cell phones or cameras, and especially no flashes. If a turtle deems a beach unsafe, she will return to the sea and look for another one.
The eggs, as we all know, are laid in a pit in the sand dug up by the mother turtle. These pits are usually 50 to 60 centimetres deep. The eggs are covered with sand and the mother then tries to cover her work by moving over the disturbed sand to erase the evidence of digging. While the eggs lie beneath the sand, they are in danger of being dug up and eaten by raccoon dogs (a non-native species that were brought over by human beings) but far more detrimental is the likelihood of the nest being trodden upon by beach-goers. Compressing the sand makes it more difficult for the hatched turtles to dig themselves out. They have a yolk sac for food supply while they work their way up to the surface; however, they must get out within seven to ten days or their food supply runs out and they die.
This is where the volunteers at the museum help out. Nests are recorded and marked with dates on the markers. A few days after a particular nest is dated, volunteers excavate the nest and help any living turtles escape the sand pit. A comprehensive document is filled out for each nest with facts including weather, sea temperature, number of eggs hatched and un-hatched, live turtles and dead, pipped (broken through the shell) but un-hatched (not yet out of the shell), and so on. Live turtles are placed in a pail and when the work is done they are released onto the beach and they find their way to the sea.
Turtles most commonly emerge and rush down to the sea at night because they are safest from birds and fish that would likely enjoy a turtle snack. The volunteers do their work at dusk so the turtles can begin their aquatic life while many fish are at rest. Interesting to note was that if the incubation temperature is below 29.3 degrees Celsius, the turtles become male, and over that they become female. This means that turtles born early in the season become male and later in the season they become female. The turtles find the sea by infrared – the heat of the water attracts them. This means that they can be easily disoriented by artificial light and again the use of camera flash is discouraged.
During our shoot for Journeys in Japan, Koide-san dug up a nest while I watched and took photographs. When he placed the live turtles in a pail, they all began struggling to reach the strongest source of heat, and as the pail was placed next to him, they were soon all facing his direction!
The number of dead turtles we found seemed to greatly outnumber the live ones; however, a shell count showed that a slim majority favoured the living and many had already escaped from the sand. While we were concentrating on the nest, behind me another turtle from another nest went rushing past as fast as his little flipper feet could move him across the sand.
Clouds were filling in the western sky but orange light filled the gaps between them. Our turtles were released and I tried to photograph them in the dimming light as they did their little left-right-left-right dash for the waves. I had heard that the head of the production company wanted me to shed a tear as the turtles were swept away by the waves. But I felt no need to cry. These were the survivors of the first hurtle. They had escaped from where 40% of their brethren end their lives. This was a moment to feel joy. I made encouraging and supportive remarks to the turtles as I tried to capture their brief moment crossing the sand. Sometimes a wave would rush in and flip them upside down or push them back. Persistent they were, though, and after a few minutes our little gang had all made it to the next stage. Over the next 30 years, almost every one of them would perish prior to reaching adulthood. Only 1 in 5,000 return to the beach as an adult 30 years later.
The sky was growing dark. Clouds were visibly moving toward the island. Already the occasional spray of light rain had been felt. Our job was essentially done. Only the morning and afternoon of our final day remained.
See my photos from Inakahama Beach and other parts of Yakushima on Flickr.