THE NATURAL WONDERS OF SHELL BEACH ARE ALIVE
Chas Offlutt The Chronicle May 1999
About fifty meters from shore, we anchored and prepared our invasion. The soldiers re-clipped their magazines, turned their hats back around, and hopped into the water that roared past their abdomens. The five soldiers, who appearance, experience, and behavior at time out shined their relatively young age, were part of the first patrol in protecting the sea turtles along Shell Beach.
As the soldiers waved their AK047's in the air, protecting the chambers from the silt and mud in the water, I too waved my survival necessities; a toothbrush, toilet paper, a pocketknife, and tennis tolls. With visions of Normandy from the countless World War II documentaries in my head, we too landed.
Due to the migration of the sea turtles in the last few years, future patrols will be forced to cover a greater amount of land stretching from the main camp at Shell Beach to Kamwatta beach, twenty miles down the coast. The reconnaissance, which was stopped fourteen miles short because of rough waters, was led by a 32 year old stout and weathered looking man name Romeo James who attacked the waters with a "take no prisoners" mentality.
We set off on land to learn about this year's nesting tendencies of the sea turtles. Within minutes we encountered "tracks", an engraved path in the moist impressionable sand from the water's edge to the forest's outermost greens. The "tracks" resulted in one of two things; either a quick turn around displaying mild disgust in the potential nesting location or a two foot depression on the beach faintly covered with shells. Our first "track" led us to an apparent cavity on the beach. Sticks, acting as tentacles that pierce and probe the beach, laid scattered around the hold. Emptied egg shells, crushed like table tennis balls defused of any future life, cluttered the nearby excavated nest. All these signs sent a familiar message to Romeo…poachers.
The next six nests we cam across fit the same crime scene, probing sticks, numerous footprints, a greater depression, and emptied egg shells. The image was strong; men rifling through the nests pillaging the eggs, sampling a few and stuffing the rest into buckets or bags in hope of getting maybe $50 to $60 for one egg in the markets or by friends. The evidence, which appeared to have been sporadically thrown about without even a care of covering up, suggested a mockery to the conservationists, fishermen who have changed their ways, and the James family who have lived on the beach for the past eleven years. The James family, trained by Audobon Society, are one of the main ingredients to the success and continual education at Shell Beach. Three generations live on the beach, each on emitting similar messages to the turtles and visitors: we enjoyed having your company, please come back to see us again.
Shell Beach Adventures, Shell Beach Conservation Club, Conservation International, and Fish & Wildlife could not disclose any concrete information concerning the penalties involved with poaching sea turtles. There were penalties, but unfortunately outdated, ambiguous, and not enforced. Penalties for poaching sea turtles are currently being revised and submitted to parliament, but this may take some time. The penalties that remain have not been enforced and as a result, no one has been charged due to the difficulties in patrolling the section of beach that spreads twenty miles south of the Shell Beach Field station. Apparently with much anticipation the Guyana Defense Force will now be taking a more active role, or at least an intimidating presence, in assuring the continual preservation of the Leatherbacks, the Greens, the Olive Ridleys, and the Hawksbills.
With the efforts of the James family, the Shell beach Conservation clubs in Santa Rosa Mission and Georgetown, Dr. Prichard (a world renowned turtle expert who has passionately been involved with Shell Beach for over thirty years), local individuals, and the government, have attempted and for many succeeded in showing alternative for local fishermen. Romeo speculates that out of 100 men who have hunted turtles, 80 have changed their way. He suspects that those who do remain, do it out of spite. Although alternative farming has been created in Santa Rosa Mission by the conservation club, the ones who remain will continue to poach because of the thought of individuals tampering, spoiling, and manipulating the local traditions and culture.
A pinwheel of emotions swirled throughout my head as the soldiers left me to my wish; an evening lit by the moon with the hopes of encountering the ritualistic nesting of four of the world's eight sea turtles at Shell Beach. I was juxtaposed between two foreign thoughts, each producing a similar response; I am a stranger in a new environment. I was left along with the soldier's departing words, "burn the fire throughout the night, it will keep the jaguars away," as well as knowing that the turtle's greatest predators, poachers, were suspected to be only one mile from my camp. Any hesitations I had slunk away, allowing the full rush of a new experience to ooze in my veins giving me a fresh sense of adventure and excitement.
The evening sprouted new life as the moon rose above the water, illuminating the fine crushed mollusk shells that composed the beach. The tide had said its good-byes only six hours ago and was new mustering its strength to visit the shore once again. With a flashlight in hand, which wasn't even necessary due to the clear evening and the disco ball's effulgent glare off the encroaching water, I began my mission. Twenty-five minutes drove past my feet, which aligned with my mind, sensed the need to be very, very quiet.
It always seems that the more remote on is from people, villages, and society and engulfed by natural surroundings, the more on feels the need to creep, step more carefully, and observe every potential move that may be made around you. It may possibly be the fear of the unknown that lurks close by, the curiosity of a new environment, or the rhythmic thumping of one's heart that appears to have escaped that causes the need to tune in to every micro-organism that fills the air.
For me, it was a combination of al three. There was no one to disturb, but myself. I strategically placed each foot, not wanting to interfere with the opportunity to see what may be the one of the few time to experience nature, it its most raw form, before potentially conflicting perspective toward conservation convene. The bulldozer tracks, three to four feet in width, commanded my attention as they sprung from the waters edge and led to a green sea turtle quiety at work spreading the sand around her flippers, digging deeper and deeper until she found the depth that suited her requirements for launching the soft eggs.
Image of fatherhood floated in and out of my head, prompting me to feel that I housl stand beside her, offer support, protect her from nearby dangers, or just hand our sigars as all proud father are obliged to do. However, the more I felt what I should do made me realize what really is not needed. Human instinct allows, suggests, and sometimes promotes that we must feel a part of a process, jump in where there is no where to jump or help when no help is needed. The most challenging thing to do is observe, listen, and acknowledge that some aspects of life do not need involvement from humans.
An hour and half passed before she completed her journey on land and sloshed back to the ocean, leaving behind 125 eggs with the intent of a reunion only through being by chance in the sea. If the eggs survive the ten day nesting period, the poachers uninhibited desire to excavate, the fishermen's fishing nets off the shore, and potential predators that lurk close to shore, the turtles will go forth and push on hoping that with time and continual support that they may one day return to Guyana's pristine northern coast, Shell Beach.