Turtle time – The land dwellers of the Choco region are well used to the whales. The villagers of Termales – an hour’s walk from the lodge -anticipate their return each year. “We sit on the beach and wait for them. We’re very protective towards them. Last year we found one trapped in nets and the whole village came running with knives to free it,” said teacher Hilde Augulo. Home to just 250 people (and a thousand chickens), Termales is a sleepy place of sandy streets and wooden houses. Children played on the beach, women had pedicures on their doorsteps and men relaxed in the thermal pool, where the main topic of conversation was Colombia’s chances in the World Cup (excellent, apparently).
Others had more important matters on their minds. Jose Mendoza, the Turtle Man of Termales’, stared at the ocean mournfully. “Years ago we had countless turtles here but now not.” He is, in part, to blame for the decline. For years he would scour the beach for eggs, stealing them to share with the rest of the village for breakfast. Poached in salt water or served scrambled, the delicacy – fetid and fishy tasting – was, for some reason, a popular one. “1 would gather up to 500 in a single night, sometimes leaving just a handful. 1 never thought it was a problem.”
His outlook changed almost overnight. Now, during the nesting season (July-January), he patrols the beach twice a night, at lain and 5am, in a bid to right his past wrongs. “I wait for the turtles to lay their eggs and then carefully move them to a secret place where they can hatch in safety.” An admirable U-turn that has led others in Termales to brand him crazy. He never skips a shift, though. “Would you like to join me tomorrow?” he asked.
And, so, at 4.30am the following morning, we met under soft moonlight. The waves, loud but impossible to see, crashed against the shore. Barefoot, Jose walked quickly, a man on a mission. He led the way across slippery rocks, through gushing streams and onto the pitch-black beach. Our torches illuminated fallen trees and crabs scuttling sideways. He stopped abruptly at the sight of recently disturbed sand and fresh tracks. “We’re too late,” he said. Hungry hounds had beaten us to it, leaving only shards of soft white shells scattered on the coarse sand. As twilight crept over the horizon, we reached a small enclosure discreetly placed near trees some distance from the village. Cordoned off by bamboo poles and netting, Jose proudly showed off his makeshift nursery for turtle eggs.