Living Simply and Saving Sea Turtles

Written by: Patrick Keller

Keller-Mass Exodus

Olive Ridley sea turtles, raised in a nursery at Nicaragua’s Los Cardones Lodge, 
head for the ocean where they can live for as long as 80 years.

photo by Meg & Patrick Keller

My wife, Meg, and I decided to take a break from the Vermont cold and head south for Christmas. The plan was to meet my brother, his girlfriend and our soon-to-be friend Bill off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua for some fishing and diving. Our good friend Brett mentioned that we should make an effort to spend a few days on the Pacific side, as well, at an eco-surf lodge called Los Cardones. “Bring your head lamps,” he told us. “No electricity.” 
Los Cardones is located near the sleepy fishing community of San Juan del Sur on Playa San Diego. The lodge is small, about six small casitas made of earthen bricks, with palm-thatched roofs and screens for windows. The entire lodge hosts four light bulbs that run on solar power, one over the bar and a few more in the kitchen. There is a propane powered refrigerator to keep the beer cold, and one outlet in the office where the manager can answer a couple emails a week and charge her cell phone. Water is drawn by an innovative hand pump made of bicycle pedals at the edge of the property. 
It’s not a lack of infrastructure that keeps Los Cardones simple; a mile down the beach is Grand Pacifica, a village of high-priced condos with private pools and golf courses. The lodge’s simpler style is a specific effort that makes this place unique and special. No trees were cut down to make room for the buildings, so instead of a row of casitas lining the beach, each one has to fit in to its surroundings. A riparian zone next to the lodge has been protected and hosts migratory birds, fish, caiman, and hundreds of land and hermit crabs. All trash is recycled or composted, nothing is burned or buried or thrown away. 

Keller-Nica Sunset

Sunset as seen from Playa San Diego, on the Pacific 
coast of Nicaragua.

photo by Meg & Patrick Keller

Playa San Diego is a remote beach. The guests at Los Cardones use it for surfing and swimming, but that’s about it. Because it’s quiet and remote, it’s a great location for sea turtles to nest. Green, olive Ridley, hawksbill, and endangered leatherback turtles all come out and lay eggs under the cover of night.
Turtles have a rough go of it. Making it from egg to maturity is a herculean effort. It’s estimated that only 0.1 to 0.03 percent of turtle eggs make it maturity. That’s as low as 1 out of every 3,300. Humans have the ability to really help or hurt that survival rate.
In Managua, Nicaragua, the men in town make a homemade aphrodisiac. A turtle egg is broken into a glass with salsa and beer. Then men drink it down to put some lead in their pencils, and they pay good money for it. There is a pretty steady demand for this concoction, so the supply comes from locals looting the turtle nests at night. 
At Los Cardones, they have built a sea turtle nursery on the premises. The night watchman keeps an eye on the beach for turtles laying their eggs after dark. When a turtle comes up the sand, it’s a race between the Los Cardones and the egg looters to get there first. If the lodge wins, the eggs are transported back to the safety of the nursery, where they will hatch in a few weeks. If the looter finds them first, they have the option to sell the eggs to Los Cardones and save a trip to Managua; otherwise it’s off to the market. 
We stayed at Los Cardones for three days before heading off to meet the rest of our party on the other side. We were fortunate enough that a nest of eggs hatched one night. The next morning, just at sunrise, the night watchmen gave a whistle outside our window. “Buenos dias mi amigos. Venga a ver las tortuguitas!” Meg and I walked out to a warm, brightening morning and headed down to the beach. Hillary, the manager of Los Cardones was there with one other couple and a cooler full of sand, eggshells, and baby turtles. “Tortuguitas!”

Keller-Tortugitas

The chances of these tiny turtles surviving are infinitesimal—
perhaps as low as 1 in 3,300—which is why every turtle 
egg that can be saved is important.

photo by Meg & Patrick Keller

Wearing a rubber dish glove to keep our oils off their skin, we released forty olive Ridleys onto the beach, where they made a dash for the water. It was pretty incredible to watch a fragile baby scurry into the crashing surf. Your mind considers the impossibly low survival rate. “How many, if any of these guys will make it?” The thought of one of them going on to travel great distances and living for up to 80 years, almost exclusively in the ocean, is pretty inspiring. 
Conservation doesn’t always mean giving up or cutting back. Meg and I felt pretty privileged to have the opportunity to live simply for a few days. No electricity meant dining by candlelight; cold showers feel refreshing after a day under the equatorial sun; and late night trips out of our casita to the outhouse were excuses to watch the waves crash under the moonlight. On Tuesday, when I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to use the outhouse, I walked out to a full lunar eclipse that I no doubt would have otherwise missed.

I know that it’s not for everyone, but I really appreciated what Los Cardones had to offer and how they took an opportunity to make a lifestyle out of conservation. It’s an opportunity I don’t get in my daily life, and the novelty of living simply-and finding out that very little is more than enough-was the perfect Christmas for us.
Patrick Keller is the catalog circulation manager for The Orvis Company, where his wife, Meg, is a product manager for menswear.

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