Images

Finding the angel of Mexico City

Mexico City
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

I arrive in Mexico City and through snarled Friday night traffic we make our way to my hotel.

Of course, Mexico City feels like a different planet to Merida. For that matter, it’s like a different world to Perth.  Just compare Perth’s 2,022,044 people to Mexico City’s 20,998,543.

People in Merida had warned me about Mexico City. They told me that people there didn’t speak English, and that crime was rife. When it’s the biggest city in North America you can see why it would get a reputation, and be viewed with derision or distrust.

I checked in to my hotel, showered, charged my phone, and set out onto the busy Mexico City streets to find the Ángel de la Independencia, a monument celebrating the start of Mexico’s war of independence.

I’d seen the angel from the taxi on my way in, and since it was nearby, figured why not? I had nothing else to do. It was too early for dinner, and I’d already spent enough time sitting around doing nothing over the past 48 hours.

I found the way there along a bustling street that felt like London’s Leicester Square. There are bars and restaurants and live music and suddenly: I feel lonely.

People all around me are celebrating Friday night with friends, and I’m on my own. Even if I went to bar I’d still be drinking alone, and besides that, they don’t feel like my kind of place.

El Ángel of Mexico City

Photo by Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz on Unsplash
Photo by Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz on Unsplash

Once I reach El Ángel, a random man in the street tries to accost me.

I have no idea what he wants, so I just ignore him. It’s the safest thing to do in a city like this, where you are very obviously a tourist, and alone.

I find a bench nearby where other people are sitting, and sit down to admire the Angel from a distance.

I don’t know if this is a public bench just as a place to sit, or if the other people are waiting for a bus. And as I sit there, I’m not sure what do next.

I set out to find the Angel, and I found it. This was not a very difficult task, it is nearly 50 metres tall and quite visible. So what now?

This is when I notice a tour guide selling tickets for a sightseeing bus. I enjoy a good tourist bus, so with broken, faltering English (people weren’t kidding about the lack of English in Mexico City) he explains to me how it works.

I buy a ticket to ride.

While I’m waiting for the next tour to start, I start to walk away so I can get a couple of photos of the Angel — and the guide runs after me to tell me that’s not where the bus leaves from! I reassure him, as best as I can, that I am coming back.

The bus ride quickly takes the loneliness out of things.

Sure, it was full of people all speaking Spanish, and none of them is alone, but it’s a shared, communal experience.

It feels less lonely than the bars. Furthermore, from my spot on the top deck I can watch the world go by and see the sites.

I don’t understand anything that the tour narration says, but it’s more about moving.

At worst, one is in motion; and at best, Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, One is always nearer by not keeping still.

I also have no idea how long the tour is meant to last, and if I am meant to just stay on board and do different tour loops. I figure that I’ll just stay on the bus until I reach the angel again.

Before long, it starts to rain and they close the roof. Then the windows steam up. Between the steam, the rain, and the Spanish commentary, I’ve no idea about anything. But I’m having a good time anyway.

By the time the tour takes me back to the Angel, the rain has intensified. It has turned into one of the heaviest storms the city has known — either that year or forever or something.

It’s impressive either way. And I have neither a jacket or an umbrella.

Finding Food in Mexico City

Mexican restaurant
Photo by Vitchakorn Koonyosying on Unsplash

Running as a group of gazelles through the wet streets, several of us run to the overhang of a nearby bank.

We join other people also sheltering from the rain. But it’s no good, this is just an island and the rain isn’t going anywhere.

Instead, I dodge the rain as best as I can to get back to my hotel and search for a restaurant the driver had recommended to me earlier.

All I remember being told about it was that it had Mariachi music, and I saw it was near a crappy looking place. So I navigate to that, figuring it must be within a block radius, so all I need to do is treat it as a wheel and circle around it.

My restaurant is as promised. There is live music (I’m excited to see mariachis, it’s just like my favourite film el Mariachi) and one of the singers is wearing a wrestling mask. I don’t know why.

I begin to wonder if this was such a wise decision after all. But hey the food is hot and the beer is cold.

The Cancun Breakdown

My tour of the Cenotes with local guide Gustavo was also my last day in Merida.

I was back to the hotel in plenty of time, so I grabbed my bags and hot-footed it to the bus station. Then I had to again try to collect my ticket using broken Spanish.

First, I couldn’t find the entrance. I’d been dropped off in some car park, but couldn’t find a way in. While wandering aimlessly outside an official came to find out what I was doing and directed me inside.

Even inside, and in the wrong place, he pointed me to the right desk.

The ticket collection went more smoothly than the outward journey, and I boarded my evening bus.

I slept most of the way back to Cancun, dozing in and out of consciousness, while a TV played a Spanish-dubbed Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even in Spanish and with eyes closed I was mostly able to follow the plot.

There was also a dubbed Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters. It was hard to follow, and I wonder if it makes sense in English.

The bus eventually arrived…somewhere. It was hard to know. The driver made an announcement, the bus stopped, and most people got out. But not everyone, and not the person in the seat next to me. I was confused where we were, but the bus set off again. About 10 minutes later the bus arrived in Cancun, with me relieved I hadn’t got out too early.

At my hotel, there was confusion with my booking. What the difficulty was, I still don’t know. I feel like perhaps they had me booked in twice, but we eventually gave up trying to understand each other.

They gave me a key, I looked for a lift without success and instead carried my bags up two flights of stairs

Breakdown

The next morning, my transfer picked me up according to plan and dropped me at the airport, easy as that. Things were going well, and I had already checked in for my flight online.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Proudly, I presented my passport at the desk to drop my bags. But there was something wrong.

I tell them where I’m travelling, and the time of my flight. I show my boarding pass. They explain to me the trouble: this is for Friday. Today is Thursday.

Checking my documents, I realise they’re right. I’m due to fly to Mexico City on Friday, and home on Monday.

So what about Thursday? Everything proceeded as scheduled, the trouble was that the schedule had only come together at the last minute when one of my tours wasn’t available and things had got shifted.

Somewhere between the cities and the tours and the time zones and the international date line things got confused, and we all missed an entire day we hadn’t accounted for.

But there I was. Cancun airport, 24 hours early for a flight, and nowhere to stay. I called the Emergency Assistance number for my travel agency and discussed options. I wanted to be adventuring in Mexico City rather than Cancun for 24 hours.

The assistant is looking for alternate flights, and I get disconnected. I tried to make a call with Whatsapp with no more luck.

Using the airport wifi, I shoot them an email and got an instant, automated response. It could be hours before I’d get a reply. Not knowing what else to do, I had a breakdown in Starbucks instead.

I sat with my head in my hands and sobbed because I was far from home, with nowhere to stay, nobody to help me, and didn’t know what to do next.

After a few minutes of this, I pulled myself together. Crying in a coffee shop doesn’t help, I have to put on my big adventurer pants (or tourist in a city airport pants) and just get my shit together.

The fact was I couldn’t change my flight on my own. Even if I could change it, I would be 24 hours early in Mexico City, have nowhere to stay there and nobody expecting to pick me up. The sensible thing would be to book a room for a night in an airport hotel, and come back the next day.

Resolution

Mexico City here I come
Photo by Adro Rocker on Unsplash

So that’s what I did. The taxi was an absolute rort, charging me 600 pesos plus a tip (over $40 AUD) for a 5-minute journey.

The hotel staff were friendly and helpful on my arrival. I was too early to check in, but they took my bags, told me where I could find the aggressively air-conditioned business centre upstairs, and that I could access my room at 3pm.

All things being equal, it wasn’t how I would have chosen to spend a day, but it was an excellent opportunity to be nowhere and do nothing and just have some downtime.

The next day I got a taxi back to the airport. The driver practically kicks me out at the curb when we arrive. It’s that way he says, pointing to the terminal. He’s not getting any closer, makes no attempt to help me with my bags. I don’t tip him.

This time, I drop my bags off without incident. I’m on my way to Mexico City.

Uxmal Adventures

Tuesday morning in Merida was the late start that I really needed on Monday, after the countless hours of travel and four hours sleep.

Just the same, I was awake by 7.

The tour destination of the day was Uxmal. But first, the people.

October is a quiet time of year to be visiting Mexico, and I didn’t know how many people would be on my tour. The day before had been a small group, but steadily the minibus stops at more places, and the group fills out.

Among my companions for the day were a couple in their 20s or 30s who greeted us with a brief Buenas dias when they boarded, a group of Belgian and German girls, and two Mexican gentlemen I’d had the pleasure of meeting on my tour the day before.

They were pleased and surprised with my enthusiastic Hola amigos, to me their familiar faces were almost like old friends.

The minibus was noisy, but I strained to overhear the couple seated behind me, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I tried to pick up their accents.

The tour destination of the day was Uxmal. But first, the people.

October is a quiet time of year to be visiting Mexico, and I didn’t know how many people would be on my tour. The day before had been a small group, but steadily the minibus stops at more places and the group fills out.

Among my companions for the day were a couple in their 20s or 30s who greeted us with a brief buenas dias when they boarded, a group of Belgian and German girls, and two Mexican gentlemen I’d had the pleasure of meeting on my tour the day before.

They were pleased and surprised with my enthusiastic Hola amigos, to me their familiar faces were almost like old friends.

The minibus was noisy but I strained to overhear the couple seated behind me, I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I tried to pick up their accents.

Uxmal

I saw Chichen Itza recently described derisively as a hole by a Mexican person. Others commented that it was a flea market.

An article online had been reporting plans by the Mexican government to raise admission prices for foreigners to the site.  Most people were commenting on the article had been more interested in criticising the decision to let countless traders into the site.

One person mentioned that people should visit Uxmal instead, and another responded that it should be kept “secret” for longer.

It’s inaccurate to call it secret, but Uxmal was serene and almost deserted compared to Chichen Itza. And there wasn’t a single person trying to sell you anything within the site.

We walked up some steps into the site and were greeted with a view of a giant pyramid. A few of us paused to take photos and were told — this is the back, unadorned, side of the pyramid.

On the other side was not just a pyramid but a large city. You aren’t looking at one building, there is a palace, a pyramid, a ball court and much more. Uxmal is also remarkably well preserved.

We were there for hours. As we wandered around the grounds, feeling carefree, we silently admired the engraved Mayan lattices in the stonework.

From the top of one temple, if you look in the right direction off into the dense canopy jungle, you can just about see the top of another, crumbling stone building.

The cities stretch for miles, and there is so much still undiscovered across what was the Mayan empire.

Lunch that day was a restaurant our group had almost to ourselves. Over chocilata and beers, I found that the couple whose accents I hadn’t been able to make out on a noisy minibus were from Mandurah, a city a little way south of Perth.

Monday Night, Mérida

It was my first night in Mérida, and I eventually convinced myself that even if I’m not hungry then I should at least venture out in search of food, if only for the adventure.

Walking through the humid evening, I pass a couple of bars that look like they’re frequented by locals — but I’m after food rather than a drink. And I have a destination in mind.

The Mérida streets are busy, filled with people coming home from work, and as I pass through the busy downtown streets with department stores I could really be anywhere.

I try not to use my phone too obviously in public. It’s not flashy or expensive, so nobody would see it and think I’m rich, but I also don’t want to stand out and look like I don’t know where I’m going. Luckily, Mérida’s streets seem to be a tightly organised gird.

As I pass one corner, a random guy tries to get my attention. ¿Cómo está? I ignore him. He tries again in English, and gets nothing more from me than a brief glance. There is nothing he could say to me that I’d want to know, other than maybe your shorts are about to fall down.

This is not the restaurant you are looking for

I don’t know if I find the restaurant I’m looking for, as right about where it should be a small group of are standing. Apparently, in the evening, various women take to the streets to sell brightly coloured fabrics and blankets.

Instead, I keep walking and guess I must have missed the place. Thanks to Mérida’s grids, I am able to navigate back to a different restaurant I’d seen.

As I’m greeted at the entrance, I use my very best Spanish yo quiero una mesa para uno, por favor. The waiter seemed surprised that I was dining alone. I have no friends, I told him in English, and I don’t think he understood.

I was able to negotiate ordering some water, even if I wasn’t clear what the waiter was asking. Perhaps with surprise and disappointment he was asking no beer? nothing stronger? I then ordered Mayan chicken fajitas.

Caliente

To their credit, two separate waiters warned me that the skillet was hot when it out. I like to think that even if it hadn’t been visibly sizzling, I’d have got the gist — I know the word caliente.

The food was good, and among the accoutrement were two small bowls of unidentifiable liquids. I tried using both in my first fajita. That was a mistake. With the next, I avoided them both and used only lime juice and beans.

Having established the spiciness wasn’t in the chicken and was in the liquids I’d used so liberally, I resolved to just alternate between them, despite being no clearer what these salsas were.

With the meal finished, I asked for the bill. Maybe I was unclear, or didn’t speak loudly enough, and the waiter asked me if I wanted postres. The word was familiar but I didn’t immediately remember what it was, so just told him, sure, yeah, that. I figured that was probably the word I was looking for.

It felt like the waiter was gone for a while, and in the time he was gone I remembered that the word meant dessert. It still seemed like a long time to be finding a dessert menu, when the restaurant was fairly quiet.

At one point, a waitress stopped by the table to ask me something. After struggling to grasp what, I had to tell her no entiendo¿no español? She asked me. Hablo un poco, I replied. I still have no idea what I was being asked.

Instead of a menu, when my waiter returned it was to present me with four fresh desserts to choose from. I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally agreed to eat all four — but luckily they seemed satisfied with me just choosing one.

Swimming in Cenotes in Yucatán

Other than hundreds of Mayan archaeological sites, the Yucatán peninsular is famous for cenotes — effectively sinkholes, caused by the meteorite that was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

When you’re told you’re going swimming in a sinkhole, the mental image is less than appealing. I picture a dirty hole in the road, or a big muddy puddle.

The reality is quite different.

The first cenote you visit in Yucatán is probably going to be Ik-Kil. Close to Chichen Itza, the cenote was sacred to the Mayans, where people were sacrificed to Chaac, the god of rain.

Today, it’s more of a tourist attraction with a restaurant, shops, and cottages to rent.

Ik-Kil eco archaeological site

The cenote was far from a dirty hole in the ground. Instead, it is clear, cold waters in a magical-looking cave.

It’s 90 steps down to the cenote, which is itself over 35 metres deep.

At the top, and most of the way down, there are various signs forbidding jumping and diving into the cenote.

Why that would occur to anyone as a good idea seems like a mystery, but on the way out the park, there is a sign mentioning it as a site of Red Bull Cliff Diving.

A few days later, my group tour itinerary had cenotes underground snorkel planned.

To be completely honest, I hadn’t been interested in visiting cenotes before I arrived in Mexico.

After visiting the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site I thought I’d seen what they had to offer. I figured they were fine for a one-off visit when you’re going somewhere else.

Much like my preconceived notions about what a cenote would be like, I was completely wrong about what this day tour would involve.

And I was very wrong when I thought that the cenotes would all be like Ik-Kil: commercial, touristy.

I was met first thing by my guide Gustavo, who was warm, funny instantly likeable, and who told me that we had “the biggest tour group ever” that day.

We’d had quite a large group the day before, so I wasn’t altogether surprised — but what he meant was the tour group was only me.

A private tour with a smart, knowledgable and funny guide sounded like the ideal day.

Together we took a public bus out to a local village. The bus was more like a private minibus than the public transport I was used to in Perth.

How anyone knew where the bus was going, or when to signal the driver they wanted to get off, was a total mystery to me.

Luckily, Gustavo and the driver understood each other, and there we were on the next stage of our adventure.

Moto-Taxi

The tour said we’d “move as the locals do” and take local transport to the cenotes.

Local transport wasn’t limited to the bus — next, it was the moto-taxi, much like the one pictured.

Off we went, bumping down dirt roads with rain-filled potholes, and Gustavo joked to me that this was a “Mayan massage” as we were shaken and thrown about on the bumpy roads.

But Gustavo also made the very valid point. Instead of this, we could be in an air-conditioned van with a bunch of other tourists.

Wasn’t this better? It was definitely more real.

Over the next few hours, the three of us — Gustavo, me, and the taxi driver — visited three different cenotes, each slightly different from the last. And each completely different to the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site.

There were no showers or gift shops in sight at these places, and rarely more than a couple of other visitors.

Some were entirely underground, some were partially caves, another had tiny fish nibbling on your feet, some had impossibly deep water and dark underground caves.

That kind of depth makes you feel a little funny, you’re just floating there or treading water, and underneath you, the water goes down forever.

Part of me would worry about the possibility of an underground current or undertow that might drag me down.

I don’t know how realistic that concern was, but Gustavo told me his Mum would get worried every time he went to the cenotes.

Since we didn’t have cave diving licenses, our snorkelling, consisted of just face masks and swimming, although Gustavo would frequently dive under the water where the floor was within reach, and search for treasure — lost items people might have dropped in the waters.

Yucatán Chicken

For lunch, Gustavo took us to a house in a local village for a home-cooked meal — while we waited for our food, I grabbed us both a couple of bottles of beer from a dusty shop next door. 

The food lovingly prepared for us was Yucatan chicken, a chilli-citrus spiced chicken, and Gustavo showed me how to eat tacos properly: take a tortilla and tear it in half. Holding half of the tortilla in a slightly cupped hand, use it to tear off some chicken and grab other fillings. Tear, eat.

Gustavo laughed at the absurdity of gringos eating hard corn tacos.

Even while eating I’m excited to share this more “authentic” way to eat Mexican food with friends when I get home.

I feel like Chichen tonight

Chichen Itzá, Temple of Kukulkan
Temple of Kukulkan

Being tropical, days in Yucatan were prone to thunderstorms. It definitely adds to the atmosphere of Chichen Itza’ to have thunder rumbling overhead.


My tour to Chichen Itza’ was scheduled to pick me up at 8am. After arriving in Mérida at 4.30am, I was out of bed at 7am for breakfast. Dazed and bleary, jetlagged and feeling I’d barely slept

As I swung by my room shortly before 7.45 to grab a bag a member of the hotel staff was knocking on my door to tell me that my tour was waiting for me.

On our way out of the city we swung by two other hotels to pick up other members of our tour. First was two Mexican gentlemen, then a younger couple who could have come from anywhere in the world — but turned out to be from Perth.

Chichen Itza’, like many of the famous sites of the Mesoamerican civilisations, is a whole city and at one time was home to something close to 50,000 people.

What is often thought of as Chichen Itza’ is the Temple of Kukulkan — the dominates the site and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I found it breathtaking. Standing at 30m high, it’s more than twice the size of the Parthenon in Greece.

The pyramid’s size is not even the most impressive part. The whole city, and all of the Mayan cities, were hand carved with stone tools and yet carved to such precise standards.

For example, the temple is aligned to correspond with sunsets on May 20 and July 24, and each of the pyramid’s sides has 91 steps — producing 365 steps when included with the temple at the top.

the Great Ball Court is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica, measuring 168 by 70 metres
the Great Ball Court

The acoustics of the site were also meticulously planned. If you stand in a certain point in front of the temple and clap your hands, the unique acoustics create an echo that sound like a bird, and in the city’s Great Ball Court (the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica) the walls are curved in such a way that voices and sounds carry much further.

Walking around the city of Chichen Itza’ was almost overwhelming, there is so much to see and take in.

There are various temples, and the platform of the skulls, and besides from any of that ringing the whole site of the city are various merchants wanting to sell you handcrafted wares, trying to entice you with shouts of one dollar and trying to catch your eye.

From Australia to Cancún to Mérida

Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash
Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash

After what felt like a lifetime of flying (but was like 35 hours) I arrived in Mexico.

In a thunderstorm.

Cancun was humid and close even at 10.30 at night.

I was picked up at the airport, and then it was a short drive to the bus station before I was left on my own.

I approached the ticket counter and waited my turn. Waiting your turn seemed to be maybe optional, but I was not about to upset any locals by pushing in.

Yo tiene un boleto I told the lady behind the counter. She didn’t understand. I hadn’t been prepared for this. I thought I would speak perfect Spanish, they’d understand my flawless pronunciation, I’d be given my ticket and it would all go smoothly.

Ummm…un boleto? I tried again, probably now stammering nervously than with confident command of the language. Donde? The woman asked. I understood she was asking where (thanks, Duolingo lesson 1) but not the wider context. Where was my ticket? How do you say, in your system? In cyberspace? In my phone in the form of a confirmation number?

I kept showing her my phone, in particular the important part of the details where it said confirmation number, right underneath where I was going. Some understanding passed between us, and the woman started entering details into the computer. One passenger, leaving at midnight, going to Mérida. I even entered my name for her. Then she showed me the price.

I had already started to suspect maybe she wasn’t looking up my booking, and was instead starting a new one, but I didn’t know the Spanish for I am very sorry, I think there has been a comical misunderstanding here. Given the choice between just buying a new ticket or facing the embarrassment of starting this whole business again, I decided I would persevere.

This time I think I was clearer with what I wanted, was referred to another assistant who did understand what I wanted, and got my ticket without having to buy one from scratch.

The bus station was much like you’d expect. It’s a far cry from Perths underground bus port, but probably almost indistinguishable from bus stations in a variety of the dozen cities I’ve lived in or had the misfortune to catch public transport in.

There was no aircon, but there were a couple of pedestal fans at one end that seemed to be more for the benefit of the staff than anyone else.

I feel very conspicuously foreign, but my masterful command of the Spanish language — while failing to immediately retrieve a booked ticket — did help me to buy a donut and a bottle of water.

Then it was just a mere four hour bus ride from Cancún to Mérida.

Down in Mérida, Mexico

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Mérida

The city of Mérida, Yucatán, is humid and crowded and busy and colourful and alive.

The pedestrian crossings play a jaunty tune when it’s time to cross the street and in the evenings people gather in the parks in ones and twos and small groups, just to be together.

There is a clear Spanish colonial influence to the city, which is understandable, and its architecture contrasts with the enormous temples and sprawling cities of the Mayans. I’m told that when the Spanish first arrived in Mérida there was a huge Mayan pyramid, that the conquistadors wasted no time in dismantling the temple, taking the stones to build a cathedral instead.

Other than the recycled stones, all that remains of the pyramid now is a plaque celebrating achieving the impossible feat of destroying the marvel of architectural engineering.

The day of the cyclone

Cyclone. Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Cyclone. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

On day two, the tropical cyclone that was tracking off the coast of Indonesia had weakened.

This meant that we wouldn’t have to evacuate the island. What it didn’t mean was that we were in the clear.

As the storm that was not a cyclone came in, some afternoon rain turned into the blackest night I have ever known, there was nothing to see and only the sound of the waves could be heard.

The rain threatened that night’s monitoring. Not because the conditions were dangerous in any way, but because we couldn’t record turtles seen on clipboards with paper if they were going to get wet. Our electronic tablets also were not to get wet.

I asked around, and nobody seemed to know if turtles mind the rain. Do they hate coming out of the ocean to nest if it’s raining because they will get wet? That seemed almost likely when it comes to turtles. Their love of wind, however, was well documented.

Last year, it was considered a coincidence when on the windiest nights they had unusual numbers of turtles nesting. With the behaviour repeating again this year it was beginning to look like a pattern.

Heading out

Eventually, we went out around 9.30 — having had a rare opportunity for everyone to eat together, in one place, at the same time, and take our time about it. There were a few turtles here and there, the usual routine. Nothing much to write home about, or to write a blog about.

Eventually, I took a walk on my own down the beach and past the jetty. After some distance past the jetty I didn’t see any fresh tracks in the wet sand, and I turned back. However, I didn’t go all the way down to the end of what was known as the “tagging area.” There could still be turtles there.

It was suggested that if I was going back, my fellow volunteer Jess might like to join me. I couldn’t tell if it was suggested she could join me because she might like a walk, or because she was more capable. Jess certainly was capable, either way.

It didn’t take long for Jess to spot a track above the high tide line where I hadn’t noticed it in the dark. We agreed between us we would cross it off the track for that missed turtle on the way back. When we found another track, Jess went to investigate further in the undergrowth.

That’s where she found a turtle, actively digging.

Since we were almost at the end of the tagging area, Jess suggested I watch the turtle and she’d check for further tracks or turtles. Reminding me to get all the equipment ready before she went, Jess disappeared into the dark night and the receding tide.

Photo by Reef Catchments.
Photo by Reef Catchments. https://flic.kr/p/c3n3DC

Getting everything ready wasn’t a quick task, so t’s lucky that turtles can take a long time to nest.

So in the dark, you fish out your clipboard and pen. You dig out the PIT tag scanner, to check if the turtle is new or returning. You find your tagging pliers and ready to two metal flipper tags, making a note of their numbers on the fresh data sheet. Then you find your applicator for the PIT tag, find your biopsy kit, and find your tape measure. 

All of this equipment is in one small backpack. It may sound like a lot, but should be easy to keep together and organised. It doesn’t take long for things to become disorganised.

While I was preparing and making notes, the turtle took advantage and made a break for the ocean. Jess tried to restrain it, but a determined mature flatback turtle is little match for one person on their own. It got away.

This was starting to become a habit, and if it was an actual job, I probably would have been fired by now.

The Turtle that Got Away

Photo by Reef Catchments.
Photo by Reef Catchments. https://flic.kr/p/c3n3DC

The first turtle that night was spotted on the farthest reaches of the beach.

With high tide leaving little more than a metre of the beach’s sand for the turtle, we camped out in the vegetation to observe and be ready to move on the turtle when it was ready to return to the ocean.

Except she was taking her time. The turtle would dig a pit, give up on it, move on, dig another pit, give up, you get the idea.

Then suddenly she decided she’d had enough of digging unsatisfactory pits, and was ready to go back to the water. So we moved into position, blocking her path and ready to restrain her.

The turtle takes one look at this, and decides maybe she will have another go at digging pits after all. Once again she begins digging, giving up, moving on, digging, before again abandoning the plan.

We scramble to get to the turtle and we are right on the very edge of the high tide line, trying to see if she is a microchipped “returning” turtle, and suddenly a big wave comes washing in and we all jump out of the way. Except for the turtle, since turtles are not known for their ability to jump and she was waiting for exactly this. She’s on her way.

The tide pulls back and I take the brief moment of respite to try again to get that reading — then the waves come crashing back, and the turtle lifts with the current and floats away with a gentle kick of her flippers.

Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback turtle.
Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback. Photo: Liz Grant. Source: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/news/item/2915-turtle-monitoring-taskforce-descends-on-pilbara-island

Returning and New

Let’s rewind this slightly, as some of you might be wondering what is a returning turtle? And why would they be microchipped?

Flatback turtles on the beaches of Thevenard Island fall into two categories: new turtles, and returning turtles.

Returning turtles are ones we have met before. They have been chipped, and they have been given identifying tags on their flippers. They are in the system.

New turtles haven’t been given any of these things, and so require the works: a chip in their shoulder, tags in their front flippers, a biopsy taken, and their measurements recorded.

These are the ones that get challenging.

Sandbank

Later that night, a turtle was spotted climbing up a steep sandbank. She gained many points for making it up the bank, but everyone knew that she was never going to nest up there — despite spending an hour or more, digging pits, rejecting them, and repeat.

Things got interesting when the turtle accidentally slid down the opposite side of the dune. Where there was no beach, only concrete. But, turtles being what they are, she continues wandering about, trying to dig pits in concrete, until one volunteer physically heaved her back onto the sand.

It was right around the time that she was coming down the slope towards us, and towards the issue, and we were preparing to scan and possibly tag her that another turtle emerged from the ocean.

And went straight up the exact same sandbank.

And did exactly the same thing, falling down the wrong side of the dune.

Past Midnight

Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett.
Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett. Source: https://accstr.ufl.edu/resources/report-a-tag/

It was gone twelve and yet there were even more turtles (remember how the night beforehad no turtles at all?) emerging from the ocean, digging pits, laying eggs.

Our last turtle of the night had just one flipper tag. Where the other tag should have been there was a scar. She needed another, and it was my turn to do it.

Enough to say, it didn’t go as planned. The new tag instead had to be removed, while the turtle was less than impressed with proceedings. It didn’t end there, because she still needed that new tag. I did it again, and it was only slightly better.

Then the turtle needed a second tag to alongside the existing, original tag, and my skills at adding tags hadn’t much improved.