Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Los Testigos, Venezuela July 2007

Momma Leatherback turtles buried in the sand, laying their eggs. (taken with 2 different cameras) Tracks from ocean to nesting spots, Ross measuring track width -- up to 80" wide. We estimate these turtles to have shells 3-4' long, weigh 400+lbs.
Northern ocean beach where turtles came ashore
Downwind sailing, it is hard to believe, that we have finally made the time on our adventure that we are venturing west….and the winds behaved themselves and were on the stern quarter and sometimes right from behind as we made our passage from Grenada. It was a lovely sail, under the full moon. We got underway about 5 pm, a group of 4 boats leaving Prickley Bay, and another group of similar size leaving St. George’s. The wind was very pleasant 15 knots, and we were doing about 6 knots with reefed sails. The current came and went, but really wasn’t an issue, we just sailed east of our rhum line so we could let it take us, if it wanted. Once we approached Los Testigos, the current certainly did pick up, and was pushing us towards west towards the islands, as we wove our way into the central passage. We anchored in front of the Guardacosta station by 9am. Check in was very easy, and we were given permission to stay until Monday (arrived on Thursday). We reanchored off Playa Real, rested for a short while, before going over to walk on the beautiful beach.
Navigational note: If you are using the Doyle/Fisher guide, 2002 edition, chartlet on page 70. The way point off I. Noreste 11 25.0N 63 02.0W puts you dangerously close to the island, especially with the easterly trade winds, easterly swell, and west setting current, all encouraging an unexpected visit which after an all night sail is the last thing you need. We had to adjust our course southerly.
Friday morning, after a wonderful hike around Testigo Pequeno, we moved the boats just north of Isla Langoleta, in preparation for our noctural turtle expedition. We walked over the sand dunes, and waited under the full moon, hoping we would get to see the Leatherback turtles laying their eggs.
We had been waiting from sunset (7pm) and about 10 pm we were just about ready to give up, when we discovered that the moms had decided to use the next beach to the east, and one was buried in the sand. We sat for the next 3 hours and 2 more big mommas waddled up out of the sea surf, proceeded to dig a hole, larger than their own diameter about 1-2 ft deep using only their flippers, drop their light coloured eggs, and then meticulously bury their important treasures. It was fascinating. These turtles are about 4 ft in diameter, probably weigh 300-400 lbs. Their flippers look as long as our arms. With the full moon it was easy to see them against the white sand background.
We went back to the beach area the next day, took pictures and measured the tracks. We also discovered that three more turtles had come to the beach last night after we left. They seemed to arrive around High tide which makes sense since it is a shorter distance to the high water mark, above which they lay their eggs. Hauling that bulk about soft sand must be a real chore for these moms. The total time out of water was about 3 hours. We found out from another boater, who had been on an organized trip that the turtles lay both fertilized and unfertilized eggs (30%), about 120-150 in each nest. The unfertilized ones act as space makers in the nest so the baby turtles will have room to dig themselves out. The fertilized eggs are light brown coloured and the spacemakers are white. One of the nests that was laid the night before was deposited too close to the surf and unfortunately the high tides accompanying the full moon, washed it open. We measured the span of the fore limbs on the turtle we saw the night before from the tracks. The largest one left tracks 80" wide, another was 72". They look like ATV tracks in the sand.
Bev got to go turtle watching again the next night. That was after we had our first Venezuelan beer in the only local bar (actually the porch of the owners' home) with the cruisers in the anchorage. Beer was 2000 Bolivar (less than $1 US) which is an outrageous price we were told, as it is usually 700 B in Margarita Island. But is was cold, served in a can, on a plastic patio table....who can complain. We actually didn't even pay, because we don't have any Bolivars yet!! Some of the other cruisers, who had been to Venezula before and had B's, picked up the tab.
After our liquid refreshment, 12 of us went back to the sand dunes to wait for the turtles. Another beautiful night, full moon, and a fresh, warm Caribbean breeze. We waited until about midnight before the first Mom lumbered out of the sea. Then we watched for an hour while she chose her spot, dug her hole, laid her eggs and buried them. No other moms had arrived, and the group decided to let her return to the sea in peace, so we departed. Ross, Mike, and another Dutch boater were our water taxis for the night, and dutifully came when called.
Next morning Bev woke briefly at 0630 to check the SSB weather, find out nothing has changed and no "bad" stuff is headed our way, and then slept soundly until 0900. Two late nights in a row, had tired us out!! We were sitting having coffee when we started to hear a lot of chatter on the VHF radio, the coast guard was being called in Spanish and some French, but really weren't paying much attention. Then Bruce on R Phurst called Drumbeat (Mike and Marlene). Bruce had left about 0830 heading for Margarita Island, so we expected he was just calling back a wind/sea report. No, Bruce was diverting his course, to heading north toward a motorboat (3 miles further north and 10 miles from Los Testigos) that was on fire, and would we make sure that the coast guard was aware of it. We could see the plume of gray smoke from RAFT. Next we saw about 4-5 guys running with gas cans and jumping into one of the larger open island boats, about 22 ft long with double outboard motors (75+). The boat took off right away with one motor, and with a little persuasion (maybe some gas) the second one fired up. Seeing this, plus M&M checking with the fishing boat anchored beside us, it was determined that the coast guard and locals knew and were responding.
Bruce called back to say that he had rescued 3 persons from the sea and that the local boats had picked up one. He transferred his 3 to a local boat, and that he was continuing his trip to Margarita island. Hopefully someone there will give him the hero's welcome he deserves. Once the local boats returned, things got much quieter. Fortunately there were no injuries, but the powerboat is burnt down to the waterline and left to drift at sea. More garbage to avoid in the night.

Pictures: Local fishing boats, Bev and Ross enjoying the wonderful setting
All this before we had time to make breakfast!! Today being Canada Day, we are celebrating by raising our large Canada Flag (thanks Sheila Copps) on the flag halyard, and installing a new smaller flag on the stern flag pole. (All our flags fade and fray due to the constant exposure to sun, wind and salt.) Fortunately, the summer we were home we were able to get quite a few on sale at Canadian Tire after Canada Day, and still have a couple left.
Monday, as dictated by the guardiacoastal, we left Los Testigos, reluctantly. It is a lovely group of isolated islands, with wonderful people, and unless you have a boat, you won’t get to see them. We were enjoying a very pleasant sail enroute to Margarita Island, when we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins. Our special good luck sign.
Did someone ask about fishing?? Once we had cleared the islands, we did start dragging our two lines. All morning long, not much was happening. Just after noon, we could see the mountains of Margarita Island rising from the haze. As we were approaching Pompatar, Bev was contemplating bringing in the lines. A noise like a gunshot surprised us, and once we figured out what is was, we realized the entire fishing system on the port side was missing…the bungie cord shock absorber had broken, the 80 pound test line had broken, 250 feet of line was gone, as well as the lure. Even the clothespin alarm tied to the lifelines with dental floss was missing. We consoled our loss by realizing the one that got away was definitely too big for us!!
We continued on and anchored in Porlamar – affectionately known as Rollamar with about 100+ other boats. Another boater came around, he had been fishing on his way over, and was offering us wahoo. He had caught and landed a 50 pounder, and was very willing to share his prize. So we got to eat fish, despite our loss.
We expect to stay in Porlamar for a couple of weeks. This is the shopping meca of Venezuela, so let the shopping begin!!