Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Nagbalayong and the Turtles

This is a little barrio along the west coast of Bataan, forgettable to many people but one of the most memorable places I have ever been in my life. No, I don't mean to say I roamed the whole barrio and liked it - I do not even know where it starts, where the center is and where it ends. I have just been to the Bantay Pawikan's Turtle Conservation Center located at the little fishing village of Nagbalayong in the town of Morong, Bataan.

Going there
After the hefty truly "native" lunch at the famous ‘Arcee’s Restaurant’ in Balanga, my group took off in a convoy of three vehicles headed westwards via Pilar and Bagac then northwards along the coast to find Nagbalayong. We actually did not know the name of this barrio. We just knew that there was a sea-turtle conservation center somewhere in the outskirts of Morong and that if we reached Anvaya Cove, we'd have been beyond our destination. The drive was all the way along great sceneries of the province that made me say this is worthy enough of a joy ride even if we don't find that turtle sanctuary. But we did!

Not yet Anvaya Cove area but kinda sensed we were already past our destination, so we asked around. And indeed, we were already "beyond" so we made a u-turn following the instructions from locals who eagerly gave us specific directions on how to find the place. Whoa! We overshot by more than a kilometer (not reading the road signs well and busier with watching the calm waters by the sea and other beautiful sights in the area). And we were zooming too fast as our drivers were enjoying the virtually "car-less" highway!

Finally found it! And for those who may go there after reading this article, heed the following info: you get off the highway towards the sea - that means you'll turn left if coming from Morong proper or turn right if coming from Subic/Anvaya Cove. And veering off the main road does not mean you're there. You enter at what seems to have been a beautiful village or resort with remnants of pink buildings now dilapidating. At some point you turn right as you’ll realize going further straight to sea you’ll first be ramming into houses that block your way! Now there are sporadic directional signs that will have you cruising on mainly sandy road. Yes, that’s the fine beach sand already but there’s a row of houses between you, the sunset and the sea. If they've not improved that portion yet (no need anyway) be careful if you're not driving a 4X4 since your vehicle could get stuck in the sand during a hot day. At this area, just holler if you need help - all the people that you see around are very helpful and will do everything they can to ensure you don't encounter any hassles. Veering left at the end of the sandy road we saw the prominent signs that it was the Bantay Pawikan, Inc. For those confused… “pawikan” is Filipino/Tagalog for “sea turtle”.

The Pawikan Center
The conservation center is nothing grand if you're looking for some kind of a fantastic "building" or "center" like perhaps Palawan's Crocodile Farm or Marikina's Butterfly Farm? It’s actually far from beautiful. It’s nothing but a lowly common barrio nipa-hut. But low-key as it may be, the purpose for which it stands on the beach is far grander than all zoos in this country combined. The hut is just there to house the administrative office of the conservation volunteers, plus their displays and props and information materials to be shown when visitors like us hop in. Yes, they had to build a wider “resting area” and even built comfort rooms for all of us the visitors. It is in the wide area that visitors are told of the story about how this brigade of volunteers came to be PLUS the life cycle, behaviors and vulnerability of sea turtles.

Now outside of the main house is a little thatched roofing (no walls) that tries to give shade to a fenced-off little concrete pool in the shape of a turtle. It is mandatory that you go there as visitors (you will be shown that area during the lecture anyway) because you will have the chance to encounter live little baby turtles ready for release to the wild raging seas and two adult turtles that cannot anymore be released to sea because of some irrecoverable human inflicted injuries.

Adjacent to the little pool of swimming cute little turtles, you see another fenced off area where the sand has been smoothened and cleaned and that there are nothing but sticks planted to the ground. This is the more heartwarming part of the facility. Buried under the sand, marked by those sticks, are the hundreds sometimes thousands of turtle eggs being incubated. At a designated date, they will start emerging to ground to instinctively head for the sea, but since the area is fenced off, they won’t be able to do just that. Don’t fret yet though, there is a grander reason why the little ones, sometimes thousands of them are prevented from doing so. Let’s get to what I learned from this visit.

Learnings to linger in my heart forever…

The eggs are hijacked!
Sea turtles come to the shores of Nagbalayong and other nearby beaches on this part of Bataan. They have been doing so for countless years by now, to dig on the sand and lay their eggs on those burrows, then leave for the sea. Since there are a lot of predators, the eggs usually never get to hatch as turtles. They were often dug and eaten by animals (dogs, lizards, etc) and birds. But the most destructive of all were people who dug, collected and ate or sold the turtle eggs for a living – until the turtles couldn’t anymore keep laying eggs to cope with the greedy and increasing demand by humans to consume turtle eggs. Thus, they became endangered worldwide.

Nowadays, the volunteers prowl the beach every night and “hi-jack” any eggs just lain by the turtles. But these are brought to the center for proper care and controlled hatchings. These volunteers are also there to of course apprehend poachers who might be hiding on the darkness of each night.

This way, the eggs are placed on those fenced-off sand pits so they can incubate and finally hatch without anyone or anything disturbing them.

The sand pits are monitored until eggs hatch
The volunteers at Nagbalayong have been trained on how to take care and properly handle the eggs so that they hatch as healthy and lively little turtles! Thus, only them can go to (and tinker with) the sand pits where the eggs are buried.

Hey, I learned that the temperature of the sand pit where the eggs are during incubation and hatching is the sole determinant whether the baby turtle would eventually be male or female. The warmer, the more females. Interesting?! Here’s more, human “assistance” is generally not allowed when the hatched little turtles burrow their way up the sand pit. They should be left to inch their way up the surface. This makes them healthy and ready to wade their way to the sea. Otherwise, if they’re that weak or sick to come up, they’ll just die in the sand. Darwin’s theory working here! If you dug and plucked them anyway, then release them at sea, just the same, their weakness will ensure that they become lunch of so many predators.

The hatchlings are gathered and released in a controlled manner
This is the interesting part. Hatchlings will naturally crawl out towards the direction of where the sea is. But since the area is fenced off with a fine mesh of wire and plastic, they won’t be able to continue. BUT, the volunteers pick them up, gather them in containers, and bring them nearer to the edge of the waters where they’re allowed to excitedly crawl their way out into the sea. This way, the volunteers are there to watch and guard them as they inch their way towards the waters.

I learned too that this is not a foolproof process! Sometimes, even with the “bantay pawikan” volunteers already guarding the hatchings, a bird of prey or two will dive to pick a turtle for dinner. But still, the volunteers persevere to minimize those incidents.

Not all turtles survive the long journey to the sea.
In fact only a few do at .01%. It is such a treacherous ordeal. There are a lot of dangers that these vulnerable little turtles will have to face or parry on their way out to sea and adulthood. And they go on their own. Some of them will end up becoming food for other sea creatures. But some of them will eventually survive to become adults, select their mates and come back to Nagbalayong to lay their eggs.

A sea turtle, when ready to lay eggs, would always come back to the beach/sand where they were born. So if you saw a turtle in a beach today, she will surely have been born/hatched on that spot some 30 or more years ago!

The Nagbalayong Story
It was not easy. Mang Manolo (chairman) tells us the story that as far as they can remember, turtle eggs and even turtles had been a livelihood in their little village. They gathered and sold eggs. As many local folks believe that those eggs have aphrodisiac effects, sales were brisk and the demand was rising. Turtle eggs are more expensive than chicken eggs due to seasonality. Turtle eggs are only available in Nagbalayong from August to February when the poor mother turtles come to lay their eggs. Then, seven years ago, the people from United Nations kept going back to them to explain that the turtles were/are in danger of extinction. The UN folks tried to describe to them the life cycle of turtles and why they are going to be extinct in the near future.

People of Nagbalayong eventually believed what the people from UNDP were telling them. So they agreed there was a necessity to stop gathering and selling or eating the eggs. But one question remained unanswered – what would the people do as a living if they stopped turtle gathering? The UN folks gave them subsidy of about P200,000 a year for two years. However, when those amounts were divided 12 months to the number of residents in their village – it was far from anybody’s earnings collecting turtle eggs. And villagers were starting to regress by selling turtle eggs again.

Enter the Japanese government. They provided hundreds of meters long of fishnets that is now installed called a “baklad”. So the turtle-gathering folks are now fisherfolk and protectors of the turtle eggs.

Soo desu ne!

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