Turtles Gone Wild

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One cloudy day we got up early and took the bus to Rodadero, a few kilometers from Santa Marta. There we met our Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian at the Deep Coral dive shop, and together we drove to Casa Grande Surf Beach in Tayrona. There were a lot of people already there and more were coming in, as the day was special. A special event was going to take place, and tanks to Cata and Sebastian who invited us, we became a part of it.

С Ката и Себастиян

With Cata and Sebastian

Every year hundreds of juvenile loggerhead sea turtles are released in the sea thanks to a local program for sea turtle conservation- Programa de Conservación de Tortugas Marinas –a program of the aquarium Acuario Mundo Marino together with the UTADEO university, sponsored by PETROBRAS- one of the biggest petroleum companies in the region.

Casa Grande Surf Beach

Casa Grande Surf Beach

The beach was occupied by children of all ages awaiting the arrival of the turtles. We were all very excited. I met and interviewed Esteban Andrade from the sea turtle conservation program and he answered my many questions.

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The sea turtle release program started in 1999 with research and in 2004 the first 154 turtles were introduced in the sea. Since then, every year the scientists, university students and volunteers excavate between 100 and 300 turtle eggs (1-3 nests each containing about 100 eggs) at the beaches in Tayrona, Colombia. The eggs hatch in the aquarium in Rodadero and the babies spend their first 6-8 months in the care of the marine biologists. After they are bigger and stronger, they are released in the sea- a total of 1,517 so far. Thus their chances of survival in the first critical weeks of life are much higher. The survival rate of new hatchlings in the aquarium is about 97% as opposed to about 55% in the wild.

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The program’s mission is not only to help the loggerheads’ reproduction rate, but also to educate and raise awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation among the local community and most of all- among the children. Each year, the day the turtles are released at sea is a huge organized event focusing on the kids.

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Even though killing loggerhead sea turtles for meat, eggs and other products is forbidden by an international law, there is no defined local legislation regulating the hunting and consumption of sea turtles in Colombia. The locals here as in many other parts of the world still kill and eat sea turtles and their eggs without legal consequences.

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

St Lucia, October 2014

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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We didn’t have to wait for long. Soon the little reptiles arrived by truck and volunteers helped to unload them.

Иво помага за пренасянето на морските костенурки

Ivo helping with the unloading of the turtles

The containers were placed under a shed and filled with fresh seawater.

Иво с кофи

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The kids piled around to take their first look at the baby-turtles. And even though they were all from the same species and had hatched at the same time, some had yellowish shells, other red-brown, others- dark brown and some were significantly bigger than others. It turned out that sea turtles, like children, are different from one another. Some are blond, others are dark-haired, and the ones who eat more get bigger. Who knew!

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Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

The loggerheads are the second largest hard-shelled sea turtles reaching 1 m and 140 kg with some individuals reaching 3 m and 450 kg. with an average lifespan of 47-67 years. They are found throughout the world in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. With massive powerful jaws they eat not only sea grass and jellyfish, but also fish, lobsters and conch.

"Супа" от костенурки

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Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

8-month-old loggerhead sea turtle

Unfortunately, these sea turtles have low reproductively which combined with many other factors has caused the steady decline of their numbers. The females reach sexual maturity only at 30-35 years of age and ley about 3-400 eggs every 2-3 years. But the main reasons for their declining numbers are loss of habitat due to residential and commercial building, their hunting for meat and eggs, pollution of the oceans. People keep taking over their nesting beaches, eating them and using turtle products such as grease and shells for cosmetic and traditional medicines. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles suffocate and die each year caught in the nets of commercial fishing boats. A big part of their eggs gets destroyed by wild and domestic animals and men before they have a chance to hatch, and the baby hatchlings often become pray to crabs and fish in the first moments of their lives.

Иво държи новоизлюпено костенурче. Опитахме се да го спасим от едно коати- животно подобно на ракун (миеща се мечка) в мексико, август 2013

Ivo is holding a newly hatched turtle we found wounded by a coati on thе beach in Mexico and tried to save in August 2013

The moment everyone has been waiting for came- the release in the sea of 300 8-month-old turtles. First the sponsors and organizers said a few words, then the kids formed a queue at the release area and the parents like paparazzi with photo and video cameras besieged the section on the beach designated for the turtles. There was even a music band playing live music right on the beach!

Оркестър на плажа

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The release of the turtles happened in stages. Groups of kids would line up facing the sea, then they would be given instructions and a turtle each and wait for the signal to place them on the sand and let them go.

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It was like a horse race but slower. The turtles would hurry down the beach before disappearing in the waves, every time accompanied by jolly music.

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Maya also had a chance to release a turtle. For your information her turtle was the fastest and bravest and after a few-second demonstration of impressive sand-swimming skills she won the race. The others didn’t have a chance, not that we are bragging about it…

Мая с морска костенурка

Maya with a sea turtle

Групата на Мая

Maya’s group

We felt happy and satisfied. Not only because Maya’s turtle won the race. Imagine: this day Maya’s school was once again the sea and beach. A biology class. A lesson in marine life conservation. And not one but 300 little teachers who are now swimming in the seas, traveling the world.

Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

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Minca’s Waterfalls

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

At the heart of the world, on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, rises Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain in the shape of a pyramid with high snow-covered peaks reaching 18,700 ft. This is the tallest coastal mountain in the world. Source of 36 rivers and home of 30,000 indigenous people from the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi, and Kankuamo tribes, as well as habitat for countless rare, endemic and endangered species of plants animals and birds, Sierra Nevada, covering a territory of 17,000 sq km, is Colombia’s finest national park, designated a Biosphere reserve by UNESCO and the world’s most irreplaceable park for threatened species.

Индианко селище в подножието на планината Сиера Невада

A Kogi village in the Sierra Nevada

Here, deep in the impenetrable jungles, rest the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), founded 650 years before Machu Pichu by the Tayrona people. Today the archeological site is a national heritage comprising hundreds of stone steps and terraces carved on the mountain side (it resembles Machu Pichu but in a far smaller scale). Visitors can go there only with an organized excursion and only if they are in a good physical shape, as the hike is 4 to 6 days and is rated moderately difficult. Such a trip starting form Santa Marta costs $300 per person and includes a guide, food and water, and sleeping accommodations along the way. But unfortunately it was too expensive for us, even though we really wanted to go and tried to find ways of getting there without an organized excursion, on our own. But this is not an option. The only legal and safe way to visit the Lost City is by joining an organized trip, as the trail passes through indigenous territory and the organizers of the hike have exclusive rights to be there. There are even signs on the entrance of the villages: “Access to non-Indians forbidden”.

Индианци от племето Арауако на посещение в Санта Марта

Arhuaco Indians visiting Santa Marta

Instead, we visited Minca, another popular tourist destination in the Sierra Nevada, a trip we organized ourselves and it cost us $20 for the three of us (transportation and entrance fee).

Minca is a small mountain village at 650 m altitude and to get there you need a 4×4. You can take the public transport there for $3 per person- jeeps starting at the market in Santa Market but they only leave when they collect at least 7-8 passengers. We had to wait for 1 hour for the vehicle to get full before we started for the mountains.

"Автобусът" до Минка

The “bus” to Minca

Soon after departure, the jeep left the highway and the landscape around us changed. The dry lifeless hills of Santa Marta- yellow thirsty grass and low cacti- ended. Bamboo forests, banana and coffee plantations and thick tropical forests rose around us. The green became thick and intense and after an hour on the bumpy mountain road we arrived in Minca. We were greeted by a few local people and dogs sitting at the terrace of a small restaurant. A few houses, a couple of hostels and restaurants, a deserted football field and the inevitable church.

Църквата в Минка

Church in Minca

Минка

Minca

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Деца в Минка

Kids in Minca

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Руини край Минка

Ruins near Minca

We started for the first waterfall, la Cascada Marinca. We walked past fincas and coffee plantations, through a shady forest filled with sounds of tropical birds and insects. Hidden in the trees, thousands of cicadas were adjusting their string instruments getting ready for a concert.

Сикади

Cicadas

The area around Minca is world renowned bird-watching destination and we spotted many colorful birds we never seen before, including a toucan!

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Тукан

Toucan

Семка?

Seed?

After an hour and a half we got to the first waterfall hidden in the jungle, Cascada Marinca, with two terraces forming two pools of fresh water one on top of the other. There was a shed overlooking the falls where we had to pay entrance fee – $1 per adult, free for kids.

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Иво и Мая

Ivo and Maya

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We spent some time at Marinka Falls, chilling, resting, eating our sandwiches for lunch, and then returned back to the village from where we took another trail to another river guided by a random dog who self-appointed himself to be our Minca guide. He took us to El Pozo Aul, a series of cascades, falls and pools on Minca River with delicious transparent cold waters.

Иво си суши косата... И той е човек...

Ivo drying his hair…

On the way there , about two hours of hiking through beautiful hilly countryside, we were once again offered spectacular panoramic vistas.

Черно и бяло

B&W

Бамбук

Bamboo

шапчици

Little “hats” (we didn’t know this tree is poisonous and the flowers are used to produce a horrible drug named Devil’s Breath…

As we approached the river we heard the muffled booming sounds of the waterfalls. There was a group of tourists with rented bikes at the first pool, so we decided to keep going and find a more secluded spot upriver. Our guide, Mister Perro, took us climbing on the muddy shores, jumping over rocks, waiting for us patiently, as we were a lot slower than him.

With our guide El Perro

 

Група велосипедисти

A group of tourists with bicycles.

Our efforts were rewarded at the end. We got to a small waterfall with a nice deep pool surrounded by flat big rock walls- perfect for jumps. Ivo and Maya never skip an opportunity to work on their jumping and flying skills, demonstrating supreme grace and elegance in mid-air before splashing in the water below.

Иво- "летящият чук"

Ivo- “Flying Hummer”

Мая в полет

Maya in flight

Tired but satisfied we walked the two hours walk back to the village center, where our awesome guide El Dog left us unceremoniously, the same way he had joined us, not looking back. And we kind of missed him… Good bye, Mister Perro! Good bye Minca! In our memories we will always keep the freshness of your waterfalls.

Мая и Мира

Maya and Mira

Ivo

Ivo

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Diving in Colombia

Водолази

Scuba divers

Underwater the world is different. Dark, cold, dense, slow and mysteriously silent. You hear only your own breathing. You hear your thoughts. You hear muffled sounds sometimes- faraway thunders and gentle bells- but it is hard to determine where they come from. Yet, most of the time the underwater world is mute and silence is undisturbed even in the busy coral cities during the peak hour of the traffics of hundreds and thousands of darting fishes. It is strange.

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The first time with goggles and a snorkel underwater is unforgettable. Often, those who enter the sea for a first time return panting to shore- wet and cold and completely enchanted. And cannot stop dreaming of the deep, of being weightless again- like flying- inside this alien world of strange colors and shapes.

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It happened to Maya. She came back enchanted one day two years ago when she peeked under the water surface in the shallows of a small uninhabited island in Key West, Florida. There, at two meters depth, lied the skeleton of an old ship, its dark rusty bones overgrown with corals and barnacles, inhabited by small fishes, shrimps and crabs. Since then, Maya became a water creature and would snorkel and free-dive all the time, every time going deeper, holding her breath longer.

Мая

Underwater Maya

But her dream to breathe underwater – where the lobsters, the stingrays, the eels hide- without having to come out for air, only came true recently, after we met Cata Aponte Bohoquez and Sebastian Hernandez Gaviria. A cruiser we met in October 2013 in Rio Dulce, Guatemala- Dale McDaniel- told us his brother-in-law live in Santa Marta, Colombia with his girlfriend. “If you pass through there call them, they are great people and could show you around.”, Dale said and he was right.

Cata and Sebastian, a young couple who just got married a week before we met them, welcomed us in Santa Marta, drove us around town to all the travel agencies and the airport and helped us find and buy cheap airplane ticket to Bogota, took us to their favorite restaurants in town and to the place where they work.

It turned out they are both professional scuba-divers and scuba dive instructors, the owners of a scuba dive shop Deep Coral near the aquarium in Rodadero- one of a few dive shops in Santa Marta area. With 15 years of diving experience all around the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, The Bahamas, many of the Caribbean islands and USA, and with an ever-growing passion for the underwater world, Cata, along with her partner Sebastian, is the best scuba diving instructor on the entire Caribbean cost of Colombia.

It also turned out that both Cata and Sebastian love the idea of sailing and dream of someday cruising and living aboard a sailboat. And just a few hours after we met, the idea that was brewing inside our heads after realizing that we would love to scuba-dive and they would love to sail, became a plan.

After returning from the three-day visit to Bogota and three-day camping trip to Tayrona, we organized our next Colombian adventure: an epic sailing-diving-beer-drinking trip with our new Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian.

Ката и Себастиян на борда на Фата Моргана

Cata and Sebastian aboard Fata Morgana

We went shopping, loaded the scuba-diving equipment, 15 scuba bottles, many bags of food and countless cases of Colombian cerveza Agila aboard Fata Morgana, and set sail for a lonely little bay on the southwest shores of Tayrona, only 4 nautical miles north of Santa Marta.

Гости и провизии

Guests and provisions ready to go

15 бутилки с въздух в камбуза....

15 air bottles in the galley

We dropped anchor not far from the rocky shores where the last hills of Sierra Nevada plunge in the Caribbean Sea.

Фата Моргана на котва в Тайрона

Fata Morgana at anchor in Tayrona

The land here is wrinkled with soft hills, thirsty and desolate, covered with yellow grass, withered cacti, and scorched spiky trees, lifeless, sun-eaten victims of the constant hot dry winds. The hills wake up from their coma only once every 1-2 years, Cata told us, when from the east the rain approaches. Then the grass gets drunk on green juices, the cacti are full like balloons and covered in flowers, and the branches of the dark dead trees become alive adorned with tiny green leaves. It is really beautiful, a brief spectacle, Sebastian said, the land celebrates and nature triumphs. And then everything dies again after the rains…

Брулени хълмове

Burnt hills

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A few days of dreams-come-true followed. Our friends learned some basic things about sailing and navigating and experienced life aboard a boat, and we learned to scuba dive, to breathe underwater.

Мая и Ката

Maya and Cata

Мира

Mira

Иво

Ivo

Иво и Мая водолази

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya together with Cata and Sebasian did 2-3 dives per day, every time learning some new skills: to breathe without holding their breath, to equalize regularly, to regulate their buoyancy, to remove and put back on their equipment underwater, to simulate emergencies and share air underwater, orientation with a compass, helping the other diver, communicating underwater etc. Back on the boat, they had to read and study for hours the theory for their PADI Open Water Diver exam. It turned out scuba diving is not so simple and can be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.

Мая и Ката правят подводни упражнения

Maya and Cata practicing new underwater skills

Мая

Maya

Мая

Maya

I did less dives and didn’t go as deep, nor learned all the skills besides the essential safety ones, as unlike Ivo and Maya, I did not have the ambition to obtain the Open Water Diver certificate at the end of this crash course, but only wanted to do a few fun dives.

Мира

Mira

Мая

Maya

Иво

Ivo

When we were not diving, we were preparing food, eating it and drinking lots of beer.

Ката и Себас правят гуакамоли

Cata and Sbastian: The Making of The Guacamole

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Иво , Себас и Ката

Cheers!

The last day we decided to sail to the next little bay where a small fishermen’s village popular with tourists and backpackers has a strange reputation. Taganga.

Рибарска лодка в Таганга

Fishing boat in Taganaga

Индианци от племето Коги на плажа в Таганга

Kogi indigenous people in Taganaga

At the foot of the burnt hills, on the edge of a shallow sandy bay we were greeted by a row of a few houses, shops and restaurants, two or three hostels facing the sea, lined up along the main street. The street runs parallel to a long beach populated by colorful fishing boats. Tourists and sun-stricken dogs roam the town in the heat of the day.

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Таганга

Street in Taganaga

In the late afternoon, the fishermen emerge from the sea and like fathers extremely proud with their kids (unless they are disappointed with them for some unrealized expectation) they arrange and exhibit their catch for all to see. Small noisy groups of men holding beers form under the palm trees, discussing the sea, the fish, the football and all other existential universal cosmic problems of the world.

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Рибари и риба

Fish and fishermen

It was burning hot in Taganga. All the thick good shades under trees and roofs were occupied by sleeping heavy-breathing dogs and sleeping heavy-breathing homeless people. Our only chance for survival was near the ventilator of a cozy little restaurant serving ice-cold beer and sea-food delicacies. Food in Colombia is notoriously good, yes it is. We still keep the memory of the stuffed avocado and roaster royal shrimp…

Авокадо пълнено с морски дарове

Avocado stuffed with sea-fruits

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Себастиян

Sebastian

Ката, Себастиян и Иво с бири в Таганга

Cheers from Taganga!

At night Taganga transforms. We were warned not to roam the streets after sunset if we were to avoid trouble. The small quaint fishermen village where time almost stops in the heat of the day, becomes the playground of drug addicts, gamblers, and prostitutes, we were told. All sorts of criminal activities were taking place in Taganaga each night. (The only uncertain proof of that fact we could find during the noon hours was an enslaved paranoid rooster on the beach waiting for his next fight.) As we were drifting to sleep in our beds that night we listened tensely for any distant symptoms of criminality.

За бой с петли (нелегално)

Rooster ready for the next illegal cock fight victory

Around three o’clock I awoke with a start. I heard voices. Intruders had boarded the boat! Maya saw dark feet passing outside her window. Ivo darted out to investigate and defend. Three drunk English-speaking tourists, a woman and two men, had decided to swim from the beach to the only anchored yacht in the bay (Fata Morgana), because they could see the lights of the boat (like moths attracted by the lamp?), explained the girl shortly after Ivo popped up to check what’s going on. This was of course a very bizarre explanation and an unacceptable reason to board someone’s boat at night, unless you are properly drunk and/or high. Angry Ivo sent them back swimming to the beach. Freaks.

Таганага след залез слънце

Taganga after sunset

These three days full of so many shared emotions and new experiences were the best most fun days of our visit to Colombia. For Cata and Sebas the time spent aboard Fata Morgana was an inspiration and a dream-come-true. For us learning to scuba dive was also a dream-come-true as well as a unique opportunity for Ivo and Maya to take the course, pass the exams and obtain an international scuba diving certificate (which normally costs hundreds of dollars). This will assure not only many more underwater adventures to come but also gives Ivo and especially Maya another valuable skill for the future which they can develop to a professional level. For this we are forever grateful to Cata and Sebastian.

IMG_5334

ll of us

 

*If you ever visit Santa Marta be sure to call Cata and Sebastian at Deep Coral and organize a fun dive in Tayrona or get PADI certified with the best diving instructors in the area. Add another unforgettable experience to your Colombian adventures with Deep Coral!

 

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