It is pitch black, an evening tarred with solid darkness, and the air feels thick and syrupy. It engulfs me in satin, a sensation akin to confinement, but there is nothing I can do about it. I feel my unwanted companion, Mr. Claustrophobia, creeping into my consciousness using his tendrils of fear to agitate and alarm.
A flashlight rests inside my hand but I am forbidden to use it. The bright intrusive beam would surely scare away the creatures I am here to protect.
Each step taken along the familiar Costa Rican beach is a tentative one. The ebb and flow of the Pacific loves nothing better than to set traps for the unwary turtle researcher – shin-bruising driftwood, sole-piercing cactus thorns and toe-stubbing coconuts are all examples of the varied arsenal available to such a mighty ocean.
There are other less dangerous but more objectionable objects littering the sands after sundown, coyote poo and decomposing fish to name but two. Worst of all though, are the patches of soft sand under which lurk nests full of rotten turtle eggs, the smell of which will linger between the toes for days on end.
I am a volunteer on a marine turtle conservation project in the north of the country, one of many such endeavors dotted around the world, but I chose this one because of the location: an isolated beach protected within the boundaries of a national park, miles away from the nearest town or village. It is also one of the few places on earth where turtles come to nest en masse. Tens of thousands lumber up the beach over a period of just a few nights and it is my job to count and protect them. Poachers beware, for I am armed with a burly vocabulary of relatively harsh words, and failing that, I have a big stick.
At around midnight the surf line erupts with a heaving mass of reptilian flippers and the invasion begins. As more and more trundling turtles heave themselves ashore, the blackness of night gives way to a soft, eerie light: luminous plankton dripping from a thousand glistening shells.
They are so numerous that I am physically and metaphorically knocked off my feet. Real estate is at a premium; turtles clamber rudely upon each other, battling to locate a nesting spot. Gathered in such numbers, they become emboldened, showing no fear of my torch. I illuminate a living scene reminiscent of a giant green cobblestone street.
I spend the following four nights traversing a rush hour beach, falling into the sandy craters left by indecisive turtles. My ankles and shins suffer bruises from the abrasive shells of twenty thousand miniature tanks, and by the third night I am utterly exhausted. It is too hot during the day to catch up on lost slumber, and I fear that I now look as tired and ponderous as the turtles themselves.
Coffee supplies are long gone and sleep deprivation scares me with illusions – crocodiles, pumas, and poachers lurk – shadows one and all.
Eventually the chaos ends with just a few hundred turtles remaining. I sink to the sand, cocooning myself in a sheet, and allow the rhythmic waves to ease me into blissful sleep.
It seems that mere seconds have passed when I awake with the impression that something warm and wet has just touched my face. Starlight outlines a silhouette, standing over my outstretched feet – another illusion, or perhaps I’m still dreaming? Nervous coyotes frequent the beach, so conceivably an unusually bold individual has come to take a closer look.
I sit bolt upright with the intention of startling the creature into a rapid retreat, but the shadowy figure refuses to move.
Now I am totally awake! Something feels wrong with this situation – a feeling that is confirmed when I aim my flashlight at the creature.
“Click” and there he is: a fully grown jaguar standing at my feet.
I leap up, instantly pumped with adrenaline, the body’s answer to caffeine, and for some unfathomable reason my initial reaction is to bombard the huge cat with a string of foul language. The ranting has no effect on him though, and he remains motionless, staring impassively into my eyes. I then begin to flap the sheet about, a good idea yes? Look bigger, scare it away, this is what you must do when confronted with a predator. He is not impressed. Not even when I hurl the sheet at him. For a moment he is covered and it briefly crosses my mind that he looks like a piece of furniture waiting for the removal men. I find this thought humorous, which in turn I find inappropriate considering the circumstances I am in.
The jaguar then shakes his enormous head and the sheet falls to the ground, crumpled at his forepaws.
Time for plan C! Crouching down I begin to throw handfuls of sand, the only material available to me, but the wind prevents these badly aimed missiles from hitting home. I succeed only in gaining a mouth full of grit and blinding myself in the process.
Adrenalin begins to give way to a sinking dread, but then I recall my anti-poacher stick behind me on the ground. I am terrified at the prospect of crouching back down to eye level with my adversary, but it must be done.
Astonishingly, the idea works and I am soon hitting the sand at his feet with the stick. He blinks at me with yellow eyes and for a brief moment I loose hope that this, my last option, will succeed. Not once do I think to run, an instinct, I believe, that prevents me from acting like prey.
Eventually, he turns away and trots back towards the forest, pausing briefly to look over his shoulder one more time, then with a flick of his mottled tail, he vanishes.
Not surprisingly, I do not sleep that night, but wait until morning in the safety of the turtle project hut, sitting wide-eyed and shaky. As the sun rises I return to the site of my encounter. The sandy pit where I had slept and the deep padded paw prints leading out from the mangroves fill in the blanks of my story. At either side of where my head had rested are two big forepaws, and I shudder with fear and excitement at how close he had been. The warmth I felt upon on my face, the breath of a jaguar panting over me, returns as a phantom sensation. I close my eyes and see him again, sleek mottled coat, a Greek statue with bright yellow eyes. An experience I will cherish forever. as long as it never happens again.