Bienvenidos a Costa Rica!
New dates are now available for 2010/11 Costa Rican Sea Turtles expeditions.
When Earthwatch Development Officer Laura Howells recently visited a project going into its 22nd year researching the nesting and population biology of endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles, she discovered both the vital role volunteers play in conserving these magnificent creatures and the priceless experiences only this project can offer.
Credit: Una Graham
Escaping inner-city San Jose and arriving in paradise on the northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica, I immediately feel at home. Sure, the tropical heat hits you like a brick wall, but the wind takes the bite out of it and keeps away the mosquitoes.
The beaches are beautiful and the ocean warm. The waves are awash with surfers, the locals are friendly, the food delicious, and hammocks are the sun loungers of choice. So far, so good!
After two days R&R, I make my way from the beautiful coastal resort of Tamarindo to the Earthwatch research site, within the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, and meet up with my fellow Earthwatch volunteers and field staff.
The field station
Volunteers and staff alike live and work at the Goldring Marine Biology Field Station on Playa Grande. But calling it a field station doesn’t quite do this place justice. It is two houses, each with satellite TV, air conditioning, internet access, and other modern conveniences (including lusciously comfortable sofas in the living area!). The pièce de resistance is the swimming pool flanked by shaded hammocks in the garden, and I suppose, the fact that the Pacific Ocean is only about 50m from the front gate! This field station is certainly not too shabby.
One of the two houses is the home and work place of five vibrant and passionate biologists, all of whom are passionate about turtles and have an unwavering desire to share their knowledge and passion with our team of enthusiastic volunteers. The research they do has been instrumental in the establishment of the National Park Las Baulas, and of the field station itself.
And so to work
After meeting my fellow volunteers and choosing a bunk, it’s straight to work. Earthwatch expeditions to Playa Grande run for 9 days and each day offers the same tasks. But volunteers work through a rotation, so that each day provides a new challenge, a heap of new experiences, and is totally different from the last.
We start early - really early - with some orientation and a patrol of the beach, before eating a big breakfast and taking some down time. It’s hard earned and much needed. I’m pretty tired but later I’ll get my first taste of what it’s like to work in the hatchery, and I can’t wait.
What strikes me already is that the team of biologists with whom I’ve been working side-by-side all night and all morning just don’t have enough hands to cope with all the turtle-related activity. And this is when I realize just how essential Earthwatch volunteers are to a project like this. They simply couldn’t do what they do without us.
An example of my daily routine:
5am - 7am Morning patrol
7am - 10am Down time
10am -11am Breakfast
11am - 3pm Down time
3pm - 6pm Beach work
6pm - 7pm Dinner
7pm - 11pm Down time
11pm - 5am Night patrol or hatchery duty
Volunteer tasks explained
Playa Grande is divided into three 5 kilometer stretches, and our job is to patrol one of these stretches during the night. You have a number of responsibilities, including keeping dogs and trespassers off the beach - as part of the National Park, Playa Grande is closed to the public at night. But my other duty is keeping an eye out for emerging turtles, and it’s really exciting.
Under a full moon and clear night skies, the brisk night walks are as much a pleasure as they are a challenge. And despite the darkness I feel completely safe on the beach, accompanied only by the sound of waves crashing on the sand and insects singing in the forest. The prospect of a close encounter with a giant Leatherback keeps me marching on.
A few hours pass and we spot a leatherback emerging from the ocean. My exhilaration is tangible as the biologist I’m working with first informs tour guides based in Tamarindo by radio. Small tour groups of around 20 arrive, and under close supervision gather around the female to watch her nest. I feel incredibly privileged as the biologist turns to me and we both get to work.
As the turtle digs an egg chamber and begins to lay her eggs, the biologist scans her front flippers for a tag. We have to work swiftly but diligently. If she’s not already tagged, the biologist expertly tags her while I count her eggs. Now this sounds easy, but in fact involves lying on my front, head almost in the egg chamber, with one hand gently pushing the turtle’s flipper to one side to clear my view. The other hand grasps a counter, as I simultaneously concentrate on counting the exact number of eggs, and try not to collapse the chamber. With a biologist by my side I’m confident, but shaking like a leaf. This is like nothing I’ve ever done before. I’m about as up close and personal with an endangered species as I’m ever likely to be, experiencing something so incredible words cannot describe it.
I will honestly never ever forget that very first encounter. To see such a remarkable, prehistoric creature haul out of the Pacific and lay her eggs was as moving as it was breathtaking.
Credit: Laura Howells
As dark fades to light I’m still in awe of what was such an intimate and special moment in my life. It’s given me the energy to walk the full length of the beach twice, when I really should have run out of gas long ago! We’re looking for tiny tracks from natural nests now, the tracks hatchlings leave as they hatch and make their way to the ocean during the night. When we find some, we count and measure them, checking for straightness and spread from the nest.
The straightness of a track can demonstrate how much a hatchling might have been affected by light, as research shows they wiggle more the closer the nests are to built up areas like Tamarindo. And when I learn that this data can then be used to back up the National Park status of Playa Grande and reduce the impact of light pollution around what is a critical nesting beach for Leatherbacks, it all makes sense.
Watching the shimmering sunrise over the Pacific as we walk, feeling its warmth on my face, and hearing the howler monkeys start their morning calls from the forest canopy is magical.
It is, I learnt, actually against a turtle’s natural instinct to emerge from its shell during the day. But for some reason, every day I worked on this project we had a number of daytime "greetings"! And again, it underscored the importance of Earthwatch volunteers to the research that gets done here. You see, when a baby turtle hatches, day or night, it is weighed and measured by a volunteer before being placed in a cool shady spot for the remainder of the nest to emerge.
Hatchlings can only be released at night. And in stark contrast to my experience of the night before, the minute size and sheer vulnerability of these little guys engulfs me as I consider their epic onward journey. They are no bigger than the palm of my hand; we watch with excitement and some trepidation as the waves take them out to sea.
Credit: Laura Howells
Nothing preys upon a fully grown leatherback, but seemingly everything threatens our little hatchlings - with only 1 in every 1000 making it to sexual maturity. Once again, I’m taken aback with just how important my being here is, as my fellow volunteers and I see the hatchlings safely to the ocean, protecting them as far as possible on the beach.
The four hours or so of downtime each day (11am-3pm) can be spent however you wish. Our team did an excursion of sorts every day, but if you want to spend time at the beach or pool, catch up on some sleep, write a diary or read a book, you can do that, too.
Credit: Laura Howells
My team and I went horse riding, snorkeling, surfing and even took a boat excursion up the estuary where we saw crocodiles, caiman, howler monkeys and copious birds -- to name but a few highlights. If you love the natural world, keep in mind that Costa Rica, though a relatively small country, holds an estimated 5% of the world’s biodiversity.
So, why do it?
1. Being part of a true conservation success story.
There are a host of reasons you would want to be a part of the incredible work done here on Playa Grande. But consider this fact: The world population of Leatherbacks has fallen by more than two-thirds in the last 20 years. And then consider that Playa Grande was first established as part of Las Baulas National Park in 1990, thanks to findings from Earthwatch scientist, Dr. Frank Paladino and his team of biologists and Earthwatch volunteers.
As a result of research conducted over more than 20 years, poaching of turtle nests has dropped from a staggering 90% to just 10%. Furthermore, poachers have been educated about turtles and their appalling conservation status and have been trained instead to be guides - ensuring that turtles are more economically viable alive than they would be dead, and giving the seriously threatened population a genuine chance at recovery.
The conservation success of this project over two decades is something every volunteer who has worked on the project has played a significant part in achieving and can be immensely proud of.
2. An unrivalled hands-on experience.
Highlighted by the juxtaposition between volunteers and tourists, this was an experience like no other. And working with nesting female turtles that very first night brought that home to me. Up close and personal with these giants of the ocean, my head inches away as they laid their eggs, I felt honored to be truly involved as tourists stood back and observed. The National Park closes at 6pm every evening until 7am the following morning. Only Earthwatch volunteers and biologists are allowed on the beach between these times and when you’re working in the hatchery and hatchlings are emerging, tourists gather to watch and ask you questions that, believe it or not, you find yourself able to answer assuredly.
Being an Earthwatch volunteer is beyond any doubt a truly unique experience, and one I shall treasure for the rest of my life.
Credit: Kim Gieras
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