Protecting sea turtles in Costa Rica
Protecting sea turtles in Costa Rica
September 27, 2006
Travel account: monitoring sea turtle nesting sites on the beaches of Costa Rica
I thought I was moving to Costa Rica but instead I’ve found myself well inside the discovery channel. I live in Puerto Vargas–not a town but a national forest. There seems to be a new special every minute and in the real life discovery channel the animals interrupt each other’s segment. The sure-footed iguana meanders past the world’s cutest anteater who doesn’t have a care-in-the-world. A pre-historic basilisk causes a palm frond to rustle just above a fer-de-lance snake. Howler monkeys hoot and in looking for them you will probably spot a sloth. A new insect makes itself known to me everyday. I try to tell the leaf cutter ants to chill out by listing reasons why I enjoy island time but they are relentless in their business and I decide all ants are personality type A. I’ve also been lucky enough to spot ocelots, agouti, toucans, and mapaches (Spanish raccoons). These are my neighbors. As we greet each other daily, I know that the Costa Rican’s are right when they say “pura vida” this is the pure life.
Historic Caribbean sea turtle population falls 99%
If my backyard is the jungle my front lawn is the beach. It is on this buffer, this black sand gateway between the bottomless ocean and the dense bush that a relentless game of Hide and Seek is played. This high-stakes match involves buried treasure, wealth and almost certain death. The chance of a leatherback sea turtle’s survival is a tragedy revealed in the salty-tears released by each mother as she lays her eggs. One sea turtle out of 1000 hatchlings will live. If it is a female she will return to this beach in 20 years to repeat the cycle. If it is a male, he will never stand on the beach again. The rest will die. It is for that one turtle out of 1000 that I am here. I along with countless others around the world walk miles on beaches at night because the birds, the ocelots and pumas, the jaguars, the octopus, the big fish, the sharks, the fish nets and the boat propellers are not their only threats. These predators at least allow the turtles to hatch. Human poachers don’t allow that to happen. As I patrol each night, I have a lot of time to think. I’ve often caught myself mentally writing a journal entry. If I could see enough to write during our break this is how it would go.
It’s 12:30 am and I can just barely make out Berry´s outline. He is a 24 year old from Bristol who just ended a three-month journey into the swamps of Cambodia following birds. We are walking in silence partly because of the long hike we have ahead of us and partly because I’m in awe of our surroundings. To our right is a dark line of trees, to our left crashing waves, in front of us nothing but miles of sand. In the far distance I can see lights from the closest town, Puerto Viejho. Before we turn around those lights will seem much closer, but for now the clouds part, and we get a glimpse of the stars. The moonlight allows me to watch as Berry stumbles off an erosion wall. I laugh until I fall off of it too. Walking 16k (8 miles) each night means my legs are in great shape and my feet are full of blisters. In two weeks of volunteering each one of us will have walked a distance equivalent to Costa Rica’s entire Caribbean coastline. We slow down and Berry walks ahead to check out a giant track in the sand. It looks like someone dragged a plough out of the ocean. He signals to me. The turtle has finished making her body pit and has almost completed digging her nest. We must move quickly. He places tags on her back legs and takes a skin sample. I lay down holding a plastic bag in the hole to catch her eggs. My face is so close to her that I can feel the heat emanating from her body. I would be foolishly grinning but her flippers don’t stop moving and I’m caked in sand. As I watch egg after egg drop I’m suppose to be looking for the smaller, infertile eggs, but I lose focus and realize that at some point I must of left the discovery channel and entered into the food network. My sweaty, slimy body, covered in half a centimeter of sand, means I’m the perfect breaded chicken and the sand-flies are feasting on my arms. 104 fertile eggs and 28 infertile eggs later, she’s done and firmly pressing down on them and subsequently my arms. I holler at Berry and he helps me quickly lift the bag as she switches flippers. We know we’re being watched.
As we measure her carapace and try to avoid the sand she flings in an attempt to camouflage the nest we discuss our tactics to mislead the poachers from our relocation nest. Poachers are a very real threat. We find their footprints, hear them break twigs and tomorrow we will most likely find holes where the turtle dug her nest. Tonight we bury the nest just under her tracks leading up to her body pit and then we walk into the berm and make a show of digging a fake pit. Satisfied we continue walking down the beach. We’ve been talking about the feeling that we feel watched but we haven’t seen, heard or smelled the poachers. We find paw prints that suggest an ocelot and keep our eyes out. It begins to rain and I think of how silly the whole process is. The poachers know our moves, we know they’re around, many of the hatchlings will die anyway, and each individual egg, when sold, is worth 150 colones (about 40 cents). Berry and I reach mojon (marker) 106, tonight’s stopping place and sit on a log for a 30-minute break. The rain picks up so we eat cookies that are soggy by the time they reach our mouths. We have a two-hour walk home. If we’re lucky we’ll see another turtle.
On our way back, the rain stops and heat lightening provides entertainment in the sky, unfortunately, we don’t see another turtle. We reach mojon-27, home, and turn left exiting the beach. I tell Berry it was a nice walk and he suggests we do it again tomorrow. It’s 4 am. We drink hot chocolate, go for a quick swim and crawl into our beds for a quick nap before our day starts. My eyes are barely open as I scan my bed for snakes. I crawl under the mosquito net and whisper goodnight to Pompado, the redheaded gecko in my room, before falling asleep.