Volunteer work with turtles in Costa Rica

At first I was doubting about skipping Costa Rica completely during my trip through Central America. Many travelers said that it is extremely expensive and it’s a populair country for tourists. But I’m really glad I didn’t listened! The main reason why I stayed? The WIDECAST volunteer project with turtles in Pacuare, Costa Rica.

If you’re travelling for a longer time an interruption is sometimes just what you need. In a Facebook group for travelers I saw this article about this voluntary project and I was enthusiastic immediately. You guys know how much I love turtles, right? Unfortunately the project would close after one week (because the season was almost over) so I couldn’t stay longer. Because it was the end of the season it was pretty quiet; there were only two coordinators / biologists and one other volunteer. But it was a great time!

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The project is necessary because most species of turtles are endangered. In the ocean they swallow plastic and other garbage, they get stuck in the fishing nets, countless animals will attack them and poachers will kill them for their meat and eggs. Out of hundreds of eggs there is just one turtle that will be an adult after twenty years. Just one, out of hundreds. Eating turtle eggs seems to be a delicacy in Central-America and although it is nowadays illegal there are still a lot of poachers who steal the eggs. In addition, mothers are sometimes killed by hunters for the meat while they lay eggs on the beach. Enough reasons to help, right?

Night shifts, collecting data and releasing the babies

The first night I slept really early, because we had a night shift to guard the eggs. The eggs lie safely in a defined part at the beach. Around 10 in the evening somebody is knocking on the door. I look at my phone and I’m a bit grumpy because someone wakes me up two hours before the night shift. But then Magaly, one of the biologists, says the magic words: ‘turtles!’

Tya, another volunteer, and I hurry to the beach. In the nest there are certainly seventy small turtles crawling around. We weigh and measure some turtles for research. The babies are moving their fins like a maniac, that sometimes results in an awkward high-five with my finger. Most babies are not bigger than five centimeters. Finally we take the box with the turtles in it to the beach and we release them, one by one. Most of them move immediately to the water, but a few of them first circle around on the beach. They are so small, so fragile. One big wave and one by one they disappear into the darkness of the night.

And then the night shift actually starts for us. While dozens of fireflies are dancing in the dark I’m full of happiness. Because of the silentness. Because of the waves, that are softly rolling over the beach. The beautiful sky above me, full of stars. I have this warm feeling in my stomach that remained after the release of the turtle babies.

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Examining the eggs

The next day we are looking for the remaining turtles and the egg shells. We found fifteen more babies and two fetuses that unfortunately didn’t made it. The egg shells look and feel like deflated balloons. After the digging my arms and legs are covered with black sand and I have black wipes all over my face.

The hardest thing during the project was examining the ‘bad’ eggs. One of the last days Pablo, the other coordinator, and I did an examination. While I was digging in the nest we found at least another babies, alive. Some of them were crippled, had weirdly shaped shields or weren’t quite okay in another way. When the babies crawl to the sea I remember the statistics. After that we examine the rest of the eggs. I get a lump in my throat for every turtle that didn’t survived. You can see the closed eyes, the dead little bodies in your hand, while flies circling around them. We buried them  with the egg shells in a deep hole.

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Cleaning up the beach and the station of the project

It is unbelievable how much plastic there daily washing ashore. It really hurts to see all that junk on the beach. A slap in the face of Reality. Within five minutes we have four bags filled with garbage. If more people would see this every day, they would probably not be as careless handling their garbage. Because the next day the beach looks exactly the same.

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Looking for the mother turtles: patrol walk

Because the nesting season on Pacaure is almost over in November Magaly, the biologist, doubts if it’s worth it to do a patrol walk on the beach. The chance that we’ll see a mother turtle and can save some eggs is as small as a peanut. We start walking and after five minutes she suddenly freezes and she points to the giant track in the sand. If you’re clueless you would think that a small truck had risen from the sea and had driven on the beach. Some meters away from us there is the giant mother turtle; she has just started laying her eggs. We get ready to work and turn on the red lights of our lamps. Turtles can’t actually filter the color red, so they are not annoyed by the red light. Magaly rubs the shield and it starts to glow: bioluminescence. A magical moment.

Less than five minutes later there is a guy standing next to us. He looks really curious. Later Magaly tells me that he is a poacher, like many residents here. Whoever sees the turtle first, ‘gets’ the turtle. That’s the rule on the beach. It’s quite sad, because that means that we can’t do anything if we spot poachers stealing the eggs. But I can understand why there is this rule. These men are walking around with machetes and they know the beach really well. We wound this round. After half an hour the mother crawls back into the ocean, really tired. But her job is done.

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It’s really hard to take pictures without a flash or any light at night, so you guys just get another picture of one of the babies!

Mini Amazon: kayaking, hiking and watching many many animals

Pacaure beach is south of the National Park Tortuguero. In my eyes it looks a lot like the beautiful Amazon. It was great to explore nature in my spare time with the kayak or a small boat in the channels, looking for animals. Jesus Christ lizards, running at the water. Cranes that are looking for a tasty snack. Sloths that are hiding in the treetops. Caimans, the cute version of a crocodile. The master of camouflage, the iguana. Dolphins, that found their way from the sea to the river. Birds of all shapes and sizes, cheerful chirping.

Walking along the beach I see crabs, the size of two hands. Butterflies and grasshoppers in all colors of the rainbow. Tiny red frogs that are jumping enthusiastically between the rests of some old coconuts. When Génesis, a local girl, is running to the station I know what time it is. A group of spider monkeys hangs out often in her backyard. Howler monkeys wake me up in the morning as if their lives are depending on it. Every time I go into the shower there is a good chance that I’ll wake up a bat. Sounds like a paradise, right?

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Thanks a lot for reading this long article completely! What do you think of volunteering while traveling? And if you want to get in touch with the project: feel free to leave a comment, I’m happy to help!

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