Volunteer to Research and Protect Sea Turtle Populations on the Pristine Beaches of Costa Rica

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Volunteer in Costa Rica and become a sea turtle volunteer, helping to conserve and protect the populations of vulnerable Olive Ridleys. The project takes place in the spectacular Pacific coast of the Nicoya Province on the beach where Olive Ridley turtles come up in thousands at a time for this phenomenon of nature called "arribadas".

You can join for 1 week up to 12 weeks and we have places available all throughout the year.

Individuals, groups, students doing research and families all welcome.

Cost for food (3 meals a day), lodging in family homestay, internet access, programme materials and training start from £465 upwards.

Olive ridley turtles during arribadas Volunteers may also see black sea turtle hatchlings Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings can also occasionally be seen Hatchlings always go towards the light, so they are released as the sun is going down Female olive ridleys making their way back to the sea The sun set and all the hatchlings had made their way to the ocean Ostional beach Olive ridley hatchlings Research station area where volunteers can use their computers and chill out Entrance to the research station A day time nesting leatherback female Volunteers getting ready to release baby turtles Volunteers rescuing olive ridley turtles Two black babies hatched from one egg An olive ridley nesting on the beach Volunteer beach cleaning Hatchling returning to the ocean about to get taken by the big waves on Ostional beach Close up to an olive ridley Two more hatchlings going back to the ocean Olive ridley sea turtles on Ostional beach

The Project

Become a sea turtle conservation volunteer and help conserve the populations of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles in Costa Rica.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, Ostional Beach & the "Arribadas"

Conservation volunteers will get to witness 'Las Arribadas' in Costa Rica

This project is located at Ostional beach, within the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR) in the Guanacaste Province. It is an important nesting beach for three of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, and has been active in sea turtle conservation for the past 40 years.

The project directly works with the Olive Ridley turtles nesting in Ostional, and our volunteers will often be lucky enough to witness first hand the rarely-seen biological spectacle of the arribadas – one of nature’s true wonders. Thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles leave the sea simultaneously, bumping into and crawling over each other as they ascend the beach in their endeavour to lay their eggs. At first a few hundred turtles arrive, followed by a steady stream of females for the next three to seven days (usually during the last quarter of the moon before New Moon). The Olive Ridley sea turtles (and its Atlantic cousin, Kemp’s Ridley turtle) are the only species to stage arribadas which are known to occur at only nine beaches worldwide: in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Surinam, Orissa in India and Costa Rica. Of these locations, Ostional beach is considered the second most important.  

Olive Ridleys during arribadasGiven the large amount of Olive Ridley Sea Turtle eggs laid in the arribadas, their harvest for human consumption has become an important source of income to the Ostional community. Members of particular groups are legally allowed to collect and sell a percentage of these eggs laid within the first 36 hours of each arribada. Early harvest of eggs has no impact on population, as many initial nests are dug up and destroyed by later nesting turtles. Hatching success in Ostional is usually below 15%, which is very low when compared with almost 90% for Olive Ridley eggs at solitary nesting beaches. Although the cause of low hatchling success is not fully clear yet, it may result from the large number of eggs destroyed in an arribada, high temperatures and bacteria and fungus contamination.

The purpose of the Ostional Olive Ridley Turtle Conservation Project is to determine and understand, using robust and consistent statistical methods for data analysis: nesting ecology, population numbers, hatching success, hatchling production, mortality of hatchlings and sex ratio results at both solitary and mass nesting events. Understanding the population fluctuations is crucial to design effective conservation and management strategies for a successful sea turtle conservation program.

Sea turtle volunteers working on the beaches of Costa Rica

Marine Conservation Volunteer Opportunities

As an Olive Ridley sea turtle volunteer, you will assist with:

  • Measuring the carapace (shell) length and width of nesting adult turtles
  • Helping with data collection for master books (record time, zone, activity, etc. of the turtles)
  • Supporting researchers with tagging and general checking
  • Nest exhumations
  • Beach cleanups  (to remove debris that would impede the movement of nesting females or hatchlings)
  • Sports and cultural activities

A Typical Night Patrol Survey

Nightly patrols are run in two five hour shifts; from 8pm to midnight and midnight to 4am. Volunteers are led by an experienced patrol leader and walk a sector of the beach searching for nesting females. Once a turtle is encountered, volunteers will carefully assist in the collection of data such as; carapace length and width, nest location and dimensions (depth and width) and the number of eggs in the clutch. The eggs will be collected for relocation and the turtle checked for identification tags. If a turtle is found without tags they will be applied and a small tissue sample taken from the rear flipper for DNA analysis. Tagging and tissue samples will be performed by the patrol leader.


Leatherback and Pacific Green Turtles

A baby sea turtle going into the ocean

Ostional is also home to a small number of leatherback and pacific green turtles. The leatherback sea turtle is in critical danger of extinction, having experienced a loss of 80% of the total world population in the last 10 years. Populations on the main nesting beaches of the Pacific have declined in some cases by 90%. It is estimated that by the year 2016 the Pacific Ocean leatherback may disappear completely if no action is taken.

The Pacific green sea turtle (also known as the black turtle) is currently classified as endangered. Years of nest stealing and an excessive mortality rate of adults and juveniles caused by fisheries and pollution can be considered the main causes for these turtles’ decline.  For the last ten years research has been targeted at the long term monitoring of nesting females and their nests, to enable the formulation of management strategies that can be put into practice at this beach. However at present volunteers are not required to research these populations. 

Other Flora and Fauna

The Costa Rican beach, where marine volunteers will work

Besides the three species of turtles, animals that are typically seen in the surrounding area include; howler monkeys, white-nosed coatis, kinkajous, basilisks, bats and a variety of lizards. The mangrove swamp at the mouth of the Nosara River contains crocodiles and is an important nesting site for over 190 bird species. Along the beach are thousands of almost-transparent ghost crabs, bright red sally lightfoot crabs, and many tide pools abound in marine life such as sea anemones, sea urchins, starfish, and shellfish. The vegetation is typical of sandy beach environments and includes coconut trees, royal palms and mangroves. Behind the beach, there are deciduous trees such as frangipani, and stands of cacti.

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Dates & Costs

16th December to 31st December 2016

1st January to 15th January 2017
16th January to 31st January 2017
1st February to 15th February 2017
16th February to 28th February 2017
1st March to 15th March 2017 
16th March to 31st March 2017
1st April to 15th April 2017
16th April to 30th April 2017
1st May to 15th May 2017
16th May to 31st May 2017
1st June to 15th June 2017
16th June to 30th June 2017
1st July to 15th July 2017
16th July to 31st July 2017
1st August to 15th August 2017
16th August to 31st August 2017
1st September to 15th September 2017
16th September to 30th September 2017
1st October to 15th October 2017
16th October to 31st October 2017
1st November to 15th November 2017
16th November to 30th November 2017
1st December to 15th December 2017
16th December to 31st December 2017

Olive Ridley Nesting You can join for 1 week up to 12 weeks on any of the dates above. We are however flexible with start and end dates and can also accommodate stays of less than 2 weeks. Please email victoria.mcneil@workingabroad.com for any questions.  Families & groups are also welcome.
 

Costs
The cost for 1 week is £465, 2 weeks is £655, 3 weeks is £845, 4 weeks is £1035, 5 weeks is £1225 and 6 weeks is £1415.  This cost includes private (or shared with another volunteer), clean and simple room in homestay, three meals a day, non-alcoholic beverages and snacks, equipment (for patrols), guide during the volunteering, back up and support. Airfare and transportation to the project, lodging in San Jose, travel/medical insurance and personal expenses are not included in the cost. It is mandatory for you to take out travel and medical insurance for the duration of the project.

Food, Lodging, Travel

Accommodation and Food
Volunteers with their homestay familiesSea turtle conservation volunteers stay in the homes of local families during their time on the project. Your accommodation is within the community of Ostional, which is located right in front of the nesting beach. Typical homes in the community are small and basic (but comfortable), normally consisting of two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and bathroom. Ostional village has a total population of between 400-500 people, with 110 families. The community has a preschool, an elementary school and a distance learning high school. There are small stores where you can purchase food and drinks, and there are pay phones in town that work with pre-paid phone cards.

Please note that the local families speak little or no English, so a Spanish dictionary and a little practice will be very helpful. Every effort you make to communicate with locals in Spanish will be greatly appreciated by your hosts. Costa Rican people are incredibly warm, friendly and generous. Your host family will prepare the food. Please let us know ahead of time if you have special dietary needs.

You will also be able to spend time at the Research station where you have Internet WIFI access (if you bring your own computer) and other facilities where volunteers can hang out. (see above right). 

Volunteers helping to clean up the coastal areas for the sea turtles in Costa Rica

Volunteer Requirements

Sea turtle volunteers should be aged 18+, have an interest in biology, conservation or a related field, and be fluent in either English or Spanish.  All volunteers will also need to produce a police/background check & medical letter before joining the programme (as required by the Costa Rican Ministry for the Environment for volunteers working in national parks and protected areas).

You should have a positive attitude and willingness to communicate with the local community. Volunteers also need to be physically fit, and able to withstand a hot, humid climate, and sleep deprivation. Volunteers will have to walk long distances (up to 12kms per night) on soft sand. Patrols take place regardless of weather conditions and there will be nights when no nesting turtles are encountered (especially early and late in the season). There may be times when volunteers are required to work during the day as well as night.

Sea turtle volunteers do not need any prior experience as full training will be provided upon arrival to the project site. We appreciate people who use their initiative, are problem solvers, look to be useful in their spare time, and are interested in getting to know the community, understanding what community life is like, and what the community is trying to achieve without compromising their values. 

Marine volunteers together on the beach of Costa Rica

While sea turtle volunteering of this nature can at times be challenging, it is also a brilliant opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and contribute to the conservation of one of the worlds most endangered species. Working with the sea turtles is a truly unforgettable experience and this project really needs help from volunteers.

How to get there?

International flights to San José from Europe are usually either with American Airlines via Miami or with Iberia via Spain. Please remember not to look for San Jose in California, it is San José International Airport (Juan Santamaria) - code SJO.  Upon arriving in Costa Rica we recommend you stay in Alajuela at Margarita's Guest House (close to the airport) for one or two nights, allowing you time to visit the bank and make any last minute purchases (international phone cards etc) before going to the project site. There are two access routes to Ostional; via Santa Cruz or Nosara (both approximately seven hours by bus from San José). Most volunteers choose to take the Santa Cruz route. We can provide detailed information on how to get to the project site and on Margarita's Guest House.

Interactive Map & Video

Previous research into leatherback and black turtle populations focused on long term monitoring of nesting females and their nests. Research at Ostional is now focused on populations of vulnerable olive ridley turtles. Click below to see a mini film about this project:

Below is an interactive map showing key locations for the project:

Location - Guanacaste Province

The Guanacaste Province is located in the NW of Costa Rica and its Pacific coastline is made up of countless stretches of beautiful sun-swatched beaches, divided by rocky bluffs and mangrove-lined river estuaries. Some of Costa Rica's main surf spots are found here too.

Sea Turtle Volunteer Testimonials

Costa Rica Sea Turtle VolunteerPrevious volunteer Timothy Chung from the USA describes his experience on the project:

We have now returned home to New York and wanted to send you a note to say thank you for giving us this opportunity to participate in the volunteer programme and helping to organize logistics for our stay.

What an amazing journey the past few weeks have been working closely with research assistants and volunteers who share a common passion for conserving the environment and protecting the populations of Olive Ridley sea turtles. We were incredibly lucky to have arrived in time to witness an arribada! It was truly an unforgettable experience working alongside these beautiful sea turtles to obtain all the biomimetic data needed to further understand their nesting behaviors.

Volunteers on the beach in Ostional, Costa RicaThroughout our time volunteering, we were assigned a diverse variety of tasks which enabled us to learn a lot of the aspects involved in conservation; night patrol, beach cleanup, nest excavations, database management, patrol backpack preparation, morning beach census, etc. Also, our host family was so generous to us. We enjoyed the opportunity to practice our Spanish, taste homecooked traditional Costa Rican cuisine,and gain a deeper understanding as to how the locals keep sustainability as a top priority. We hope to instill the same efforts where we live. New York City is an urban environment that is in serious need of conservation management. 

Overall, words cannot describe how touched we are from this trip. It was eye opening and we are appreciative for this experience. Two weeks went by way too fast and we hope to return to Costa Rica again soon smile

 

Volunteer Danette with a baby turtle

Danette Mohr, from California, USA writes about her experience at this project:

Volunteer Danette with an Olive Ridley

My name is Danette and I just returned from my Olive Ridley sea turtle WorkingAbroad project in Playa Ostional, Costa Rica! I loved it!!! I volunteered to work every night (you don't have to) just to see everything I could possibly see! It was like living in a sea turtle documentary! I saw, and assisted with, nesting, clutch-laying, measuring, tagging, we saw 8 babies emerge from their nest and make the journey to the ocean, nest excavation (gross, but very interesting), beach clean up, "turtle talk" lectures, day trips to nearby beaches, and a snorkeling trip with the turtles! The beach is awesome and walking it every night was beautiful, especially with a full moon! The staff at the station, and my fellow volunteers, were all wonderful! I did a home stay to be able to learn more Spanish. My host family was great and I was able to learn a lot! I spent most of my days, between meals, at the station with the other volunteers, and made some great friends! I was there for two weeks, but there were some volunteers there for months! On my last morning, I got to witness the beginning of an arribada and see the turtles during the day! What an awesome cap to a great stay! If you love sea turtles, you will love this project!

 


Tom Heather from New Zealand spend time in March 2014 and said:

"My time here in Ostional is sadly coming to a close. I would like say a massive thanks to Baulas Ostional and the team for making my experience here an amazing one! You guys have the drive and passion rarely seen by most and it was an honour to work alongside such a just cause. To my new friends and volunteers. You guys rock!!! Each and everyone of you can hold your heads up high for getting involved and being truly honest down to earth people. And my host Dona Cristo. I was treated like a king and more. Much love goes out to you and your family. Many memories will be held close to my heart which I am very grateful to have. Till next time Ostional. Pura Vida!!!!

Alexandra Wieckowski from Canada, was a volunteer with sea turtles  in January 2013


Volunteers caring for baby sea turtles in Costa RicaOstional was perfect, I loved everything about this little village. The beach and surrounding area were incredibly beautiful and it's so nice that it's basically untouched, there aren't many tourists, the locals have a great respect for their village and of course there's an abundance of wildlife (turtles, crocodiles, monkey, iguanas, birds, fish, etc, etc). It was paradise to be able to walk the beach everyday and not really have to worry about safety or your belongings. The locals seemed to know who we were and would watch out for us. It was a bonus that we could swim at the beach safely (even though there are currents and riptides, the surfers showed us where we could swim). I hope that Ostional stays a hidden gem!! The Community was very welcoming, both men and women, everyone said hello while passing on the street, in the local market or on the beach and many would try to strike up conversation which was really nice. I was only there two weeks but there were a few people who s

topped by my homestay everyday and we practiced English and Spanish (They were relatives or good friends of Flor and Louis, my homestay family), as well as locals who would come to the Patrol Station and practice language with us. The community seemed happy to have us there especially when they learned we were volunteering. There was an Arribada while we were there and the local community pulled together to collect the eggs, it was pretty amazing to see and they didn't have any problem with us taking photos or asking questions to learn about the process.

Flor and Louis (and their boys) were excellent hosts. I had my own room outside of the house with a fan and a little fridge and it was perfect. The house was lovely and clean. Flor cooked, cleaned and did my laundry (she wouldn't let me help!). This house is very busy, they are on the main road and there's always lots of young people hanging out there with the boys which I thought was great because they would teach me about surfing, we would practice Spanish and there was always something to do! It was a bit noisey but when I was trying to sleep for my shifts they would respect that. Flor made excellent meals, it was a bit of an adjustment to get used to the rice and beans that came with every meal (I wouldn't normally eat that three times a day), but that's their diet and I understand that so just went with it. The only thing I would have changed about the food was that I would have liked to have been able to pick/serve my own portions. Flor served me my meals (just as she serves meals to her family) and she always served me far too much food! I tried telling her that the portions were too big but they always came out the same size. I didn't want to be rude or waste food so I would just eat it all (maybe that was my mistake?). This made it hard to do my shifts at night because I was so full, hehe. The last week I found a solution to this issue, I would only eat breakfast and one other meal a day, around 3 or 4pm (and that was honestly enough for me!) because the portions were so big!! So it worked out. Flor and I struggled a bit at first with communication because I only speak Basic Spanish and she doesn't speak English but by the end of the first week we had our basic phrases down and she even said she could finally understand me! I would definitely recommend having volunteers stay with them, it was a wonderful experience they treated me like part of the family and that was part of what made this experience so wonderful. I wouldn't mind at all if you told them that either.

The project went beyond my expectations. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect going in but came out with so much knowledge and having had one of the best experiences. I felt the project was extremely well run and really focused on conservation, they have done all of their research ahead of time and know what works and what doesn't. The training with Yeudi and Ryan was great (we loved building the sand turtle), Wagner was there during our first few days which was nice, he gave us all kinds of information about the project and about turtles. Our patrol and hatchery schedules were always posted in advance and all excavations and beach slope measurement was done with the Research Assistants, we were never sent out to do anything on our own and they always encouraged us to get involved and help out. The Research Assistants were amazing! They never complained about anything, they just got right in there and did what needed to be done (patrols, excavations, nesting, beach slope measurement in the blazing hot sun, etc), they were always motivated, all of them. The local Research Assistants Yeudi, Jairo and MacDonald were fantastic, they taught us so much about life in Ostional, turtles and Spanish, they made every day and every patrol fun while always remaining professional. I think it's fantastic that they are all practicing their English and really encouraged us to speak in Spanish, we would practice languages during our patrols which helped to break up the time. It was much harder to patrol than I thought it would be because of the high and low tides, the huge driftwood scattered across the beach, the beach slope and how dark it gets at night (never mind the millions of turtles on the beach during the Arribada!) I was exhausted by the end of my first week and desperately needed a day off (which we got). After our day and a half off I felt fully recharged to patrol. Yeudi is doing an amazing job as the Coordinator, especially for someone so young. Anything that was needed, anything at all (even on his day off) and he was there. I thought it was a very rewarding experience so much so that I'd love to volunteer again next year.

A sea turtle on the beaches of Costa RicaInger Lise Gjerdebakken from Norway, joined the project in January 2013

Both Marit and myself truly loved our two weeks in Ostional.

The village and it's people were really nice, friendly and welcoming. It felt safe there, even when walking back and forth to the station alone in the middle of the night.

Our homestay was fantastic, we truly enjoyed staying there. Couldn't have hoped for a better homestay. Very sweet, and kind family who made us feel welcome. And we really loved the food Marilyn prepared for us. It was really nice that we both could stay in the same homestay, as my friend was more fluent in Spanish than me.

The project was a great experience. Both staff and volunteers were really nice and had a lot of knowledge they shared with us. During our two week stay we learnt a lot about the three kinds of turtles that come to Ostional beach. We got to see all kinds - Leatherbacks, Blacks an Olive Ridleys, and help out on patrols, do hatchery shifts, excavations and measuring beach slope.Truly special.

Experience and work within rich biodiversity hotspots of Costa RicaMarta and Wagner picked us up when going to Ostional, so that worked very well. And we were three volunteers who took a taxi to Samara when leaving. Our homestay helped us with that. I only have positive things to say about our stay in Ostional, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Our last week of travelling in Costa Rica was nice too, but nothing like the two weeks in Ostional.

People in Ostional live life at a slower pace than what we are used to, and less materialistic. Happiness is for sure not defined by the amount of things we own, yet our stay there made me more grateful for all the opportunities I have had in life so far when it comes to education, career, travelling etc..

Thank you for your help with arranging our stay in Ostional! I will truly recommend Working abroad to friends!

Alex Liang from California, USA spent some time on the project in December 2012

I had a great time at Ostional, the work was rewarding, a great cultural experience and lots of great memories!

The village/community was great. People were warm and nice. During my stay there was a rodeo/festival going on, so it was awesome to experience some new culture.

I definitely loved my host; she was a great cook (the food/drink were amazing), and even though she speaks very little English, she was very warm and helpful. The homestay experience was great.

Thanks for such an awesome memory!

 

Olive Ridley coming out of the oceanHow to Join

If you are interested in volunteering in Costa Rica as a sea turtle conservation volunteer, you will need to fill out the online application form – to secure a placement on the project, please complete and submit the form with your application payment of £195. If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we will reimburse this payment fully. However for those who are accepted, you will be required to pay the final balance 1 month before arrival. Once we have confirmed your place, you will receive an information package on the programme background and scientific objectives, your role as a volunteer, the work you will do, suggested items to bring, how to travel there and information you need to provide, such as background/police check, medical letter etc. Upon arrival at the project, all volunteers are asked to sign a waiver/release of liability form.

 

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