Rossanna Daumas gives an account of her time as a Pacific sea turtle conservation volunteer in Costa Rica

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Posted by WorkingAbroad Projects on Monday, 29th September 2014

Baby sea turtles released in Costa RicaSaludos de Costa Rica!

I am stationed in Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, in its southern coast of the Pacific, working at a Sea Turtle project that helps conserve and sustain the recuperation of the Olive Ridley sea turtles that nests here. The project also promotes awareness of the positive impact of turtle conservation to the local community. Prior to the project it was estimated that 85% of the nests were lost to poaching, but now part of the project’s success is that it hires former poachers as turtle conservationist, housing volunteers and developing ecotourism in the region, all create an economic alternative to consumption (of the eggs).

Did you know? 300 million years ago, turtles were giant lizards, a tasty treat to the dinosaurs. However, due of lack of fossil evidence, scholars have to speculate on their evolution. One theory is that 210 million years ago, an embryological model involving movement of the ribs into the dermal layer lead to the evolution of the turtle shell; one of the oldest and most mysterious creatures still with us today.

July to October is the rainy season (it rains every day, but still always welcomed), and the highest number of marine turtle arrivals to the sandy beaches to lay their eggs. It can take up to 25 years before a sea turtle is ready to mate and reproduce, so between a slow maturation and a high death rate, it is possible that these endangered creatures will become extinct.

Aside from natural causes and wildlife predators, threats include poachers digging up their eggs and/or killing the adults for their meat, turtles getting caught in fishing nets, pregnant females drowning in commercial shrimp nets when swimming through shallow waters to nest, ocean contamination, beachfront development and human-made light sources disrupting nesting patterns and scaring off females and hatchlings. Marine turtles face another disruption within the egg itself. Since the sex of baby turtles is determined by temperature, rising climate due to global warming is interrupting the proportions of males to females among sea turtles.

Lagoon on Pacific coast of Costa RicaA daily activity for paid staff and volunteers (like me) is night patrol, walking a stretch of 4 kilometer (twice) in the dark, then when a turtle is spotted, red lights are used to avoid disturbing her as she lays her eggs; data collection, turtles are tagged to identify migration patterns, turtle’s size and condition recorded, number of eggs, arrival relation of moon and tides, etc. On my first night I was able to join the night patrol, was lucky to see three females at different times, and I was allowed to remove 102 eggs from one nest. Working next to a giant, wet, salty turtle who just left the deep ocean is an amazing experience. The eggs are immediately taken to the hatchery for safe-keeping until they hatch. This intervention is considered an emergency measure due to their threatened population’s survival, and would cease once the threat has been eliminated.

In the mornings and afternoons we each have 6-hour shifts to watch the hatchery for hatchlings and to encourage poachers to stay away. (Poachers are not dangerous people here). Before daybreak (4am) I walk two kilometers and arrive to a beautiful lagoon which I have to cross by rowing a canoe to reach the beach to the hatchery. The lagoon and the different shades of green vegetation that surrounds it is breathtaking. I often stop rowing, sit in silence in the canoe on the still water and watch (with binoculars) the birds flying overhead, from ibis, blue heron, macaw (papagayo), hawks, and many more of various colors and sizes. The “howler” monkey and the white-face capuchins are sometimes seen as well moving on branches behind the leaves of trees.

There’s plenty of “down time” in the main camp, reading on a hammock, listening to music and checking the web (when available!). Visiting homes where women do so much with very little, everything is reused, hardly anything thrown away for possible use later. Fisher people tell stories and show pictures of turtles found floating with injury from fishing hooks (removed and released!). They tell me of people fishing illegally (and overfishing) but that the government provides naval patrols with quick response to apprehend anyone violating fishing regulations, which were passed to ensure sustainable fish production.

Volunteers head onto the water at our Pacific sea turtle projectOnce, on my day off, I went on a 5-kilometer boat ride out to a protected island coral reef, and while snorkeling I saw swimming below me my favorite of all 7 turtle species, the prettiest and smallest, the Hawksbill. Seemed at the time that I died and went to heaven! On the ride back to land, we spotted two female humpbacks and a juvenile. This coastal region is a favorite for whales to give birth, accompanied by a midwife to assist, they later head north to feed in the Arctic.

Being only 30 kilometers from the country’s most biodiversified region, one weekend we visited Corcovado National Park known for the home of the largest concentration of jaguars, the biggest population of scarlet macaw, and over 116 species of amphibians and reptiles and 370 bird species. This experience is best described in the book Tales of a Female Nomad: “Walking in the rainforest is like stepping into another dimension of life on earth, the muted color of the light, filtered by a canopy of leaves, the heaviness of the air hovering over the damp ground, the sounds of insects and primates and birds filling the forest with their music, and the overwhelming knowledge that all around me were hidden eyes peering down or across or up at me.

Please click here for more information on the Pacific Sea Turtle Programme in Costa Rica.

Author: WorkingAbroad Projects

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