Join this project as a conservation volunteer in Costa Rica and live in a tropical rainforest reserve on the Pacific coast, and take part in sea turtle volunteer research and monitoring, crocodile monitoring and research, mammal monitoring and river otter research, tree boa research, environmental education, butterfly garden projects and more. Spanish lessons on site also available.
You can join for 1 week up to 12 weeks and we have places available all throughout the year and we also offer 6 month internships too.
Individuals, groups, students doing research and families all welcome. ** Special offer on all bookings received until 15 March 2019 **
Cost for food (3 meals a day), lodging in private room in research centre, 24/7 internet access, materials & training start from £440.
Conservation volunteers work within a non-profit biological research and education centre, and all food, lodging, training and research will be provided within the reserve. Projects run all year round, except for the sea turtle programme, which runs from July to January only. Conservation volunteers will be able to take part in the projects below:
On the South Pacific beaches of Osa Costa Rica there are 4 potential species of sea turtles which can be seen nesting at different times of the year Lora (Lepidochelys olivacea), Green (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). They are all in danger of extinction. Playa Tortuga beach is an olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) nesting beach although it is possible that other species occasionally arrive.
The nesting period extends from July to December, with the peak of nesting in the months of September and October, during this period it is possible to observe an individual, every other night. Sometimes two or three. In the past two seasons we have successfully protected over 140 nests and released 5,000 plus hatchlings, each nest contains on average 100 eggs. A percentage of nests are moved to the nursery/hatchery where they are observed and protected 24/7. In the hatchery important data about the biology of the turtles nests' is gathered, such as the incubation period, nest temperature and how this influences the sex of the hatchlings, as well as observing environmental factors such as precipitation and physical environmental factors.
As part of our volunteering with sea turtles programme, you will have the opportunity to learn about the biology of sea turtles, especially the Pacific Olive Ridley or 'Lora' (Lepidochelys olivacea) which is the most common on Playa Tortuga. You will see adults, babies and eggs, and learn about its life cycle. By helping this project you will be part of a serious scientific research project, which provides important data for the conservation of sea turtles. Upon arrival, sea turtle volunteers will receive training about the research project in which they are participating, how to use the equipment, and what work they will do as well as proper behaviour in the field. The volunteer groups will always be working with experienced staff, who will be able to show volunteers proper scientific methods for working with sea turtles, hatchery work, handling nesting females, eggs and data collection.
Last season, volunteers helped to release 4,335 baby sea turtles back into the wild. Volunteers this year will have the target of helping to release even more safely back into the wild!
Within the Reserva, there are more than 11 species of mammals - the most common being raccoons, coatis, kinkajous, weasels, River Otters, Tayra and Monkeys. Capuchin Monkeys are easy to find into the Reserva forest, others such as Anteaters, Oposums, and Sloths are also common in the area but hard to observe. There is also evidence of an Ocelot (detected by trail cameras) in the Balso River. The trail cameras are an excellent tool to determinate the presence, abundance and the density of mammals in the area. The mammals are important for the forest dynamic balance, and by getting data on their behaviour (diet) and local movements offers information that can be used in reforestation plans for the coastal area to establish Biological Corridors.
The main objective of this study is collect real information about the Crocodilians at the Reserve area: their distribution, relationship with the environment and the human impact on the ecosystem. Do an initial profile of the population, in order to help the conservation and management of this species adding new information about its condition in the South Pacific of Costa Rica.
Methodology: Equipment, Flash lights, Kayaks, Leather gloves, measuring tape, GPS, Camera.
Because it is an initial incursion, the research shall consist, of nocturnal monitoring- two times per week walking or by Kayak (depending of the tide) and detection (with flashlights). Volunteers will count the number of animals and mark the location with GPS. Small size individuals (less than 1 metre) will be manually captured to determine the species, size, sex and condition.
The necessity for future generations to understand the importance of environmental conservation and natural resources management is essential. It is part of the Reserva's core mission to educate and actively involve the youth and community at large in these areas ,through conducting workshops and activities for children and their families from schools in the region.
All the running projects at the Reserva have been projected into environmental education programs, through lectures, guided tours, field trips and volunteering with schools such as Tortuga Elementary School, Puerto Nuevo Elementary School, Flor de Bahía Elementary School and Escuela Verde. We have also made site visits to several schools of the schools of Cortes district, Punta Mala, and San Isidro, where we have conducted participatory workshops and field trips.
The aim is to create environmental awareness and active stewardship among its visitors, and it is considered that the school community of the Grande de Térraba Circuit is of major importance with regard to this goal, as the children of Osa, are the future heirs of the natural resources that we are working to preserve today.
To this end, we have proposed an Environmental Education Program, which consists of a yearlong curriculum of modules based on the different conservation projects and natural resource management projects that Reserva is currently working on. As such, the school children of the Térraba Grande Circuit are vital participants in our efforts to create and ensure a healthy coastal environment managed by a population with a strong sense of the importance of long term eco-sustainable development and management of natural resources. You will have the opportunity to be part of the workshops, prepare materials, make crafts, conduct and work with children of the schools during the workshops, and participate in the maintenance of our Butterfly garden, data collection, care of pupae, feed and release butterflies, as well as the opportunity to help us care for the plants. If you have at least basic Spanish for this programme, that would be very helpful.
The objectives of the Butterfly Garden project is the investigation of native species of butterflies (Siproeta stelenes, Caligo memnon, Heraclides thoas, Dryas iulia) in the reserve and all aspects of their reproductive cycle and plant foods. Environmental education workshops will also take place, whereby members of the local community will visit the garden and volunteers will help to conduct education tours and classes. Volunteers can also help to develop work shops for local schools.
From 2018, volunteers can join the tree boa research study taking place at night time. These reptiles are an important part of the ecosystem, depending on the wetlands nearby. The aim of the research is to determinate the population size, local movements of the individuals and add more data to the biology of the species by getting morphometric data, to determine aspects such as the sex ratio in the population.
You can opt in for one to one or small group Spanish lessons whilst you join the project as a volunteer, if you come for 2 weeks or more. You will receive 6 hours of Spanish lessons over a 2 week period and the times will be spread out over the 2 weeks. The cost is £75 for 2 weeks. Spanish lessons can be booked alongside the volunteer programme as an add-on from July 2019 onwards. If you want additional private lessons each week, this is also possible, and can be arranged on a case by case basis.
You can join for 1 week up to 12 weeks on any of the dates below and we also offer 6 month internships:
15th February to 1st March 2019
1st to 15th March 2019
14th to 28th March 2019
30th March to 13th April 2019
13th to 19th April 2019 - fully booked
19th April to 3rd May 2019
22nd April to 6th May
6th to 20th May 2019
20th May to 3rd June 2019
22nd May to 6th June 2019
6th to 23rd June 2019 - fully booked
24th June to 8th July 2019
8th to 22nd July 2019
22nd July to 5th August 2019
5th to 19 August 2019
19th August to 2nd September 2019
2nd to 16th September 2019
16th to 30th September 2019
30th September to 14th October 2019
14th to 28th October 2019
28th October to 11th November 2019
11th to 25th November 2019
Please email us for any questions with regards to dates, durations etc. - as we are very flexible with start/end dates if you wanted to arrive outside of the above dates listed. Individuals, groups, researchers and families all welcome. Any questions, please email: Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com
The cost for 1 week is £440, 10 days is £545, 2 weeks cost is £687, 3 weeks is £932, 4 weeks is £1178, 5 weeks is £1381, 6 weeks is £1619, 7 weeks is £1856, 8 weeks is £2093, 9 weeks is £2330, 10 weeks is £2568, 11 weeks is £2805 and 12 weeks is £3042. We can also offer discounts for 6 month internships. Please email Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com for prices of other durations. This cost includes private, clean and spacious room, three meals a day (volunteers and staff cook together), 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.
** For all bookings received up to 15 March 2019, you can benefit from a 10% discount on the above price**
Optional extras can include: Spanish lessons, surf lessons and horseback riding which you can arrange to do in your free time outside of the Reserva if you wish in Uvita or Dominical. For Spanish lessons, we offer onsite lessons and you need to commit to at least 2 weeks. You will receive 6 hours of Spanish lessons over a 2 week period and the times will be spread out over the 2 weeks. The cost is £75 for 2 weeks. Spanish lessons can be booked alongside the volunteer programme as an add-on from July 2019 onwards. If you want additional private lessons each week, this is also possible, and can be arranged on a case by case basis.. There are also local shops and restaurants within walking distance.
Food & Accommodation
Conservation volunteers live at the research centre - the property itself is on 42 hectares of reserve which borders the Pacific ocean and the Terraba. The facilities currently hold 15 people in the main centre, in addition to a private residence used for conferences and training. Facilities are of high quality. Volunteers live in large, spacious and clean rooms, all have fans and new orthopaedic mattresses. You also get free internet usage, 1 free laundry wash per week, a purified water system, education and a small research library area is also available for volunteers. Volunteers and staff cook their meals together in the Reserva. All food will be provided.
Requirements and Free Time
All volunteers should be at least 18 yrs old age (however, we do accept under 18s if they are part of a family group). English is required and Spanish is very helpful, even if basic, but a small amount of Spanish would go a long way. A strong interest in conservation is required, as is good team work spirit and flexilibity. You should also be in good health and fit - you need to be able to work 2-3 nights per week (during turtle season) (rest the next day) and walk several kilometres on soft sand.
You will be allocated a free day every week, during which time you may decide to take surf lessons, photography lessons, go horseback riding, or explore one of many other local sights, or simply to use the day to rest. During the other six days of the week, it is expected that you will be fully engaged with the work schedule.
Turtle Season (July-December) is rainy season here in the Southern Zone. The weather changes very rapidly. Humidity is very high (they don't call it rainforest for nothing!). However, we do get plenty of sun, it is frequently sunny until mid afternoon with rains coming in the afternoons for a few hours. Rains are often heaviest in September – and so are the turtles! By November and December we start to dry out and enter into our 'summer' dry season. Daytime temperatures range from the upper-70’s when overcast to low-90’s.
How to get there?
Please email Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com for more specifics. 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. We can help to arrange your travel and accommodations in Costa Rica such as your hotel for the first and last night in San Jose, airport pick-up and drop off, and tickets (bus,air,or private shuttle) to and from the Reserva.
See above for mini-video of the project and some volunteer interviews
Playa Tortuga is located just 3.5 hours from San Jose, in Ojochal de Osa on the Southern Pacific Coast Of Costa Rica. The Reserva offers an ideal environment for reseachers and volunteers. It is located in the tropical rainforest and just outside of Marino Ballena National Park. This park is named after the humpback whales that migrate there from August – October and December – April. Three species of dolphins are also commmon visitors to the waters. Visitors can explore miles of deserted beaches, mangrove forests and coral reefs.
Below is an interactive map showing the location of the nature reserve:
The Smiths family, from the UK, volunteered as a family for 1 week in August 2018:
It was 0200 hrs, walking along the beach with only the light from the stars, that's when I knew we had definitely made the right choice in Volunteering at Playa Tortuga. We started as a family of 4, Dad, Mum, 2 kids, (13 and 6), as novices in volunteering, not sure what to expect or how useful we could be in just 7 days. By the end of the week we were spotting monkeys digging up turtle eggs, walking down rivers in the dark to find crocodiles and taking fin samples from hammerhead sharks.
Volunteering at Playa Tortuga was without doubt one of the most enjoyable parts of our Costa Rican adventure. The full time members of the team were very welcoming and under Oscar's guidance (Project Director), clearly enjoyed their work and valued the help of the volunteers.
The turtle walks during the night were at times quite draining lasting 3 / 5 hours, which at high tide became more demanding as you have to wade through a fast flowing river. This meant that our 6 year old son was not allowed to participate, but our 13 year old coped really well and declared these 'adventures' as her personal highlight. That said, our 6 year old certainly still enjoyed himself and got involved in other projects, working with Butterflies, bird watching, checking the turtle hatchery and beach cleaning duties.
If you are lucky enough, you will get to see a turtle laying her eggs on the beach. Once she has finished, under the guidance of one of the full time team you will dig up the nest and remove the eggs, taking them to the hatchery further up the beach. In the week that we were there, only 2 turtles were spotted. Luckily one of us was on patrol that night and managed to witness this first hand. An amazing experience with such a powerful animal, but this cannot be guaranteed.
You have to commit to working up to 6 hours per day, 5.5 days a week, but in reality the workload is lighter and we could enjoy large parts of the day as a family to explore the local area. There are some great waterfalls and beaches nearby, accessible with a 4 x 4 car, which we would certainly recommend if you are staying at the project. There is a local bar and supermarket across the road for essentials, you are not allowed to drink alcohol on the projects premises, but without a car your options are limited. We would recommend that if taking children, hire a 4x4 vehicle for your stay. It allows you to get to local beaches and attractions easily without having to rely on public transport which appeared somewhat ad hoc.
Food is provided for you, but only lunch, (Mon - Fri) is prepared for you. All other meals you have to cook yourself, but the larder is well stocked so you need not go hungry. There is a common room that all volunteers share with games and a table tennis table. Mixing with the different nationalities and wide range of people made our experience a great one. You work closely with all the other volunteers, there were 16 of us in total, and discussing life experiences and debating current issues was a particular highlight. 16 strangers all brought together with a common purpose made for an easy and entertaining mix.
Accomodation is basic and clean. We shared a family room which was cosy with 4 of us. It was also very hot, no air con. During the rainy or 'Green' season it was very humid with temperatures around 22 degrees at night. That said we all slept well, tired after either swimming in waterfalls or completing a 4 hour patrol of the beach. It was a good feeling to work in a project, which although small provides a wealth of different experiences. We would recommend this trip to single travellers or families with children.
Esther López volunteered for 2 weeks in August 2017:
It was a wonderful experience working with such a great group of people, I would repeat it without a doubt. My expectations were met. I encourage new volunteers to join this research group, if what they want is to learn and really collaborate with nature.
David Siouville joined with his partner Chris and their two children Fern and Sian for 1 week in August 2017:
It was a privilege to have spent albeit a short time with the Playa Tortuga project. The staff are clearly passionate in their work and are so devoted. It is the first time we have done any volunteering work and the project was an ideal choice for us.The community spirit was wonderful and the fact you are living so close to everyone at the project helps everyone to bond that much more quickly.
Whilst our youngest enjoyed her time there in hindsight, I don't think she was mature enough to get the most out of her time. On the other hand our eldest daughter (13) absolutely loved her experience and threw herself into each task she was permitted to be involved in with gusto.We were very proud of the way she engaged so openly with many of the other volunteers, even though they were much more senior than her. Chris' various aches and pains did cause her to struggle at times, which took the shine off of her time there to a degree; although we would stress that was not the project's fault.
I found the experience much more enjoyable than I had expected. The fact you are amongst the forest and the wildlife is on your door step make sthe experience that much more real. Whilst Chris' physical limitations may hinder her doing something like this again in future I can see myself and certainly Fern doing some more volunteering work in future. Fern was adamant she wanted to come back at some time.The accommodation was certainly cosy for four, but that was largely our choice, as both the girls chose to sleep in one room with us rather than have a separate room of their own. Yes, it was hot and humid, but that is what we expected.
Overall a fantastic experience which we would recommend to anyone who is prepared to muck in. You don't have to be super fit (we most certainly don't fit into that category), but you do need to be of a reasonable fitness to get the most out of your stay. Many thanks go to Oscar, Adrian, Gabby, Melissa and Brian and all the other staff.
Armida Madngisa volunteered at the project for 2 weeks in June 2017:
I had a great time at Playa Tortuga. All I can say is that most definitely future volunteers will gain so much knowledge and experience all at once. Not one moment felt the same and there isn't even time to feel bored or homesick. The people at the Playa Tortuga project take good care of every volunteer. It is also a great way to explore and know a new country, especially for first timers. This is the second time that I did volunteer work via Working Abroad, mainly because the communication is fast. I would definitely ask Working Abroad to help me for a third time when the time is right.
You can also read the blog on her time volunteering at the project here: www.nature-myview.com/blog/reserva-playa-tortuga-a-volunteers-view
Miriam Anderson joined as a volunteer on the project for 3 months from January-March 2017:
I had an amazing time! The people that work there and volunteers are such incredible people, and made my time there so much more fun.
Hanna Leach, from USA, describes her time volunteering at the project in March 2017:
My group and I had an amazing time volunteering at Reserva Playa Tortuga! Our journey down from the states went smoothly, and we arrived to a warm welcome. Over the course of the week we were able to help interns and the reserve with different research projects they were conducting by going on different treks. On these treks, we looked for different mammals to count and observe, and for snakes/caimans to catch. We were able to do some extra volunteer work like doing a beach clean up and clearing out a back room at the reserve. The reserve had us help with their butterfly garden and recycling project. We took labels off of plastic bottles, rinsed them, then sorted them. The reserve is currently building a greenhouse made entirely of these recycled bottles, which they had compiled from the surrounding community.
It was an amazing experience not only to volunteer, but also to learn about the environment and biodiversity in Ojachal. For example, we learned about the parasitic trees that grow off of other trees' nutrients. Also, the research my classmates and I got to help with was full of surprises, like wading through waist deep water while looking for snakes and tracking a group of monkeys through the rainforest. Clearing the beach was a great experience, and to our surprise we found many shoes! We filled two bags of recycling and one bag of trash in a few hours. I personally loved being able to help at Reserva Playa Tortuga and it helped me decide that I would like to pursue a career as a tropical biologist.
Some minor details to consider include informing volunteers that, although the rooms are non-smoking, there might be smokers at the reserve, and the windows are screened. Also, as stated on the website, you do need to be very fit to be a volunteer; the interns keep a fast pace on their treks. None of these things were major, we still had a wonderful experience, and would definitely recommend volunteering at Reserva Playa Tortuga.
A special thanks to Working Abroad for all of their help! Without you we would not have been able to have this amazing volunteering experience.
Fenja Squirrell describes her time at the project volunteering for 4 weeks from Nov-Dec 2016:
Wow, what a country! Costa Rica is by far the most beautiful country I have ever visited, filled with jungles, beaches and so much wildlife! I had a brilliant stay at the reserve where I learned so much about the various species of animals both in the jungle and on the beach. The staff were so knowledgeable and helpful in identifying the reptiles, amphibians and birds which I took pictures of. I most enjoyed spending my time trying to get a picture of the hummingbirds. They were excellent at teaching and explaining about the various field studies we did such as caiman crocodiles, olive ridley sea turtles and bird point counts.
The staff were all clearly passionate about conservation and protecting the wildlife in the reserve. We had some great finds during my stay including a sloth (not seen on the reserve for 2 years) and catching the biggest caiman caught on the reserve measuring 1m 63cm! It was truly unforgettable experience and I made so many lifelong friends from around the world!
Here is a review from a teacher who led a group of students from the Lewes Old Grammar School in the UK to the Playa Tortuga Project for 3 weeks in the summer 2016:
Myself and a colleague chaperoned twelve 16-17 year pupils to take part in the marine research programme at Playa Tortuga in Costa Rica. From a personal point of view and having experienced many different parts of the world, this experience was one of the best! We spent 3 weeks living and working in Playa Tortuga where pupils worked on three different projects; marine turtle project, mammal projects and the butterfly garden project.
A little about the projects - First of all the manager of the reserve, Oscar, was superb and planned an excellent schedule for the trip. Each day the pupils would take part in a different aspect of one of the research projects. The pupils were able to be extremely hands on helping researchers capture caimans and crocodiles, setting up motion cameras in jungles and even collecting turtle eggs!
About the reserve: the reserve was excellent and all members of staff were around and helpful throughout the whole stay which really eased the pressured placed on us as teachers. The pupils were able to enjoy the natural environment in which we were staying whilst remaining safe which is always a priority when taking pupils on abroad trips.
Whilst out in Costa Rica we also took part in activity day trips including; a mangrove boat trip, high wire zip lining, whale watching and a trip to Cano Island. All trips were AMAZING and could not be faulted. Vicky from Working abroad planned everything for us, from getting picked up to and from the reserve to choosing safe and reliable companies. I would strongly recommend doing any of these trips as they were a real highlight for myself and the pupils.
Overall I would 100% recommend Working Abroad as a company to run any working trip and I look forward to planning many more trips through the company in the future!
No writing to describe this trip would ever be enough to summarise what a truly amazing experience it was!
Michelle Fox, teacher at Lewes Old Grammar School, UK.
Eight Conservation students from Bridgwater college in Somerset spent 2 weeks at the Playa Tortuga project in February 2016:
It was a great trip and the reserve staff were very accommodating and helpful. They are very knowledgeable and approachable and we felt looked after at the reserve. We all learned a lot on the trip and it was really beneficial to see the fruits of the student’s labour in terms of footage from camera traps they had put out. It was good that the staff let the students work on a trial and error basis with the cameras as this allowed them to appreciate how they worked and it allowed them to alter them to be more effective.
The students enjoyed the caiman conservation aspect of the trip and especially liked measuring and weighing the animals and contributing to the data collection, and it was useful that the staff put this into context with talks about caiman and crocodile conservation.
Some of the students and myself did struggle with the heat and humidity, but fans were supplied in the rooms and the main common area had fans, which made the room cool. It was good that the staff at the reserve were aware that the heat and humidity did affect us (coming from a temperate environment) and they accommodated this by not staying out in the field for prolonged periods, and water was readily available.
The closing activity of going to a hotel and looking out onto the pacific and watching the sunset was a great touch and the students and myself really appreciated this at the end of the trip.
Overall, it was a great experience, and some of the students want to go back to the reserve to volunteer in the future.
Adam George - Lecturer
Robbie Meldrum volunteered in Costa Rica during August 2015, here are some of his highlights from the project:
The weeks I spent in Costa Rica over August 2015 were by far some of the most amazing, exciting and interesting weeks of my life. Before this trip I had never left Europe and had never travelled internationally by myself. Naturally I was very nervous, however I all the information I needed to reach the reserve was provided and it was very easy to plan my journey. All feelings of nervousness were instantly gone once I arrived at the reserve- this was because both staff and volunteers were extremely welcoming and friendly. Everyone was helpful and easy to get along with, I was lucky to have some great people volunteering there during my stay and I even still keep in contact with several of them.
Some of the highlights of my trip were; the incredible journey to the reserve which allowed me to take in some of the scenery, this ranged from seemly endless rainforest, rivers winding through valleys and the vast Pacific Ocean. It was nearly impossible to go a day without seeing some new wildlife and quickly I lost count of all the different species I saw. The animals that stood out were the brightly coloured tropical birds, countless types of colourful lizards and frogs that ranged in all sizes, a large caiman, I was also lucky enough to see 3 adult sloths and of course, an olive ridley sea turtle. Seeing an olive ridley sea turtle laying its eggs was one of the most breath-taking moments of my life which I will never forget. Another big highlight was after telling Oscar (one of the staff at the reserve) that my favourite animal was a red eyed tree frog, he went to the effort to find one so we could get a close look at it while we walking through the forest. On clear nights it was easy to see the Milky Way and an endless amount of stars. Swimming and learning to surf in the Pacific Ocean are also stand out moments. It would be easy to go on and on about all the incredible different experiences this trip allowed for me to have but I’m afraid the list may never end.
The country and people who live there really are amazing and I shall always treasure the memories I made there.
Sara McNeillis travelled with her 3 daughters, 12, 15 and 17 yrs old, to our Playa Tortuga Project in Costa Rica where they spent 2 weeks:
We were the second family to stay at the reserva. I went along with three daughters 17, 15 and 12.
Arriving at San Jose gave us an instant buzz, the hot and humid environment enticed us into wanting to start on the conservation projects immediately but we were jet lagged and in need of good sleep. The next morning, we gathered our luggage and made our way to the bus station. We eventually managed to buy our tickets and board the correct bus to Ojochal. The bus ride was very interesting and picturesque. As we came down the mountain, we felt the heat and humidity rising. The first site of the pacific coast was the most breathtaking view. It had been a very long time since I saw the pacific. After quite a long, scenic bus ride, we were dropped off near Ojochal. It appeared as if we were in the middle of nothing. Just a road leading to a dirt track. We quickly proceeded up the dirt track to find the most wonderful little place; Playa Tortuga Reserva.
The reserva staff were very welcoming and made us feel at home. We were shown to our rooms which were very comfortable. The area was in the middle of a rainforest near the Tortuga beach. One could already hear the multitude of screeches and tuneful noises emanating from the forest. It was like being in a simulated zoo enclosure, but with the air of authenticity.
We were given a few ground rules and allowed to settle until dinner to unpack. In the evening we met the researchers Oscar and Adrian who both took it in turn to give us instructions to meet them again the next day.
One could not sleep at all with the racket of crickets and other creatures demonstrating their presence. It was also hot and humid.
We spent the morning being shown the butterfly project by Melissa. The project looked at raising caterpillars and looking after butterflies. Two species currently were being observed. The area was hot and humid. The caterpillars were very cute with soft suction pads under their body. We took the caterpillars off the leaves and cleaned out the cages before putting the caterpillars back on the new leaves. Data was recorded during the process. We then went over to the butterfly house and inspected the food, which required changing. All the bowls were taken back to the main house and changed. Following this activity, we were shown the turtle project and told we would be doing night patrol to look for turtles.
We then walked over to the beach which we would be patrolling and looked at the area and sea. The way over to the beach was down a short path through the rain forest which was filled with a cacophany of noise. Monkeys were howling and chattering, whilst crickets provided the background hum. At the beach we had to cross over two small streams which led to the ocean these provided good entertainment. The beach itself was flat with brown sand, soft underfoot and filled with crabs. We were shown some turtles eggs in a nest in the hatchery.
Our first patrol was to start later that night and we were quite excited by the prospect of walking the beach. In the evening we had an early dinner and got ready for beach patrol. The short way to the beach was under tide therefore we had to walk an hour or so to the beach camp, through a swamp. Once we got to the beach camp, we changed our shoes for beach friendly and started the patrol. Three hours of walking up and down the beach looking for turtle tracks. Although we were quite excited about the prospect of seeing a turtle, we didn't. We enjoyed the walk nevertheless. We were taken back to the reserva. On one of our beach patrols, we eventually managed to see a turtle laying eggs, we watched as she finished laying eggs and cover the nest with her back flippers. She then slowly turned and made her way back to the beach, taking what appeared to be a long diagonal path back to the sea. She stopped along the way for a rest, which seemed to get longer and longer as she got closer to the sea. It was a wonderful experience seeing the turtle return to the ocean and swim away.
The reptile project involved catching and measuring caiman lizards in a swamp. This was a night patrol too as the caimans were easier to spot in the dark. The trail through the rain forest in the dark was exciting and spooky. During the journey we say green iguana with a stripy tail. We also saw a red eyed green tree frog. On our way to the swamp we were able to spot some poisonous bull frogs and some harmless little frogs. At the swamp we managed to track a few caimans, however they proved very difficult to catch. We left empty handed. It was nevertheless an enjoyable trip.
During our stay we also were fortunate to see a local celebration performed at the village school. It was very interesting to watch different cultural activities.
We used our free days to explore the surrounding area, there is a small town Uvita which had a host of shops and nice beach as well as Playa Ballena a local nature reserve with an interesting geological beach formation. There are many waterfalls in the area with water which is warm and clear enough to swim in. A ziplining tour was also available near Dominical which is also accessible via bus or car.
We cannot thank the reserva staff enough for an amazing programme of activities we had the pleasure to be involved in.
Alex Jardine Paterson and Henry de Klee from Eton College joined our Playa Tortuga Conservation Volunteer Project in 2015, here's what they had to say about their time in Costa Rica:
Our recent trip to Costa Rica has been one of the most eye opening experiences of my life so far. From the outset I was in love with the country, before we had even arrived at the Reserve. The people are extremely friendly, and they have an amazingly relaxed and soothing way of life. On our transfer down to the southern part of the Pacific Coast, to a town called Ojochal, we were able to take in some of the stunning countryside. The four hour journey took us through the rainforest, over 200 foot ravines and along the coastline; however it seemed to pass so quickly as there was constantly something to look out of the window at.
We aided the team at Reserve Playa Tortuga in a number of ways, from patrolling the beach in three hours shifts each night, to taking a device to the egg hatchery which was inserted into the nests to provide data for the scientists. The data collection was particularly important for the team because the sex of turtle hatchlings is dependant entirely on temperature - a temperature difference of 3 degrees is enough to change the sex of the resulting turtle. Along with the 3 scientists who work full time at the reserve: Oscar, Juan and Melissa, there are also around 4 ‘citizen scientists’, who are local full time volunteers. They help to keep the hatchery under a 24 hour watch, to prevent the eggs from being stolen by poachers. An egg can fetch between £1-2 and with up to 60 eggs in a nest, poaching is a huge threat to turtle populations. As volunteers, we also helped to keep the hatchery protected by spending the nights there a few times a week on a mattress in a mosquito net under the stars!
The Reserve has also been running a crocodilian monitoring survey for the past two years, which we took part in. The survey is conducted to provide baseline data on the Spectacled Caiman and the American Crocodile, as this has never been done for either of these species in this area of Costa Rica. Once a week, we went out to nearby streams, swamps and estuaries at night in order to look for the crocodilians. By wearing a head torch, the reflection from the eyes gave away where they were. The idea was to then capture the caimans, and determine their sex, measure their length, and tag them. (The caiman is a smaller animal than the crocodile, and safer to handle - for the crocodiles, a size estimate was taken by looking at the distance between the eyes, thereby judging the width of the head). However, unfortunately, the two nights that we helped out on it had rained in the late afternoon. This meant that the water was cloudy and so the caimans could evade being captured more easily; and so we didn't manage to catch one. On one occasion we came very close to one, with it swimming between Oscar’s legs, and coming within 5 feet of Henry and I. Even if none are caught, a size estimate was taken of the ones we saw, and also the locations in which we saw them were noted; which is the main objective of the monitoring.
Another area in which the Reserve helps the local community as well as the environment, is that they provide environmental education to children in nearby schools. Henry and I went to help out with the teaching there for a day. The children were extremely eager to learn and fascinated by what we were teaching them. After collecting a number of water-living insects from a river, we were teaching them how to identify these different species. The insects caught were also helpful to Melissa (the education coordinator of the reserve) who noted down the different species to obtain an estimate of the water quality, as a higher water quality is able to support greater species variety, with insects being a good indicator.
Even when we didn't go to one of the schools we could still help out with the education side of things by maintaining the butterfly garden located at the reserve. This required us to remove caterpillars from their cages, in order to change their water, clean their cages and provide them with different food. When a caterpillar had formed a cocoon, we dampened it with water to soften the silk attaching it to the leaf, so that we could move it to a separate cage. The emergent butterflies were then transferred to the main butterfly garden. This was where the children usually went to learn about the different butterflies of the jungle, however sometimes they came to learn about the work that went on ‘behind the scenes’ to learn about the life cycle of the different species.
Since it was still early in the turtle season we were extremely lucky to manage to see one, there had been a few that had laid eggs during the week, but on different patrol shifts to ours. This Olive Ridley turtle did what is known as a ‘False Birth’, which means that it came up the beach to lay eggs, but couldn't find a suitable spot, so returned to the sea. It would however come back in perhaps a few hours, or maybe the next day to try again. Although it didn't lay eggs, the team still needed to collect data from it, regarding its shell size and coordinates of where it emerged from the sea. Also, since it had already been tagged from a previous year, the tag numbers needed to be checked. Henry and I were asked to hold it up of the ground by holding its shell, so that they could read the tags easily. They are surprisingly strong! After this, we let it go back on its way down to the water again.It was an incredible trip, and an amazing experience. Our only regret was that we didn't stay for longer!
Matthew Silberman, from USA, spent 4 weeks at the project from March-April 2012:
I cannot say enough about my wonderful experience at Reserva Playa Tortuga. I spent approximately four weeks at the Reserve working on several projects including water testing and caiman research. The staff members, whom I now consider close friends, were very welcoming and enthusiastic about the projects.
Aside from the beautiful aesthetics of the Reserve area and the interesting, rewarding work, there were numerous (perhaps unexpected) pluses. The town has a rich culture and the locals were exceedingly friendly. In addition, the food at the Reserve was outstanding. Needless to say, my time at the Reserve was quite memorable and I hope to return one day.
Jon and Charlie Cummins, from USA, volunteered in Costa Rica in April 2012:
My son, Charlie (16), and I spent four days at this project in April 2012. The team was very engaging and clearly very passionate about their work, particularly the on-site biologist, Oscar. In a short time, we had the opportunity to work on several very interesting projects. Our work included assisting in the team’s ongoing testing of the local river for evidence of pollution, as well as their research projects regarding the local cayman and river otter populations.
We found our time at the Reserva to be well spent, interesting and relevant. We also enjoyed being “embedded” in the local village for several days; this really gave us a flavor for local living beyond what one would get staying in a hotel environment.
Harley Elliott, from Essex, UK volunteered on the Playa Tortuga programme for 5 weeks in September 2011:
I loved the experience, it was like nowhere I have even seen. The staff made me feel welcome and were pleased to see me, they also provided lots of advice on the volunteer activities.
I found the night walks tiring if you had to do them every night for a few nights – but I loved watching the turtle eggs hatch and carrying them out to see and watching them swim off it was worth it all for that.
I had a great time and learned so much. I would love to go back one day
Marina Coelho Monteiro, from Brazil, volunteered in October 2011:
I really loved all the staff, they were very welcoming, helpful, friendly, considerate, respectful. Summarizing, I can say that I made really good friends there! I really enjoyed all of the activities we did - reforestation, aquatic and beach bird watching, turtle patrol, butterfly garden project, night walking, etc.
The food was absolutely amazing, never ate so good. I would love to join the project again, and I hope I will. I had already indicated to all my friends!
Nelly, from Geneva, Switzerland, volunteered from September-October 2011:
My favourite activity was the sea Turtle programme, and my most memorable moment was the birth of the hatchlings and when they were released on the Beach. Unfortunately I only stayed for 2 weeks, and wish I could have joined for longer.
Good luck With the continuation of the project!
Tracy Weatherall from Texas, USA, joined for 12 weeks from September to December 2011:
Thank you so much for all of the field experience I received while working and volunteering at the project. I hope I helped make a positive contribution to the various science projects. Obviously, working with Oscar and his sea turtle research was the highlight of my experience since sea turtle research and fisheries is the main focus of my studies. I learned valuable information concerning the hatchery and the process of maintaining a VERY successful hatchery with an extremely high hatch rate. The entire sea turtle project is very impressive and well organized. I have so much respect for Oscar as a biologist. It’s clear that he has invested his heart and soul into his project.
I also enjoyed working with Elena and the butterfly project. The butterfly garden is beautiful and the system for maintaining and monitoring butterflies from egg to adult is very organized. I also feel Elena is a wonderful educator for the local children on conservation and the butterfly lifecycle. Her presentation was very professional and well received.
Aitor is an excellent and very talented cook (chef) and I really appreciate the fact that he took great care of me and made me feel at home. I think I gained at least 5 pounds from his great cooking! Alana also welcomed me from the beginning and was always caring and kind to me. They both work very hard and are very happy working at the Reserva. I love both of them.
I am also very excited about the upcoming fisheries project. I know you will make a huge impact on bringing awareness to the public concerning the importance of sustainable fisheries along the southern Pacific Costa Rican coasts. Also, measuring species diversity and monitoring quantity decrease and/or increase of fish species will be a major factor to illustrate to the community the need for fisheries management and ultimately to demonstrate the success of your efforts by an increase in fish diversity and numbers. It will be a long and hard journey, but in the end, the fishermen, local businesses, restaurants and the fisheries itself will benefit from all of your efforts.
Again, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to volunteer at your Reserva. Working and helping with all of your various science projects has given me valuable field experience in many different research topics. I was extremely sad to come back to Texas because I felt like I was leaving home.
If you are interested in conservation volunteering in Costa Rica and would like to volunteer with sea turtles or other species, 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 etc. Upon arrival at the project, all volunteers are asked to sign a waiver/release of liability form.