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 2 weeks up to 12 weeks and we have places available all throughout the year.
Individuals, groups, students doing research all welcome.
Cost for food (3 meals a day), lodging in a family homestay, internet access, programme materials and training start from £465 upwards.
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"
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.
Given 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.
As an Olive Ridley sea turtle volunteer, you will assist with:
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.
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 2021 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.
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.
12th to 26th February 2018
26th February to 12th March 2018
12th to 26th March 2018
26th March to 9th April 2018
9th to 23rd April 2018
23rd April to 7th May 2018
7th to 21st May 2018
21st May to 4th June 2018
4th to 18th June 2018
18th June to 2nd July 2018
2nd to 16th July 2018
16th to 30th July 2018
30th July to 13th August 2018
13th to 27th August 2018
27th August to 10th September 2018
10th to 24th September 2018
24th September to 8th October 2018
8th to 22nd October 2018
22nd October to 5th November 2018
You can join for 2 weeks up to 12 weeks on any of the dates above, starting on a Monday (There is flexibility to join for 10 days minimum and start Tuesday and Wednesday too). Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions about dates. Groups are also welcome.
The cost for 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 a homestay, three meals a day, non-alcoholic beverages and snacks, equipment (for patrols), guide during the volunteering, backup 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.
Accommodation and Food
Sea 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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
Junyu Lu, a Chinese student, joined the project for 2 weeks with three friends Yucheng Zheng, Qinchuan Wang and Han Lin from December to January 2018:
I am really appreciated for your help and Marta's help. We all had a wonderful time in Costa Rica. Even when we just stayed for about 12 days, we have built a strong relationship to this village and this project. It will always be the treasure of my whole life, and this experience will forever be memorized. We all wish this Sea Turtle Conservation project will have continuous success.
Lynn Bryan joined the project with her husband Stephen and 10 year old daughter for 1 week in July 2017:
We loved our time with the turtles thank you. Our daughter cried half way back to San Jose when we left. We would particularly like to thank our host family for looking after us so well. The experience was truly amazing. Our daughter Scarlet wanted to do all the activities that the other volunteers were doing, so we did beach cleaning, egg density checks and beach patrols each night for hours. She counted eggs, as they were laid by the turtles and became rather good at finding tracks too. We had a super bonus of releasing some baby leatherbacks whilst we were there too. All in all it was a fantastic experience and we are grateful for the memories we have taken home. A very small point for other families taking children is it might be worth telling them in advance to bring some children's gardening gloves for the beach cleaning as the gloves available were all massive for Scarlet. Thank you again.
Cristina Bree, from the UK, joined as a volunteer for 1 week in June 2017:
Thank-you for this wonderful experience. I’m not only proud but honoured to have worked with the endangered turtle species of Latin America. This was the trip of a lifetime, as I was brought closer to others from other countries. I was equally brought closer to the breathtaking nature of Costa Rica. A journey I would only dream of being able to relive.
Tamsin Wigley and Paul Clarke from the UK volunteered with their two boys for 1 week in April 2017:
We had a fantastic time in Ostional and it was the longest time we spent anywhere in Costa Rica. Our host family was fantastic and welcoming from the off. The room was clean and served its purpose. It was a great experience for us and the children who settled in quickly and have since stated that was their favourite part of the trip.
The people that looked after us and took care of our itinerary were all friendly and very accommodating. We did some brilliant cultural actives like corn gorilla making, visiting a farm and of course our dangerous exciting trip to Punta India - we just made it back to dry land on time but enjoyed clambering over rocks, seeing the locals fishing abundant wildlife and being caught by the waves!
It was also great to see the turtle project and to be part of it for a short period of time. We had several “lectures” there which were fascinating, we helped clean up the beach, start the building of a hatchery - which now excitingly has Leatherback turtle eggs and of course the night patrols to data capture and support the solitary nesting Olive Ridley turtles. Whilst the heat / humidity and time of those night patrols were slightly demanding for the children - they still enjoyed it and appreciate how lucky they have been to witness a turtle laying its eggs and helped in the data capture measuring the shell and the depth of the nest. 1 turtle laid 120 eggs in 10 mins!
It really was a fantastic 5 days in Costa Rica and one that we will treasure and remember for years to come!
Hannah Pope, from the UK, volunteered with her husband and 4 children (aged 3-12 years old) for one week in February 2017:
We absolutely loved the project, Frances our guide is so lovely as is her mum & Digna our house stay made us all so welcome. We all loved every second of it. I know you will enjoy it, the night patrols can get tiring but they are so worth it, we saw Olive Ridleys & a Leatherback, we just missed Arribada & the hatching but we got to see photos from friends we made that were still staying there. I loved it so much, i cried when i left. It will always hold a special place in my heart & I hope to go back one day.
Erin Yungblut from Canada volunteered for 2 weeks in February 2017:
Over the course of two weeks, I was lucky enough to experience the incredible wildlife and Pura Vida culture in Ostional. I participated in early morning patrols, night patrols, nest excavations, and nest density digs, and even saw both hatchling turtles and an arribada. In other words, I got to experience every single possible role a volunteer with this program can undergo! I learned a lot about conservation and working together with a community and researchers to benefit both the wildlife and humans in a fragile area. The dry season weather was incredibly hot but the ocean was lovely (you had to stay pretty shallow in the rough, albeit fun, surf). The turtles were absolutely fascinating and being up close and learning about both the mothers and hatchlings was eye opening.
I would not recommend this to experience for anyone squeamish, however, and you had to accept the cycle of life and death and realize the bigger picture. I experienced some culture shock the first couple of days with my host family, but they were absolutely lovely. Extremely welcoming and kind. The food was traditional, nothing fancy but good and large portions of course! Volunteers through other organizations stayed at the research station itself, but I would not trade my experience staying with a local family, as it was very eye opening and allowed me to better experience the Tico lifestyle.The area is rugged and beautiful, with other beaches and areas to explore short bus ride away. Overall I fell in love with the area, the wildlife, and the culture.
Thank you WorkingAbroad! I will be back!
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.
Throughout 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
Danette Mohr, from USA, writes about her experience at this project:
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, volunteered in March 2014:
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 in January 2013:
Ostional 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.
Inger 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.
Marta 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 USA, volunteered 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!
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.