Help a Community-Based Sea Turtle Conservation Project on the Southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

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Volunteer with sea turtles in Costa Rica as one of our marine conservation volunteers, and join this Olive Ridley turtle programme in the spectacular Southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica on Drake Bay and Rio Oro Beach, home to over 25 dolphin and whale species, the Olive Ridley Turtle and three other sea turtle species. Marine conservation volunteers will take part in night surveys, monitoring eggs and baby turtles, releasing baby turtles into the ocean and helping with local conservation education projects.

You can join for 1 week up to 12 weeks from July to March every year. We have places all throughout 2015  and 2016 available.

Individuals, groups and students doing research all welcome.

Cost includes lodging in main camp/homestay, 3 meals a day, training & supervision, snacks for patrols, materials; starts at £312.

A newly hatched baby sea turtle Building a recycling reception for the village Calum Hughes concentrating on relocating a nest to the hatchery More lovely adopted turtles! Volunteer group photo Each nest is identified by a number in the hatchery Hatchery Humpback whales come to Drake Bay to mate Volunteers hiking in Corcovado National Park Hatchling release with members of the community Olive Ridley female close up Hatchling release Terraba Sierpe national wetlands Relaxing area at the main camp Hydrophonic veggie patch Volunteer group photo A group of volunteers relaxing Volunteers patrol the coastline Measuring female turtle Volunteer with bag of turtle eggs

The Project

A nesting female sea turtle in Costa Rica

In the study area at Drake Bay, there are four species of sea turtles. We have identified the nests of the Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) although the presence of Pacific Green (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) turtles has been recorded too. Between 150 and 250 Olive Ridley turtles arrive every season at the 3.6 km Drake Beach.

The programme’s brand new site at Río Oro Beach offers volunteers the chance to protect one of the most important nesting beaches on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The beach receives around 2000 Olive Ridley, Green, Hawksbill and even Leatherback sea turtles each year, and the area is a pristine wilderness paradise.The scientific mission of the project is to generate the data necessary to support the conservation of these nesting populations. Marine conservation volunteers will gain experience in numerous aspects of the investigation and conservation of sea turtles.

Marine Conservation Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteers are needed at Playa Drake from July to December for 1 to 12 weeks in duration, every year.  You can take part in:

  • Performing night surveys on the beach to find nesting turtles and helping to protect them from illegal extraction and predators (4-6h depending on the availability of volunteers).
  • Relocating eggs, building new nests and burying the eggs on the beach themselves.
  • Monitoring eggs and baby turtles.
  • Track and nest surveying through patrols on beach daily.
  • Tagging female turtles.
  • Collecting biometric data on the beach.
  • Releasing baby turtles into the ocean.
  • Excavation (exhumations)
  • Maintenance of beach and camp.
  • Helping with local conservation education projects.

The work will be carried out over the 3.6 kilometre beach, located between the mouth of the River Drake and Punta Ganadito. Access to the beach will be via boat, to cross the small lagoon located between the camp and the beach. The difficult access on foot enables the beach to remain almost virgin.

Volunteers are needed at Rio Oro Beach from July to March for 2 to 12 weeks in duration, every year.  You can take part in:

  • Night patrols
  • Working at the hatchery
  • Relocating nests
  • Recording scientific data
  • Nest exhumations
  • Tagging of turtles
  • Liberation of hatchlings
  • Construction activities 
  • Environmental education 
  • Ecotourism activites

All new volunteers will initially stay together in Drake Bay while they receive their training and orientation, after which they may choose to work at either (or both) of our two conservation sites: Drake beach and Río Oro beach. Upon arrival, volunteers for both project sites will receive full training on the programme, on the biology of turtles and the methodology of the field work. You will be working under the direct supervision of a Scientific Supervisor throughout your time on the project.

Playa Drake

The beaches are accessible mainly by boat and foot, as the roads are impassable in the rainy season. It is the anonymity of El Progreso and absence of tourists on Drake Beach that enables the project to work towards conserving the population of nesting turtles. Drake Bay itself is also home to 25 dolphin and whale species, where the northern and southern humpback whales come to calf. Neighbouring Corcovado National Park; home to more than 500 species of trees, 140 species of mammals, 367 species of birds, 40 species of freshwater fish, 117 amphibians and reptiles, more than 150 species of orchids and more than 6000 species of insects documented in an area of only 425 km2; is considered one of the areas with the greatest biodiversity in the world.

This project is located in Drake Bay in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.  The rapid disappearance of sea turtles on the beaches is the reason why this project was initiated in 2006.  The low nesting numbers of the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivácea) raised the alarm.  Pacific sea turtle populations are critically endangered throughout the world, and this project is working hard to conserve and protect this species in this part of Costa Rica.

Working as a marine conservation volunteer, you will be forming part of a team of investigators responsible for developing the conservation programme in Drake Bay and monitoring the population of marine turtles that nests there between July and March each year.

Rio Oro

The programme’s brand new site at Río Oro beach offers volunteers the chance to protect one of the most important nesting habitats on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The site is, however, very remote and offers a totally different volunteering experience from Drake Bay and is not for the faint-hearted. Those volunteers wishing to work at Río Oro will receive special training and will have the chance to re-pack their bags at Drake Bay and leave unnecessary valuables behind at the hostel before embarking on their expedition to this exciting and rustic wilderness.

The Río Oro site is located on the unsealed road between Puerto Jiménez and Carate (the nearest village), where the road terminates just a few kilometers from the La Leona ranger station and southernmost entrance to the Corcovado National Park. Carate itself has a very small local population and only one very basic pulpería (local store), but is home to a number of remote lodges and hotels and another sea turtle project run by COTORCO that protects Carate beach. Volunteers from both projects have the chance to collaborate with conservation activities and spend free time together, and there are often a large number of volunteers working in the area. The wildlife around Río Oro is stunning, with an extensive undeveloped coastline fringed by primary and secondary forests, full of exotic birds, mammals, amphibians and all four of Costa Rica‘s monkey species.

2015 & 2016 Dates & Costs

Volunteers can also see the tropical birds and biodiversity of Costa Rica

Playa Drake Dates:

15th July to 29th July 
29th July to 12th August 
12th August to 26th August 
26th August to 9th September 
9th September to 23rd September 
23rd September to 7th October 
7th October to 21st October 
21st October to 4th November 
4th November to 18th November 
18th November to 2nd December 
2nd December to 16th December 

Rio Oro Beach Dates:

1st July to 15th July
15th July to 29th July
29th July to 12th August
12th August to 26th August
26th August to 9th September
9th September to 23rd September
23rd September to 7th October
7th October to 21st October
21st October to 4th November
4th November to 18th November
18th November to 2nd December
2nd December to 16th December
16th December to 30th December
30th December to 13th January 2016
13th January to 27th January 2016
27th January to 10th February 2016
10th February to 24th February 2016
24th February to 9th March 2016
9th March to 23rd March 2016

We are flexible with dates, so you are welcome to join/leave on different dates than the ones listed above, these serve just as a guideline.  Please email: Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com for any questions with regards to dates, durations etc.

Costs
The cost for 1 week is £312, 2 weeks is £454, 3 weeks is £595, and 4 weeks is £643, 5 weeks is £761, 6 weeks is £879, 7 weeks is £997, 8 weeks is £1115  and 12 weeks is £1589.  The cost is the same whether you live in a homestay or the main camp. You may also combine 1 week in the main camp and 1 week in a homestay if you wish.   Please email Victoria.McNeil@workingabroad.com for prices of other durations and any other questions.  This cost includes three meals a day, accommodation, snacks for patrols, equipment (for patrols), guide during the volunteering, training, transportation between the two conservation sites and 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

Sea turtle volunteers enjoy Costa Rican cookingFood & Accommodation

The program headquarters are based at Drake Bay Backpackers, a non-profit hostel created by the Foundation especially to support the programme. The hostel is located in the village of El Progreso, Drake Bay. All new marine conservation volunteers will initially stay at the hostel while they receive their training and orientation.

After the training period, then volunteers can choose either to stay in a private room in a homestay house in the village, or in a shared dormitory at the main camp/backpackers. All volunteers are encouraged to spend some time in the homestay, as they are tried-and-tested and are highly recommended by our previous volunteers.  Both options include three meals per day plus snacks for night patrols. At the camp, a rotation system is in place so that all volunteers get a chance to cook, and a similar system is in place for duties such as cleaning the camp and preparing the patrol equipment. The communal space at the main camp also includes a chill-out area equipped with hammocks.

Accommodation at the at Río Oro site is very basic and is comprised of a marquee tent camp with some platforms, a rustic dorm, kitchen and dining area, and rudimentary toilet and cold water shower facilities. The site is ‘off-grid’ and so there is no electricity, no internet and no cell phone reception available in the area. The field station is, however, equipped with solar panels that provide lighting and power a radio for essential communications only.  Given the National Wildlife Refuge status of the area, there are restrictions as to what volunteers may take to the site during their stay.  Waste management facilities are very limited and it is required that volunteers take responsibility for their own plastic waste during their stay at the site and must take it back with them in their own luggage when they leave.

Accommodation is in bunk beds in a mixed dorm and bed linen is provided. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at 08:00, 12:00 and 18:00, respectively, and a rotation system is in place so that all volunteers get a chance to cook, clean and prepare the patrol equipment. During the day there  is plenty of free time, but there is also lots of opportunity to contribute to the maintenance, organization and development of the new field station.

Amenities

It is important to highlight that El Progreso is a remote place where many of the amenities that you might be used to are not readily available. The main camp and home-stay houses are simple but typical of rural Costa Rica and do not have hot running water. Electricity is available along with free (but limited) internet access in the main camp. Bicycles are available for transfer to and from the beach, although at times it will be necessary to walk. Public landline telephones have only recently reached El Progreso but may be used, when available, by volunteers.  There is no ATM in Drake Bay, so you should make sure that you bring enough cash for the duration of your stay at Drake beach. There is an ATM in Puerto Jiménez, and so volunteers transiting between the two sites will be able to draw cash out there.

Volunteers at Rio Oro should be aware that this conservation site is much more remote than Drake beach, and there is no electricity nor cell phone reception. The field station is equipped with solar panels that provide lighting and power a radio for essential communications only. While Carate does not have much to offer in terms of amenities, volunteers will pass through Puerto Jiménez while transiting between the Drake Bay and Río Oro sites. Volunteers are also free to visit the town on their days off and as part of planned excursions. While still small, Puerto Jiménez is the largest and most developed town in the Osa Peninsula and has banks with ATM machines, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, a post office, an airport and a number of other amenities. There is a local ‘colectivo’ truck that travels from Puerto Jiménez to Río Oro twice daily and costs around $9 each way (2.5-3 hours). 

Working Conditions & Requirements
All volunteers should be at least 18 yrs old age.  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 flexibility.  You should also be in good health and fit - you need to be able to work 2-3 nights per week (rest the next day) and walk several kilometres on soft sand.  The work at the project can be extremely tough and is not necessarily for everybody. Weather conditions can be extreme, especially since the nesting season coincides with the rainy season, with heavy rainfall and storms often a daily occurrence (rainy season = turtle season!). The majority of the work is nocturnal and it will be necessary to adjust to sleeping in the daytime, often enduring high temperatures and humidity. The way of life is rustic, but the environment is full of jaw-dropping natural beauty and extraordinary biodiversity. After a little time at the project you will no doubt find yourself adjusting to the life of a local.

A volunteer trying the local fruitYou will be allocated a free day every week, during which time you may decide to take a guided tour of the neighbouring Corcovado National Park, the Isla de Caño Marine Reserve, or one of many other local sights, or simply to use the day to rest at the camp. During the other six days of the week, it is expected that you will be fully engaged with the work schedule. Personnel at the program are happy to help volunteers to organize tours and other activities to pursue, and they strive to offer ethical eco-tours and excursions that benefit the local community. However, it is important to note that they are not a tourism agency, and due to limited resources they cannot offer guarantees that planned activities will take place. At Río Oro beach there are fewer scheduled daytime activities, and so you will find that there is more opportunity to explore the area and discover the wonderful nature of the Osa Peninsula.

How to get there?
El Progreso is a small and relatively remote coastal town, but it may be accessed by road, boat or light aircraft. Whichever travel option you choose, all journeys leave San José in the morning. Travel by bus and boat is the cheapest option; however the journey typically takes around 11 hours, whereas the flight from San José takes just 40 minutes.  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. Flying with Condor via Frankfurt is also an economical option. Please remember not to look for San Jose in California, it is San José International Airport (Juan Santamaria) - code SJO.

Interactive Map & Background

Please see the interactive map below:


 

The beautiful coastline of Costa Rica where sea turtle volunteers will workCosta Rica
Costa Rica is located in Central America, bordered by Panama on the East and Nicaragua on the West. It is a country of staggering beauty, immense variety of wildlife, active and dormant volcanoes, mountains with extensive trail systems, cloudforest and rainforest, Pacific and Caribbean beaches, indigenous groups and loads more. It is also a very peaceful country with one of the highest ratings for "happiness" amongst its nationals in the world! This project is located in the small community of El Progreso and the beaches where the sea turtles are monitored are Drake Beach and Ganado Beach, in the Osa Peninsula, South-eastern Costa Rica on the Pacific coast.

A map of where volunteers will be working

 

A map of where sea turtle volunteers will work in Costa RIca

Volunteer Testimonials

Baby sea turtles released in Costa RicaRosanna Daumas gives an account of her time as a Pacific sea turtle conservation volunteer and a background on life, the wildlife and the friendly community of people living in Drake Bay.

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.

Two of our sea turtle volunteers, a mother and sonFrancesca Fairbairn and her 5 year old son, from the UK, spent 2 weeks at Playa Drake, Costa Rica on our Pacific Turtle programme, living in with a local family in a homestay and taking part in all of the turtle conservation and community activities.

“We had a wonderful time. And although my son was mostly very hot and also ravaged by mozzies, he thought Costa Rica was the best and he loved it. Rob was very accommodating, and the other volunteers were all very nice.”

Aria Finger writes about her time on the project working with sea turtles:

Hey Vicky, I had a great experience overall.  Very affordable and great people.  When I was there, there was a lot of down time for reading, walking on the beach, etc.  I thought it was cool, people should just be prepared.  Hmm..A headlamp ad extra batteries is ESSENTIAL since there is no electricity.  Again, overall, I had a great time. 
Best,
Aria

Philippa Jones from the UK, writes about her experience:

I really enjoyed the working with the project, it was amazing to work with the marine turtles. The Foundation were very helpful at the main office in San Jose if i ever had an query. The homestays were great, very basic but I didnt expect anything else! Nice families, and was welcomed into the community. Thank you!

How to Join

If you are interested in volunteering with sea turtles in Costa Rica along the beautiful Drake Bay and Rio Oro Beach, 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 deposit of £170. If for some reason, your application is declined, we will reimburse this deposit 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 a detailed 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 Code of Conduct document. 

 

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