sea turtle crawling across sand

What’s it like to work as a dedicated conservational volunteer? Well, apart from the obvious care for animals and the environment, you shouldn’t be too afraid of the dark…

Nightly turtle patrol

It was our first night doing a night patrol in Costa Rica. We were told to wear black and leave our headlamps at the cabin. We would be walking single file down the beach looking for turtle tracks, nests, and leatherbacks themselves. We would be using the light of the moon for guidance over beach debris and creeping plants—it would be so dark that we would only see the back of the person in front of us. We were instructed to step in the same steps as the person we were following—if everyone in front of us didn’t fall we could be sure that there was nothing to trip on.

Sea turtles come ashore and figure out where they will lay their eggs by using the light of the moon. Any flashlights could confuse the mama turtles. This was also why we were instructed to leave our cameras at the camp. No pictures would be taken just in case someone forgot to turn off their flash.

Some turtles wait in the water for days waiting for the perfect time to lay their eggs. Others will come ashore, assess the beach as too dangerous, and go right back into the ocean. This would be fine if you had legs but if your legs are giant flippers the size of your body made for flying through the water—this isn’t an easy feat. These turtle mamas mean business and we didn’t want to be the reason they decided not to lay their eggs.

Compromise as a means to a greater end

So, why were we patrolling the beach?

100% of nests on the Caribbean coast will be poached if conservation groups don’t get to them first.

Patrolling the beach meant these eggs could be saved and leatherbacks would have a better shot at surviving for longer than 18 years—that is how long the species has, according to some scientists. The conservation group we were volunteering with had a good relationship with the local community members, even with the poachers. They hired ex-poachers to help with patrols (giving them a legal and guaranteed continual income that they and their families could depend on) and had an ongoing agreement that whoever saw the sea turtle first was able to keep to the eggs (poacher or conservation group).

It wasn’t ideal, but it was much better to have poachers work with us so we could eventually convince them to come to the conservation side. Having this agreement also meant that we were allowed to take biometrics of the turtles and tag them when they came ashore—even if the poacher saw the turtle first and took her eggs. Again, not ideal but it means volunteers would be respected in the community, they would be safe, and the turtle's information would at least be tracked.

The beach we walked was 10 km, that is a lot of tiny high steps along the Costa Rican beach by the light of the moon. It’s also lot of time to see things in the ocean and think “WAIT IS THAT A… oh log.” And “OH MY GOSH IT’S A ….another log.” It gave us time to quietly talk with the people in the group.

Our group had people from all over the world from all kinds of backgrounds, the only thing that connected us was our interest in turtles.

Not a bad thing to connect over.

We had walked for hours and hadn’t seen even tracks. A tropical storm would be coming the next day and the surf seemed intimidating for even the most experienced sea creatures. We took a break and sat on a log. Our group leader commented on the surf and told us it was early in the season so we would be lucky if we saw one—but if we did, with surf this big it would be incredible because leatherbacks don’t move under the waves. They are so big, they surf the waves in.

We walked under the Costa Rican moon and I stared half at the shirt in front of me (so as not to trip), half into the ocean. I had no idea what I would be looking for but I didn’t want to miss it if a 1,000lb turtle decided this was the night to surf a wave to shore. Our leader stopped suddenly, and like every cartoon you have ever seen of people who walk too close together, we all piled into each other.

She saw something on the beach. I looked at the log she was looking at and was unimpressed. I then saw it’s flippers moving. We picked up the pace and walked carefully but quickly in the direction of the log with flippers. Once my brain recognized the shape of a leatherback turtle—something I had only seen in books and on TV—I grabbed the arm of my friend (probably too hard) and made a noise that only dogs could have heard. I tried to tell her it was a leatherback but my mouth couldn’t make any noise as my jaw was now dragging on the beach.

Why we protect

She was beautiful and huge. Estimated to be around 29 (my age) she was 158cm (about my height) and laying probably her first nest of eggs (sorry Mum, no turtle babies just yet). Our leader told us she was probably a new turtle mom because she took a very long time to carefully dig her perfect nest and then an even longer time to lay all her perfect eggs.

We measured her, tagged her, and checked her body condition. I ran my hands over her flippers to see if she had any injuries, one small thumbnail-sized bite out of her right flipper. The rest of her was perfect. This young leatherback had survived in the ocean for almost 30 years, among sharks and boats and plastics and fishing nets and oil spills, and the only thing that showed how dangerous her life had been was one small superficial wound.

It’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 leatherbacks will reach sexual maturity.

The fact that we saw this leatherback meant that 999 other leatherbacks born on this beach didn’t make it. Devastating and awe inspiring. We carefully collected her eggs while continually giving each other the “I CAN’T BELIEVE WE ARE THIS LUCKY, ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?” look.

A pang of guilt hit me when she finished laying her eggs and started to cover up her nest. I wished I could tell her not to bother, to save her strength of the enormous effort it would take to get back to the ocean. Like a good mum she spent quite an amount of time camouflaging her site. To make sure predators didn’t see her nest and poach her new eggs she did a turtle dance with her front and back flippers and mixed up so much sand it was difficult to see where she just laid the first eggs of her life.

She turned to go back into the ocean and paused. Sea turtles must raise their heads at a 45 degree angle to breathe and it seemed that this breath wasn’t just her stretching her neck to get air, it was relief. Maybe from the pain of laying 20+ eggs or the relief of getting them out of her body—she seemed to take that breath to collect herself. She then used her powerful flippers to drag herself back into the ocean where she would be much more in her element, able to fly through the water and hopefully survive another 29 years.

Small victories – big change

Currently this conservation group has more than 36 transplanted leatherback turtle nests. They are guarded 24 hours a day and once there is movement, the sea turtles are monitored and then brought to a part of the beach where they can run into the ocean without any predators, poachers, or barriers getting in their way.

They need volunteers all year round to help patrol the beach, take are of injured sea turtles, and help release the babies when they hatch. Do you want to help sea turtles and have an amazing adventure?

If she could make it 29 years in the ocean, you can live your dreams to help these endangered but powerful and amazing creatures.

Please contact us, we will help with fundraising, trip planning, packing details, and even teach you how to make noises only dogs can hear.

Apply now!

You are interested in working with Sea Turtles as well? Then click here to find out more and join this amazing project or many other marine volunteer programs. AEI is waiting for your application!

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About The Author

Nora Livingstone's picture

Nora Livingstone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Animal Experience International, a B Corp that matches animal lovers with beneficial and adventurous volunteer experiences around the world. She has volunteered with animals in more than 25 countries, including Croatia, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala. Nora holds a double major from Trent University in Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology and holds internationally recognized certifications for guiding, leadership, crisis intervention, and deployment during natural disasters. She carries a tiny plastic horse and stuffed mouse with her every time she travels.

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