The Sea Turtles of Costa Rica

When I was invited to Denver with 4R Innovations to showcase our furniture at the Green Festival, I hadn’t anticipated the kinds of contacts I was to make; everything from green building products to eco-tourism were on display, and when I discovered the booth across from us had budget-friendly volunteer opportunities in Central America to help sea turtles, I was on board instantly. I took a volunteer card home with me and it sat on my desk for about three months.

One night I was wondering what to do between my summer and fall semesters at college when I remembered the card. On a whim, I decided I was going to email Brad Nahill, the man in charge of See Turtles and inquire about volunteer opportunities. His speedy response directed me to a few options within my price range of $20 a day. One option – a homestay with three meals a day in a village called Parismina, Costa Rica – really jumped out at me. With little to no money in my bank account, I booked a ticket to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Not including the redeye flight from Salt Lake City to Costa Rica, the ride to Parismina is a four-hour adventure in itself. After a bus ride from San Jose to Siquirres, a ride in a taxi that wasn’t afraid to ford the small rivers to Caño Blanco, and a boat ride in pitch black darkness, my travel partner and I arrived to Parismina – an island still unknown to us. In my best broken Spanish, I explained to the captain of our tiny vessel that we were volunteering for the sea turtle association. He must have understood me, because upon arriving on the island he was gracious enough to walk us directly to the information center in the middle of the village; which is the headquarters of Asociacion Salvemos Las Tortugas De Parismina, or ASTOP for short. ASTOPAfter a long day of traveling, we had finally made it to our destination. We were informed that we would be walking the beach from 8pm until midnight that very night; we were on our way to save some turtles…  or so we thought.

The first two nights were the longest. High expectations of turtle salvation had really gotten our hopes up. Our first shift, from 8 until midnight, proved uneventful. The following night we were told that we were assigned the midnight to 4am, which turned out to be a bit more stimulating. Not because of the turtles, but more because of the torrential downpours and close proximity of lightning strikes that lit up the sky and beach. It was eerily beautiful.

Our hopes of spotting turtles had diminished significantly by the third night. Fortunately for us, we were assigned the 8 until midnight shift again – which we had anticipated to be another long, monotonous walk on the beach. The shift started out as ordinary as the previous two nights. Leatherback ShackWe met our guide at the Leatherback Shack and headed to the beach. Within ten minutes of walking our guide stopped us in our tracks. With our guide only speaking Spanish there was a bit of a language barrier, but with what little Spanish we knew we pieced together that there was a turtle just up ahead and she was laying her eggs. Our time had come. We were told to wait by the turtle while our guide found the other group that was patrolling the beach so they could see the turtle as well. When the other group arrived we quietly walked to where the turtle had decided to lay its eggs, and with our red flashlights, I got my first glimpse of the massive amphibian. Huddled around the turtle with the other volunteers, we watched as the turtle laid its eggs in the meter deep hole that she had dug. When the turtle was finished laying her eggs, she was tagged, measured and all the data of her nesting recorded. We then waited as she covered her hole to protect her future offspring. While in the process of waiting one of our group members, an Italian fellow, went walking to see if more turtles were in the area. He quickly came running back exclaiming: “Tortuga! Tortuga!”  We hurried down the beach to find another turtle making her way back to the sea. She had come to shore, but unfortunately decided not to lay her eggs that night.

Later in the night, following our first two turtle experiences, we were greeted with yet another egg-laying turtle. This time, however, it was time for us to get dirty. We came across her right before she had started laying her eggs.  It was a prime opportunity to gather the eggs and relocate them to the “vivero” in an attempt to hide them from the poachers who would sell them on the streets of Siquirres as a form of natural Viagra. Laying belly first in the sand, we were handed a rubber glove and a bag, and told to gather and count the eggs as she laid them. Baby TurtlesI was to gather 50 and my friend was to gather the rest. I was quite happy to have been given the responsibility of only gathering 50 since the turtle happen to lay 138 eggs that night. I never realized how heavy an egg could be until walking through the sand for two miles carrying a bag of 50. The work was hard and the wait was worth it. Although only 1 out of every 100 hatchlings will grow to be a full size turtle, I feel that we helped do our part that night to help save these incredible animals from extinction.

Even having traveled through Europe and all over the U.S., I had never experienced a place quite like Parismina. The tiny island village off the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has a population of only 400 people; the roads are made of dirt, the housing is basic, the language is 99% Spanish, and for me, a place “off the beaten path”. The village has come together, with the help of volunteers and donations, to help save the turtles from extinction by poachers and irresponsible human action. I was warned that volunteering was not going to be a walk in the park. In addition to patrolling the beach for four hours a night, we also helped scrape paint, plant trees, and clean up the trash-ridden seashore. For $20 a night and a little hard work, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.