Imagine waking up in the morning to the sounds of Howler monkeys. You look out of the window of your small hut, barely big enough to fit two bunk beds, but somehow perfect for where you are. You can see tens of white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging from branches in the trees, chattering away to each other. It’s a beautiful day, 26’C already. You leave the hut, walk past the trees and there in front of you is a beautiful Caribbean beach, barely 100 steps from where you were sleeping. 6 kilometres of hot, white sand surrounded by tropical rainforest. So quiet and isolated. I was lucky enough to have this experience.
When I went to Costa Rica we got the opportunity to do some volunteering at the Pacuare Nature Reserve. The beach is the most important nesting site for turtles in Costa Rica. In particular, the Leatherback turtle, the largest of all turtles. Unfortunately, these incredible reptiles are critically endangered. Of those that hatch and make it to the water, most of them die and very few reach adulthood. Poachers are also prevalent, stealing the turtle eggs and killing the adult turtles for their meat. We were privileged enough to take part in the turtle protection programme.
Because of how isolated the reserve is, arrival is by boat. They go pretty fast as well! Unfortunately, we had a few moments where the engine kept dying and we ended up bobbing along the river for a while trying to fix it. Not as bad as another group who had an unfortunate encounter with a Manatee (that is, they hit one and broke down).
When we arrived we were shown to our little huts, which were pretty cool, before making our way down to the beach after an ice-cold shower (amazing!). After a few “getting to know each other” games of volleyball, ‘bibeddy-bibeddy-bop’ and a turtle dance they threw us straight into the work and we started clearing the beach of debris that is washed up by the sea. We had only been doing this a few minutes when our first incredible experience of the trip to the reserve already began! The dog began barking and we all ran over to a nesting site of 43 baby leatherback turtles hatching and scrambling over each other, trying to reach the sea!
Despite it taking about an hour for them all to reach the sea, one of them not looking like it would make it at all, we were not allowed to carry them down to the sea. This first journey that the turtles make is the most important and also the most amazing. Literally just born, they have this stunning ability to know where they are going, like an internal compass! It’s thought that after the turtles have dug themselves out of the sand, they are guided by towards the brightest horizon- which is the sea… usually. This is when light pollution has another major impact on the environment. If a beach has artificial lights, the baby turtles are unlikely to survive because they won’t make it to the sea. Whilst we couldn’t guide them ourselves, we did make it our job to clear debris out of the way and shoo away birds that would try and prey on the babies. Out of my whole trip to Costa Rica, this had to be the best hour spent, an incredible, once in a life time experience I won’t ever forget.
That night our whole group was divided up and put onto night shifts. The aim being to walk the full length of the beach and back and keep patrol, checking the spots where there are known nesting sites, seeing if any more eggs had been laid, and keeping an eye out on poachers. We had a pretty eventful night shift, there was a suspected poacher meaning running along the beach with no torch or light to let the others know AND we got to watch a Green Turtle lay her eggs on the beach. It was amazing, although not as big as mature leatherback turtles she was still a big girl! I got to measure her and help count the eggs, and ended up getting kicked for my troubles. We didn’t get back to bed until late because we had to stay with her whilst she dug the nest, lay her eggs and went back to the sea, just in case poachers grabbed her.
Then I was up again for the 5am walk! The full 7km in the early morning sun was very hard work, but definitely worth it. Unfortunately, the nesting site we found had lots of dead turtles which was pretty sad, but we did manage to rescue one. It had to be taken to the reserve because it had hatched too early and wasn’t developed enough. The reality then of how important the work they were doing struck. So few of these amazing creatures live but with the help of the reserve- and others around the world- hopefully they can prevent another species becoming extinct.