Voluntourism in Costa Rica: Saving the leatherback sea turtles

In a remote part of Costa Rica, volunteers engage in a race against poachers to save the eggs of the nesting and endangered leatherback sea turtles. Photo: WIDECAST

PACUARE, COSTA RICA, June 16, 2012 — The silver light of a waxing moon, ancient and deliberate, highlights the elevated black and white spotted contours and ridges of the leatherback turtle’s giant, prehistoric carapace, as the ancient beast makes its nest on the Costa Rican shore off of the island of Pacuare.

She does this just as she, and all that have come before her have done for the last one hundred fifty million years.

A leatherback returns to the sea after laying her eggs.

Dressed in black, speaking in whispers, and armed only with red LED lights, we have only seconds to get to her as she emerges from the sea, collect and relocate the contents of her nest before the hundred or so eggs of this endangered animal can fall instead into the hands of local poachers.

These poachers take the eggs to the local markets where they would be sold for roughly a dollar apiece to insecure men looking for sexual fortification.

Turtle eggs, at least according to local lore, are aphrodisiacs. 

Though a company called Tropical Adventures, I have teamed up with a volunteer conservation group called WIDECAST. Widecast, also known as Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, is a non-profit organization that works in more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories to protect all endangered sea turtles.

The organization works closely with governmental and non-governmental scientists, conservationists, research managers, policy makers, and educators to develop various programs designed to rehabilitate the drastically declining number of Green, hawksbill, Olive Leatherback turtles.

A volunteer rakes a path to the sea for recently hatched leatherbacks.

Pacuare, located at the mouth of the Pacuare river into the Caribbean Coast is just one of their many projects.

These turtles, like so many species of marine life, have become endangered because of poaching, getting caught in fishing lines and then wantonly killed, or choking on plastic bags which they mistake for jellyfish, a staple in their diet.

To get to Pacuare is an adventure in itself. After arriving in San Jose and a quick night of sleep at the Don Carlos Hotel near San Jose’s Central Market, I make my way to the bus station where I along with a full bus of Costa Ricans make the incredibly hot four-hour cross country trek over an exquisite rain forest to the town of Bataan.

The beauty of the rain forest covered mountain is diametrically opposed to the misery of my bus seat. There is not enough storage room overhead for my fifty-pound bag so it rests on my lap.

To my dismay, a well-fed woman in the tiny seat next to me oozes into my personal space, shifting constantly to find elusive but unattainable comfort. Periodically she engages in a heated debate with her sister across the aisle. My limited Spanish leads me to believe a romance has gone afoul. Each heated spat between the two ends with the peace offering of some sort of toxic-waste smelling Costa Rican corn chip.

She offers me one.

“Lo siento. Estoy enfermo.” I lie, fearing for my life. In case my Spanish is completely incomprehensible, I also hold my stomach, make a frowny face to drive the sentiment home.

A canal just off of the Pacuare River.

Though at the time she accepts my refusal, it doesn’t stop her from offering the impossibly orange, repugnant chips at least a dozen more times in five minute intervals until I finally get off in Bataan. Like the turtles that return to Pacuare every three years to give birth as they have for millennia, this woman honors ritual.

In the breezeless town of Bataan, I exit the bus. Instantly, I am dripping and the sun is scorching. Waiting for me is a wiry man named Eric. He is Pacuare’s project administrator and speaks little English.

He waits while I find the only internet café in the small town and check my email one last time. Then Eric and I with two others cram into one of Costa Rica’s notorious red taxis and make our way down a dusty, high-centered gravelly road for twenty-five minutes to a small dock on an unnamed canal that ultimately feeds into the Pacuare River.

The chaos of twelve hours on planes and in airports, the bus ride, and the mad taxi ride on Costa Rica’s bumpiest road give way to the peaceful chants, hums, whistles and buzzes of the jungle as water laps against the rusty hull of the boat. This peaceful moment is only temporarily broken by the guttural roar of a troop of Howler monkeys in the canopy above us.

First I am in awe, then disgust as one of them, from twenty feet above me, urinates.

I sit across from Daniela, who sheds light on our mission. She is in charge of environmental education and outreach and explains that the team, which is composed of three research assistants and a handful of volunteers from all over the world, has three duties.

A howler monkey

The first is, rain or shine, to search for turtles between the hours of 8pm and 4am when they come to shore to lay their eggs. Those eggs are then collected and then re-nested near the base in a controlled environment.

To make matters more complicated, not only are our volunteers searching for turtles, but also the locals that  are looking for them as well with far more nefarious intentions.

While there is a mutual understanding between the two groups of turtle enthusiasts that whoever finds the turtle claims the turtle, with each poached nest go roughly one hundred baby turtles, each vital to the survival of the species.

The second responsibility, Daniela explains, is to monitor the re-nested eggs. When tiny turtles begin to emerge from the dirt, fifty to seventy days after they are buried, they are to be weighed, measured, and placed into a sand-filled cooler. While this is happening, other volunteers rake a path in the beach so that the young turtles can make their way safely to the water without being eaten by crabs, stray dogs, or birds.

Unlike the potentially emotional gravitas that accompanies the pillaging of a nest in front of my eyes, this process sounds far less daunting.

Baby leatherbacks break the sand as they make their way to the sea.

And lastly, it is the responsibility of the volunteers to keep base camp in working order.

This includes building cages for the babies, working on the new hatchery and various other day-to-day chores, all of which are done, of course, under the blazing Caribbean sun. The objective becomes immediately clear: Sweat a lot. Sleep little. Save the turtles.

Reach part II here.  

To read more work from Matt go to mattpaynewriter.com.

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Matt Payne

Matt Payne has lived and worked as both a television writer and producer in Los Angeles for nearly ten years.  Matt grew up in Oklahoma City and began his career with a degree in Film and Video Studies from the University of Oklahoma.  Since then, he has worked as part of writing staffs for such hits as 24 andWithout A Trace. Most recently Matt wrote and produced episodes of CBS’s The Defenders starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell and Memphis Beat, starring Jason Lee, which is set to air on TNT in August of 2011.

In addition to a successful television-writing career, Matt has developed features with major production companies and continues to work as a freelance script analyst for Relativity Media, the production company behind such hits as The Fighter, Zombieland, and Catfish where he has provided script feed back on nearly a thousand features.

When he is not writing and producing television, Matt works as contributor to the Washington Times Communities Travel section, where he has writing skills have taken him from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar to the jungles of the Philippine Islands.  New York City’s finest restaurants to the earthquake ravaged Port au Prince Haiti. 

Matt was the winner of the 2004 Comedy writing award for Scriptapolooza, a finalist for the Warner Brothers Television Writer’s workshop, and is an active participant in Los Angeles’s Young Storytellers Program.  

Early in his career, Matt spent two years working as an assistant the Endeavor, which is now part of WME, the second largest talent agency in the world, working closely with such talent as Christian Bale and Michael Douglass.

Matt  is a member of  the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Contact Matt Payne


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