After arriving to Pacuare Sea Turtle Project at the mouth of the Pacuare River, the goal is clear. To prevent poachers from raiding the eggs of nesting leatherback sea turtles. To read part one of this tale first, click here.
PACUARE, COSTA RICA, June 21, 2012 - Daniela who on the trip is in charge of environmental education and outreach is going over the objectives and responsibilities we volunteers have. I watch beyond her shoulder as herons and egrets resting on the backs of submerged cattle line the ever-widening river as we snake our way towards the Caribbean Sea, which announces itself with a gentle breeze and the thunderous crash of waves hitting the shore. We have arrived at camp.
The camp, as promised, is rudimentary and teaming with wildlife. There are six sleeping cabins, each with three bunks, an open-air kitchen, open-air bathroom with two toilets and two showers.
How often, I think to myself, do people say something along the lines of “I wish I could escape to a deserted island…” or “I want to make a difference in the world and see something different,” Look no further.
Within minutes of my arrival, two brilliantly colored toucans feast on bananas left over from lunch earlier in the day. Near the gate to the beach, a sloth, with his long curved nails, hangs from a tree lazily grooming himself. Brightly colored lizards and iguanas occupy every sun-exposed tree and rock. In the distance cry more howler monkeys. A moving carpet of leaf ants move leaves like a green conveyer belt from a large tree to their nest. Birds and butterflies of every color flash like daytime fireworks and there is a kayak next to the river for a paddle through the jungle.
It’s paradise as designed before the days of the Four Seasons beds, fast food and smart phones. And all of this is set against the backdrop of the pounding Caribbean Sea just yards away.
After a brief introduction to the research assistants and volunteers, the mission to save the turtles becomes instantly clear. Word comes in of a hatch in the hatchery.
Like soldiers going to battle, the volunteers leap from their hammocks, abandon their card games and make their way to the beach. Each has an assignment. The goal is to get these neophytes to the sea as quickly and as safely as possible.
Within fifteen minutes, in a flurry of scales, measurers, buckets, and rakes, more than twenty tiny turtles make a mad dash toward the sea where they will hopefully spend the next fifty years of their lives, returning to this beach by way of the earth’s magnetism twenty-five years to lay eggs of their own.
The reverie lasts only a moment before another hatch and the cycle repeats. This time I put on some rubber gloves to pretend I can help, which I cannot. By the time the babies have been sent away, it is time for dinner, which is invariably an assortment of rice beans and either plantains or yucca with perhaps a touch of pork. This is not just dinner but breakfast and lunch as well.
Conversation over dinner tends to be about how nice it would be to eat something else. While I find the simplicity of the food somehow refreshing, one could see how eating it repeatedly for months at a time like many of these volunteers do, might conjure feelings of madness.
I chat with one of the research assistants, Rachel. She is delicately spoken, intelligent marine biologist from England. Her passion for turtles, like everyone here is infectious.
“Every time I see a turtle I have to go into turtle mode,” she tells me, her eyes lighting as she talks. “There is a process that has to be followed, but I always try to take a moment to appreciate what an amazing animal it is and how lucky I am that it is a part of my life.”
As dinner ends, darkness falls. Lightning flashes are a constant against the backdrop over the sea. Head lanterns become light sources and the evening’s patrol groups are laid out.
The seven-kilometer beach is broken up into three sections. Starting at 8pm, each section is assigned to groups of two to three people led by a research assistant. One group watches from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. The other from 12 to 4 a.m. Thankfully I am assigned the first watch.
There are few better ways to get to know someone than four hours walking up and down a Costa Rican beachfront in search of endangered sea turtles about to go into labor.
My watch partner Amy is from Maine and fell in love with sea turtles after spending a summer in Crete. Since then she has traveled back to Crete several times, adding a stop in Kenya before landing in Costa Rica. It is admirable devotion.
As we walk, I notice the shadows of small men walking in pairs and groups of three, the embers from their cigarettes burning. They are poachers and tonight, they want the same thing we want: turtle eggs.
Visit Payne-ful Living Friday June 22 to read the conclusion of this three part series. To read the first part, click here.
To read more from Matt Payne go to Mattpaynewriter.com and like him on facebook.
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