Voluntourism in Costa Rica: Saving the leatherback sea turtles, Part 2

In part two of this story, we learn the in's and out's of what it takes to protect nesting sea turtles as they come to land after 25 years at sea to lay their eggs, and what is done to keep those eggs from poachers who have driven these 150 million year old creatures almost to extinction. Photo: Matt Payne

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.

Camp at Pacuare.

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.

A sloth lazily grooms himself at the camp on the mouth of the Pacuare River.


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.

Volunteers working 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.

A research assistant takes measurements of a baby leatherback before sending her on a twenty-five voyage to sea.


“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.”

A baby leatherback breaches a sand dune in route to the sea.

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.

Volunteers watch as another turtle almost makes it to the sea.

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. 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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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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