The Pacuare Sea Turtle Project: Saving the leatherback in Costa Rica

Armed only with red LED lights, volunteers set out onto a remote beach to get to the eggs of the endangered nesting leatherback turtles before poachers do. Photo: Crazy Creatures (Flickr)

After arriving at the 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. Click here first to read parts one and two.

PACUARE, COSTA RICA, June 23,2012 — Given the broad expanse of beach, the egg poachers often spot the turtles, which are more than six feet long and impossibly slow, first, as they emerge from the water. They arrive first and we have no choice but to watch as they collect the poor turtles eggs and vanish to sell them as some crude sort of endangered reptilian Viagra.

Unaware of what has happened, the turtle covers over the hole anyway. It is heartbreaking. I am determined not to let that happen again.

Poaching turtle eggs and killing turtles in Costa Rica is illegal, and while it carries a one to three year sentence, very little is done to stop it. On Pacuare, nothing is done.

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Read also Voluntourism in Costa Rica: Saving the leatherback sea turtles

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

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An hour later, after having mistaken several rocks and logs for turtles, we see something dark and grand emerging from the water. Its slow cumbersome gait is unmistakable. It is a leatherback. She zigzags out of the water, searching for the perfect spot to nest, leaving enormous tracks in the sand behind her. It is as if an ATV came careening from the sea, only compared to a Leatherback an ATV is small.

Once she has found a proper place, the turtle first “makes its bed” with her front flippers. This explosive process involves the turtle throwing sand all over the place as if in some kind of a turtle fit. Fine sand hovers above the turtle like smoke after the implosion of an abandoned hotel.

Next, the turtle shifts her attention from the front to the back. It is now time for us to move it. We are instructed to wait until she is finished making her bed before moving in.

Once the bed is in, the turtle goes into a strange birthing trance. We get inches behind the turtle, our eyes inches from its giant George Lucas-esque tail. The slowly wagging giant nub looks like something from Mos Eisley on a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. Using its massive flippers like alien hands, the turtle scoops sand with one flipper then the next, moving its mass from side to side with each dig.

This process, called building a nest, lasts for about 15-20 minutes depending upon the turtle’s attitude toward perfection. As she digs, we pull sand back from the hole allowing us to put a plastic bag under the turtle when she finally begins to lay her eggs.

Finally, the turtle takes a long breath.  It is time.

I put one hand under each flipper to hold the plastic bag in place. The turtle arches it’s neck and lets out a painful breath and with that, an egg falls. Then another. The tail wriggles and as it does, the Star Wars theme song plays in my head. More eggs fill the heavy bag, each one a chance that this species may get to stay on this planet a little bit longer.

The research assistants take measurements of the shell size and check for microchips as I sit there, speechless.

When all the eggs have been laid, nearly a hundred in this case, we cover them with sand until we are ready to move them back to the hatchery. The white of the eggs will attract poachers. The turtles are never fully safe.

I walk around to the front of the turtle and notice her eyes. She looks like she is crying. Though all that is happening is a salt excretion from the glands located behind the turtle’s eyes, I can’t help but think that, like me, the turtle is thinking that life is precious.  Having survived on the planet for more than 150 million years, I’m sure that somewhere in her genetic coding she understands this with far greater clarity than I ever could.

That night, our group will save the eggs of thirteen turtles. The poachers will get the eggs of six.

Over the course of my stay, we will save 959 eggs from 13 turtles, and 437 hatchlings will rise from 15 different nests.


For every thousand eggs hatched, only one will make it to sexual maturity and will be able to reproduce. It is a bitter victory but a victory none-the-less.

Somewhere in Costa Rica, after eating a turtle egg, a man will try to convince himself, according to preposterous myth, that his libido has increased exponentially at the expense of a species.

I will return, sweaty and sandy, tired and torn to my room with the company of the moonlight, the buzz of the jungle and the eternal grind of sea meeting sand.  As the turtles make their way back into the hazy mysteries of the ocean, I will sleep.

Click here to read parts one and two of this story.

To read more from Matt go to mattpaynewriter.com.

To learn more about how you can participate in this voluntourism program, go to http://tropicaladventures.com/.


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.

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