The fight for the leatherbacks: Saving sea turtles in Costa Rica

Poachers and volunteers square off along the Caribbean shore of Costa Rica in a late night race to save the eggs of the highly endangered Leatherback sea turtles. Photo: Matt Payne

PACUARE, COSTA RICA, June 16, 2012 — Off the mouth of the Pacuare River, which feeds into an agitated Caribbean Sea along the shore of Costa Rica, the silver light of a waxing moon, ancient and deliberate, highlights the elevated black and white spotted contours and ridges of the giant, prehistoric carapace of a leatherback turtle as the ancient beast slowly makes its nest.

Baby leatherback sea turtle

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

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.

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.

nesting leatherback

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.

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.

leatherback heading to sea

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.

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.

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.

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.

Volunteers near the mouth of the 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.

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.

measuring a newly hatched leatherback

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.

Clearing a path for baby turtles

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. 

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.

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.

Emerging babies

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.

footprints of a leatherback

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.

leatherback at dawn

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.










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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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