It seemed like a far off prospect when I tore out a page from the wildlife magazine advertising the opportunity to assist sea turtle researchers with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) in Costa Rica and placed it in my “To Do Someday” folder. But in less than two years, I was doing it.
Turtles have always been one of my favorite animals. Since childhood, when I kept a little green dimestore turtle, I have loved their unique characteristics and easy-going manner. Now I was being given the opportunity to help scientists collect important data on the endangered green sea turtles of Tortuguero, Costa Rica, at the very biological station where the famous Archie Carr began his long-term monitoring program back in the 1950s.
I made arrangements through CCC and their partner travel agency, putting my trust in their expertise. Of course, I was a little nervous, traveling alone and joining an unfamiliar group of volunteers and biologists. But I knew this opportunity to have a hands-on experience with these huge sea turtles was a dream to fulfill.
When I passed through customs in the San Jose airport and emerged from the crowds to find someone holding a sign that read, “Judith Lindsey,” I knew I was in good hands.
It was a totally new experience for me to be in the minority this time. Caucasian and English speaking, my Spanish was limited to “Hola” – “Hello.” The desk clerk at my hotel didn’t seem to understand my English, so I kept to my room and only walked a few blocks after I first arrived at my hotel.
The next morning I traveled by boat to CCC’s John H. Phipps Biological Field Station in Tortuguero. I felt a little lost. I wandered into the dining area and was greeted by some of the research assistants who showed me to my room. I was told I’d be on the 8 to 12 midnight shift. I was excited and anxious at the same time.
Supper was delicious that evening S a meal of rice and beans and mixed vegetables, served by two capable native cooks. These meals would continue through my weeklong stay in Tortuguero.
The first night’s protocol on the beach patrol was repeated over the next 4 nights. We dressed in dark clothes, carried a backpack of supplies, such as a soft measuring tape, numbered metal tags, pliers and crimpers, waterproof recording book, and a huge pair of calipers.
Adjusting to the dark night was relatively easy, as I had picked the week of the full moon when arranging this trip…and it proved to be spectacularly bright during the first half of each evening shift. That, however, did not keep us from stepping into holes and tripping over logs and uneven tide ridges.
The first green sea turtle was a joy to behold…a silver dome emerging from the crashing waves…almost like an illusion that appeared and disappeared with the breaking water until she crawled beyond the water’s edge. Heaving her heavy shelled body up the sandy beach was no minor feat. We stood still so as to not frighten her back into the sea. In time, however, there seemed to be turtles all over the place, emerging, digging, covering, and “scurrying” back into the safety of the surf.
What a thrill it was to have the permission to actually touch these magnificent creatures. The first time I measured the curved carapace length of a shell, I was surprised at how soft the scales were on her flipperlike feet. When I cleared away the sand encrusted on its shell, I felt as if I was polishing a precious gem. And I had no idea that the claw on the front flipper could actually rip through the pantleg of a person carefully trying to get a measurement.
Two other hazards of turtle tagging are the possibility of encountering fire ants during the close-up work with turtles and being struck in the eyes or face with sand being flung by the industrious mother turtle. Luckily I was not injured by either of these. A shower at the end of each shift was a necessity to rid oneself of sweat and the fine black Tortuguero beach sand.
Perhaps the moment that stands out to me most clearly from my night patrols was when I had the privilege of actually counting turtle eggs as they were deposited into the nest. Each night a nest was marked, so it could be excavated 2 months later if it did not hatch, giving scientists an opportunity to learn more about the nest and its contents.
When the turtle is ready to lay her eggs, she becomes very still and draws her two hind flippered feet close together under her tail. I needed to get myself into position – one rubber-gloved hand poised beneath her and ready to catch each falling egg, and the other hand holding a counter, ready to tick off each potential baby. I remember lying down on the hard-packed sand, head first into the cavity, feeling each precious egg, like a small greased billiard ball, dropping into and sliding from the palm of my hand as I clicked off each number. Burned into my memory is the bright full moon just sinking below the vegetation line of palm tree silhouettes, the reflected light on the turtle’s round back shell, and the warm smell of sand and hot air. This was a sacred moment, and I felt like a midwife helping to deliver a few more endangered creatures to a life of opportunity, danger, and hope.
In a place like Tortuguero, which can only be reached by plane or boat (as no roads lead there…), I was deeply saddened by the garbage I saw on the beach. CCC worked with the village of Tortuguero and the local eco-lodges to establish a recycling and waste management system, helping reduce the amount of garbage in the village. In addition, CCC coordinates a monthly beach clear-up. Nonetheless, the direction of the ocean currents near Tortuguero results in garbage continually washing ashore. While I was irritated by the garbage on the beach, it did not seem to disturb or prevent the sea turtles from nesting.
When I wasn’t on night or morning track survey duty, I tried to catch up on a little sleep or went into the town to explore.
I’ll always remember is the friendliness of the townspeople. When offered a chocolate candy bar on the street by a Costa Rican woman whom I had not met before, I felt a little wary accepting it. And later, reflecting on my reaction, I thought how my culture of fear and apprehension of strangers had conditioned my first response. Another time a woman gave me a beautiful necklace that she had made. I reveled in her graciousness toward me. This warmth and generosity of spirit was a surprise and a delight.
Costa Rica is famous for protecting its beautiful flora and fauna, and I saw an extraordinary variety of plants and animals. The little lizards scampering over the walls of every building were a welcome sight, for I knew they ate all the crawly things I wished to avoid each night as I slept. I saw monkeys, swinging in the tree tops, brilliant butterflies floating and alighting on colorful flowers, and even caught a glimpse of the hairy back of a two-toed tree sloth as it sat high above us in the thick vegetation. The Howler monkeys’ territorial calls were eerie as they pierced the humid jungle air.
Photographing the turtles at night is strictly prohibited. As an avid photographer, I felt a little disappointed about the fact that I would not be bringing back photos of my actual nightly work with the turtles. Luckily the coordinator of the program generously shared with me some spectacular stock photos that I could intersperse among my own daylight photos.
Prior to coming to Tortuguero I had been working with three 3rd grade classes in Candia, NH. I had covered the topic of sea turtles thoroughly with them, showing how they could track the satellite fitted turtles. Each classroom adopted a turtle and learned about sea turtle anatomy, function, and habitat. They even designed and published brochures for our Technology Fair, writing about the problems sea turtles face and possible solutions for their survival. Now I’ll be able to return with my first-hand knowledge of tagging sea turtles and share this wonderful experience with them.
It’s heartening that the native people of Costa Rica realize the full impact of protecting the sea turtle. “A live turtle is worth more than a dead turtle” is the village motto that rings true in the increase of revenue brought in through eco-tourism focusing on turtle watches and related nature activities.
An experience like this begs to be shared, and I shall seek out every opportunity to tell the tale of the green sea turtles in Tortuguero and the conservation efforts being done on their behalf.
I hope to convey the fact that each species plays a unique, critical role. Whether it’s a spotted owl in the northwestern forests of Oregon, a blue Garner butterfly in the pine barrens of New Hampshire, or an endangered green sea turtle in the coastal waters off Costa Rica, each is a vital part of the whole. A quote by author Aldo Leopold succinctly sums up man’s impact on his environment. “The first step in intelligent tinkering is to save the small parts.”
I hope we can all work together and make sure each “small part” is protected and cherished.
Judi Lindsey is a Different Talents teacher at Moore School in Candia, NH.
To learn more about how you can participate in CCC’s sea turtle research programs, visit www.conserveturtles.org/volunteer-research-programs.