by Kaitlin Harlow

I started this Central American leg of my gap year in Guatemala, where women trod on dirt paths in heavy, woven, traditional Maya skirts; corrupt guatemalteco politics is the most common topic of conversation; and you can buy a huge bag of pastries from a number of run down panaderias for less than a dollar.

Last week I left Guatemala for Costa Rica, and at first it was like coming back to the U.S. San Jose is a big, western city– tall buildings, billboards in english, light skinned people in modern clothes. Also, everything is a lot more expensive! I passed through many regions of the country on my way to the West Coast, and though the scenes outside my bus windows were full of classic central american greenery, the atmosphere of Costa Rica is palpably different from good old Guatemala.

These initial impressions of a western, tourist central country were my first ones, but my lasting memory of Costa Rica is of walking down a rocky beach. The ocean is dark and the night is black and cloudy, illuminated every minute or so by streaks of lightning that turn the driftwood sculptures bone white. I feel positively shipwrecked as I roam the beach, looking for turtles, whose eggs I am responsible for rescuing.  I spent a week accumulating versions of that memory at a remote marine research outpost in Playa Camaronal.

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Our project at Playa Camaronal was focused on sea turtle conservation, through working with the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Camaronal. RNVS Camaronal began in 1994 and currently works primarily with Olive Ridley sea turtles to help increase their population in the wild. Olive Ridley turtles are vulnerable to extinction (the least endangered of the 7 existing species), but, like all sea turtles, they face a number of threats from humans and wildlife. Adult female turtles come to shore to lay around 100 eggs 3 times during the year, and most of those nests are eaten by raccoons or birds or robbed by humans. Here in Costa Rica people buy and eat turtle eggs because they believe they have the same properties as viagra. It is a very strange and unfortunate (not to mention illegal) practice, but poachers still come to the beach nightly to steal away with bags of eggs. Our job at RNVS Camaronal was to participate in night patrols to protect nests from these harsh realities.

Throughout the night, we took shifts walking along the dark, rocky beach, looking for nesting turtles. When we came across one (some nights there were as many as 12 during a 3 hour shift) we measured its shell and fins, tagged it if it did not already have a marker, and then collected its eggs. The data helps the researchers monitor population levels of the turtles, and we collected the eggs so that we could rebury them inside the institute’s covered hatchery on the beach where they would be safe from predators.

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Turtles enter a trance-like state after they lay their first egg, so it was safe to just hang out behind the big animals and pick the shiny round eggs up out of the nest as they were laid. It was weird at first to be so up close and personal with the sea turtles, but it was also incredible to run my hands over their shells and see the bioluminescent algae there glow teal beneath my touch.

During the patrols we also recorded the location and status of many abandoned nests we passed, ones that were either robbed by poachers or eaten by animals before we reached them. Once we came across a turtle preparing to lay her eggs, and when we walked by again 5 minutes later after giving her time to go into her trance, the eggs were already being eaten by a raccoon as she was laying them. Needless to say, it’s tough to be a turtle. The shifts were long and exhausting but the work was enthralling, especially when it wasn’t pouring outside!

During the day when we weren’t napping to regain energy, we participated in other service projects around the Refugio. We often cleaned the administrative building where we slept or cleared trash and sticks from the beach, making it clear for turtles to nest. One of the coolest projects I worked on took place inside the hatchery. Turtle eggs are supposed to hatch after 45 days, but a number of 55 day old nests were still silent and undisturbed in the sand. Our job was to excavate these nests. We carefully dug into them with our hands and pulled out tiny, wriggling baby sea turtles who had hatched but had not been able to dig their way to the surface. In the nest I worked on I cautiously pulled out 20 sandy baby turtles who were deep within. As soon as I put them down on the sand they started waddling around energetically, shaking off the sand and trying to find the ocean. I also pulled out 70 unhatched eggs, a couple of which had a tiny, still, flipper or head sticking out. In this case we think these eggs failed because of the high level of rainfall in the past month, which makes the shells harder and more difficult to break out of. One egg that I lifted out had movement inside. As I watched, a baby turtle shoved its way into the world, and I helped it shed its shell as it took its first steps in my hand. Pretty cool stuff. The other nests in the hatchery had higher survival rates and soon we had a bin of hundreds of baby turtles, which we brought to the shore. We tipped over the bin and watched all the baby turtles head off into the wide ocean, where only 1 in 100 will likely survive.

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Such a hands on service project at RNVS Camaronal was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about the hard work the researchers there face. Even with the night patrols and hatchery, the success rate of sea turtle nests at Playa Camaronal is less than 50%. We tried having poacher patrols some nights but were never able to catch any culprits; sadly, the rangers in charge of this area are lax about turtle egg thievery. For now, RNVS Camaronal relies on volunteer support to keep looking out for Costa Rica’s Olive Ridleys one night at a time.



I was sad to leave the pura vida of turtles and sunshine, but after a week at Camaronal it was time to move on to a new country: Nicaragua! I am currently soaking up more sun in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, during a week of student-directed relaxation. After we get our surfing kick we will move on to more service and Spanish in the weeks to come. Here’s hoping pura vida follows us for the rest of our time here in Central America.

Author: Kaitlin Harlow is a 2014-2015 Global Gap Year Fellow.