Playa Cabuyal : saving the turtles on the Pacific Coast


Is saving endangered turtles your dream? I’ve done it. (Thank you Juliette, thank you Javi!) In February 2018, I had the chance to work for 6 weeks as a volunteer, along with the Leatherback Trust Foundation’s team of biologists.

Marine turtle research and protection project

The Leatherback Trust is an American non-profit. They monitor and protect 2 beaches on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica: Playa Grande (next to Tamarindo, famous surf spot) and Playa Cabuyal (northern Pacific, next to the border with Nicaragua).

Every year in Cabuyal, from October to March, a team of biologists and students live and work in the field. They study the local marine turtle population and ensure their survival.

Biologists and volunteers from all over the world live and work together, turning the camp into a joyful « science hostel ». They patrol the beach every night. They share meals, games and chores. They even develop their own cross-language vocabulary: « Chupalame, Tramposo, Boluuuuuda! »

Cabuyal Crew_ok

Arriving at Campamento Cabuyal involves taking a ride on a dirty stone road. It’s a miracle that the pickup’s tires survive. The camp is lost in the dry tropical forest. There the heat is overwhelming. There is no fridge, no phone, no internet.

On clothes lines hang towels, swimsuits and clothes. Backpacks hang open to dry. Fins, flip-flops and sneakers are lined up under the awning. The hallway features an immersive wildlife fresco painted by hand. Samples of sand and turtle skin carefully labeled are on display. In the shared book library, one can find Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

On field science

The camp hosts biology students who conduct specific research for their PhD or Master degree. They come from the United States, Argentina, Spain and Costa Rica, investigating on different but complementary topics.

Kelcy notes the sand’s temperature and granulometry in the nests. Mica uses turtle’s skin samples to establish the nature of their diet. Adam maps the mangrove with a drone or a canoe, and stuffs the forest with camera traps to photograph the local wildlife. Keilor surveys the estuary’s marine species.

The number of nesting turtles, the number of eggs hatched and the distribution of nests on the beach, every minute detail gets recorded on waterproof notebooks and turned into data on sturdy off-road computers.

I am fascinated with real fieldwork. Scientists are in contact daily with the environment and the animals they study. The beach has no secrets for them, even on the darkest moonless night. 

Investigating nature requires patience and selflessness. Patrols are long and sometimes have no turtles at all. Some turtles take hours to lay their eggs and others make false crawls. And we are just there with them, our bodies next to theirs. We follow the beach tempo, as well as the turtle movements and breathing pace. This type of fieldwork brings together the sensitive and the scientific, the everyday and the statistics.

I start dreaming about a similar camp for architects, landscape designers or urban planners.

It would be located on the site of the project. They would settle in-situ for a month or 2 and study the environment,  let it enter our senses and our brains, before designing anything.Too often nowadays do we work from Google Map or Google Earth views. For lack of time, money or curiosity to check out the very spot, we find ourselves effectively disconnected from the ground.

Typical day at the camp

I let myself fall into the gentle rhythm of Cabuyal. Mornings are slow and silent. We whisper while reading and having breakfast. I relish this peaceful moment. Nobody talks until the people who went to bed last are up. It’s a respectful community life.

Then comes lunch, at noon sharp. Two people cook. The rest of us await in the hammocks. On the menu, in magical and unexpected combinations: lentils, chickpeas, pasta, rice or beans. It has to be nourishing (and to stay good without fridge)!

repas cabuyal

The white board is central to the camp’s life. It displays the daily allotment of tasks: cooking duties, night patrols and nest excavations missions.

In the afternoon we go to the beach, located a half hour walk through mangrove and tropical forest. Under the scorching sun, we excavate the nests that have hatched to to ensure that there are no latecomer babies stuck in it, and count the number of empty shells to measure hatching success. 

Back to the camp. Dinner is served at 6 PM. Each meal is systematically followed by 3 ritual games of dominoes. The outcome of which will determine who will wash the dishes, who will dry it and who will take out the organic trash. Around 7:30 PM, the first team gets ready to go to the beach for the first night patrol shift. The others go to bed. It is pitch dark now. Spiders’ eyes are gleaming by the thousands when flashlights flood the field.

Fill the water bottles. Put on pants, sneakers and headlamps. Stuff the backpack with scientific equipment, blankets and snacks. The first team patrols the beach from 8 PM to midnight. The second patrol relieves them from midnight to 4 AM. At 5 AM, the last team wakes up, the bunk beds screak. It’s the « morning walk », time to watch the sun rise over the beach and to close the night.

Now that you’ve walked through this simulation, go try it out! They need you! This is an amazing place, coordinated by awesome people 🙂

Practical information:

To apply as a volunteer, contact: 

helena-mica-moi_cut(Read the French article here)


>Discover more about the project and the camp in this video

> My article: « Night patrol in Cabuyal »

> My article: « One month without internet, fridge or cellphone » 

> Apply as a volunteer in Playa Cabuyal with the Leatherback Trust 

> Apply as a researcher in Playa Cabuyal with the Leatherback Trust 

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