Saving the turtles on the Caribbean coast


When I was in Costa Rica, I volunteered in two different sea turtle camps. The first one (see this article) is situated on the Pacific coast in Playa Cabuyal. This camp is operated by an American non-profit (The Leatherback Trust). It doesn’t welcome people outside of the biologists and volunteers working on site. The second camp I went is situated on the Atlantic coast, near Tortuguero National Park. This one, called Estacion Las Tortugas, is open to the public, it is an environmental educational center raising awareness about this endangered species.


(Lire en français)

Estacion Las Tortugas: a family project 

Here the beach is not protected by a non-profit, like in Cabuyal, but by a Costa Rican family. Stanley, the director, with 20 other people are operating the Estacion Las Tortugas. It is a protected beach, along with a research center for marine biologists, an educational center for groups and schools, and a local sustainable business promoting environmental education.


In spring time, the Leatherbacks (« Baulas ») come by hundreds to nest on this coast of Costa Rica. They are those prehistoric creatures crawling on the black Caribbean sand, leaving giant tracks behind them under the pouring tropical rain. They are the oldest of all the sea turtles, and the biggest of the species. (NB: In Costa Rica, sea turtles come nesting on the Pacific coast during fall & winter, and on the Atlantic-Caribbean coast  during spring & summer).

The Caribbean coast is pretty different from the  Pacific coast. Here poachers are very common. People believe that eating sea turtle’s eggs is very powerful. Those myths are also well known in other countries, which makes this business a very profitable one. During the nesting season, poachers go to the beach at night and steal the fresh eggs in the nests. Before the Estacion was created at the beginning of the 2000’s, 100% of the turtles’ eggs on this beach were poached.


Biologists working at the Estacion are not as isolated as in Cabuyal. They patrol the beach and take groups to make them discover the leatherbacks on site. Groups pay the Estacion for participating on the night patrols and for their stay. As the Butterfly Conservatory situated near the Arenal volcano, the Estacion Las Tortugas is a private project enhancing the public good, and protecting thousands of baby turtles.


Biologists and volunteers patrol the beach every night to prevent poachers from stealing eggs. Two groups patrol at the same time, while a few armed guards wait at strategic points. The beach stops at the edge of another which is protected by separate organization. In Costa Rica, poaching is illegal and poachers must be taken to the police.


The nursery is located on the beach right next to the station. It is watched from a tower night and day. This part of the beach is fenced and organized into a grid made of strings. Nest A12 or B3, the leatherbacks’ eggs are buried into a giant Battleships game. The information of each nest are reported to a big chart on the wall. Later they will be coupled with the excavation data (such as number of born or dead babies) to establish population statistics.


Biologists have to get the eggs right when the female lay them. On patrol, they locate the females crawling on the beach. They dig a « seat » to slip behind them when they start laying. They intercept the eggs with a big plastic bag and walk back to the nursery to bury them into a new nest that will protect them for the next two months. When the babies come out of the nest, they are « escorted » to the ocean by the biologists. Later, the nest will be excavated to gather data and establish turtle population statistics. 


The Estacion offers several dorms, a kitchen and a communal dining room. Visiting groups are often from the US. The group is housed and fed on site. They participate on the night patrols and get to hear short lectures given by the biologists: the « Turtle Talks ». People can also take part to creative activities, such as making models or signs for the station.


Experience on site 

ARRIVAL. I arrive in Batán by bus. The project coordinator has called a taxi for me. The taxi is there, waiting in front of the supermarket with his very smiley face. He invites me inside and shares a delicious little sugary cheese bread with me. It’s very yummy. We drive through large banana plantations before getting to the river. You can only reach the Estacion by motor boat through a complex network of rivers. This is the habitat of crocodiles, birds and monkeys. The water is smooth and golden brown. I look at the dusty branches as they dive into those suspicious water. At times the boat driver points at us a still crocodile or heron.


FOOD. The team meals are taken around a long wooden table under a corrugated roof. Food looks pretty much the same every day. Rice & beans: for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t complain, i love it. My body has actually felt really good with this diet (…even if I miss fruits and veggies in large quantities.) There are daily slight variations in the menu: rice & beans and salad, rice & beans and cheese, rice & beans and eggs, rice & beans and meat, rice & beans and yucca… After 7 days of this straight diet, we finally get to eat spaghetti! Every one of us is beaming with joy and grateful for this beautiful novel dish. The day after, there’s a new combination on the menu: rice & beans and pasta 🙂


TINKERING.  Today with Jesus, Javi, Keilor and Christian, we go to build a little shack along the beach, marker 15. It will prevent patrol groups from getting soaked during the torrential rains at night. They usually find the weather pretty shitty at this season in the Caribbean. We start with a few bamboo poles that we stick into the sand, and tie them together with orange rope. Keilor is cutting down some big palm tree leaves with his machete to make the roof. We drag them on the beach to the shed. Doing this, in this type of scenery, makes me feel like I am in Robinson Crusoë or in Lord of Flies. I am fascinated that we can imagine and build those kind of structures so spontaneously. Nature gives us materials, we just have to make habitats for ourselves. We use a few big logs to create benches, and sit on them to talk about the orientation of the leaves for the roof. 


CLIMATE. Rain season is here for good. It’s all muggy and humid, when it’s not pouring rain. Nothing ever dries. Sudden showers soak everything in the camp. When the rain falls hard on the corrugated roof, we don’t hear ourselves speaking anymore in the cafeteria. When I finally go to bed after a 6-hour patrol, another flood falls. It washes out all the laundry I had been trying to dry. The howler monkeys (« congos ») start a long and deep concerto. 


TRANSMISSION. Tonight, we are patrolling the beach with a group of American students coming with the non-profit organization Ecoteach. The beginning of the night is pretty quiet. The night is clear and warm. The stars are shining bright around the Big Dipper and the moon. Nothing compared to my first patrol night here, when it was pitch dark and pouring rain. It doesn’t feel like the same beach at all! We see a Leatherback coming out of the ocean. A silent thunderstorm is bursting on the horizon. The huge shell of the turtle is flashing like a strobe light under the lightnings. I share with a genuine enthusiasm my knowledge about this animal with our group. I am so happy to be passing on some of what I have learned here. Later on, we’re chatting with my Mexican biologist colleague about permaculture, microbiology and his plans for the future. He already knows he won’t continue as a biologist. He wants to settle down in Baja California, to buy a sailing boat and start his own company of outdoor activities. 


SLOW LIFE. We spend our days waiting for the nights, and we spend our night waiting for turtles. Just watching chickens and roosters run around in the black sand and in between tropical flowers. The hanging laundry looks like a music sheet. On top of the watchtower or on the shelves, cell phones try as best as they can to reach small crumbs of network. Guards drowse in hammocks rocked with the sound of waves. Women are patiently cooking 3 meals a day in the kitchen. Men wait for lunch time seated at the bar reading the newspaper or playing pool. A small crocodile rips a big fish apart on the other side of the river. We are staring at the whole scene as a nature documentary. 



More :

Volunteer at the Estacion Las Tortugas 

-My Instagram story

-My article: « My first Leatherback »

-My article: « Butterflies & Rainforest regeneration »

-My article: « Playa Cabuyal: Saving the turtles on the Pacific coast » 

-My article: « Night patrol in Cabuyal » 

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


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