Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
With a generous grant from the Center of International and Intercultural Studies Office, I was given the opportunity to travel to the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. At Ostional, I volunteered with the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía (MINAE) to work with endangered marine turtles. Originally, I had planned to work with Leatherback sea turtles, which are critically endangered, but upon arrival I ended up working with mainly Olive Ridley turtles. Ostional sees approximately six nesting Leatherbacks per year, but the Olive Ridleys are much more common there and I was able to learn and help much more than I would have on the Leatherback project.
Most of my responsibilities while at Ostional, were conducting night patrols on the beach to search for nesting Olive Ridley turtles. For most patrols I was placed in a group with Spanish speakers and English speakers so that I could serve as a translator in addition to helping with the turtles. We divided the beach into about 6 kilometer sections and each patrol group would spend the night pacing that distance and watching for turtles. When we spotted a turtle track on the sand, we followed in until we either found the turtle, or if we were too late a matching track back to the ocean. If the turtle was laying eggs, we counted the number she laid, checked her for injury or disease, tagged new turtles, took basic measurements of the shell, flippers, and nest, and recorded all the information on a location specific basis. The turtle tracking is important, especially for endangered or threatened species, to determine if numbers are decreasing, or if there are changes in the reproduction habits and species continuation.
My last night volunteering was unforgettable; it was as if Ostional was begging me to stay. Although it started out slow, with only solitary turtles nesting, the mounting excitement that an Arribada was coming turned into real life by midnight. Arribada means arrival in Spanish, and arrive they did, thousands of female Olive Ridleys. They marked the sand like tractor tires with their "rastros" or tracks as they climbed over, on top of, and around each other to nest. Driven by moon cycles, Arribadas happen about every month and last for 3-7 days. Up to hundreds of thousands of turtles come to nest at once. Olive Ridley turtles nest 4-6 times per year. During Arribadas, sometimes turtles come out to nest during the day, when typically they only do so at night.
I was also lucky enough to see a Leatherback at the end of my patrol -what a sight! The Costa Rica population of Leatherbacks, or Baulas, as they are known in Spanish, has reached a critical level of about 300. Leatherbacks, are the largest turtle species, reaching almost 2 meters in length. Their name comes from their unique shell, which is not hard like other turtle species. One of their front flippers can break a human leg with the right provocation.
Besides the nightly patrols, a few times I was asked to do morning patrols to protect the hatchlings on their way to the ocean. Locals and volunteers alike cover the beach to shoo away dogs, poachers, and carrion birds. Lines of white pelicans swoop over the waves to feed at dawn, their silhouettes light up with the first scintillating rays of the morning sun. The black vultures that await the hatchlings crowd the beach and move short distances to watch with anticipation as the humans yell and clap driftwood at them. The tortuguitas poke their heads up experimentally from the sand and spend several minutes waiting around before the urge to move hits them. At first they appear bluish black as they emerge, but after their warmup calisthenics in circles they turn a tan greenish color. Their sense of direction comes into play and they crawl in desperate spurts toward the crashing waves. When they get within reach, the white foam rinses them and often sets them back several meters at first. But with this newfound sense of safety the baby turtles give a strong burst of energy and waddle forward at their new high speed toward the ocean. Several tries later, the salty water carries them off to their new home and they swim away to their fate.