Sea Turtle Volunteering in Costa Rica

Dressed in black, we crouched on the beach, tense, determined to stand our ground. Waves crashed onto the shore behind us as two sets of eyes stared at us through the undergrowth ahead. They glowed red. We feared the worst, the assailants were poised to strike…

Thankfully we were not in the scene from an Andy McNab novel, and the “assailants” were simply hungry raccoons looking for an easy feast of turtle eggs. Our presence around the olive ridley sea turtle deterred the would-be thieves and the mother turtle laid her eggs before the raccoons got close enough (or brave enough) to steal any. The mother turtle ambled back towards the mighty Pacific Ocean, safe in the knowledge she had done her bit for her species. And we carefully collected her eggs (much to the dismay of the onlooking raccoons) and set off to bury them in a more secure area.  

The raccoons would have set about eating all 104 eggs the tired mother had laid had we not been there. We know that because earlier that night we’d seen another nest that had been dug up and wiped out by the cute but rather insatiable mammals. Of course, all animals have to fill their bellies, but the fact remains that raccoons are plentiful and not endangered (and have lots of other culinary options available), whereas sea turtles are very much under threat. Although the olive ridley species is the most numerous of the sea turtles, it is still classified as “vulnerable” which means they are “facing a high risk of extinction in the wild”.

Baby sea turtle in Costa Rica

But let’s go back to basics: how did we find ourselves protecting turtle eggs from hungry raccoons in the first place?

Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica

When planning our family holiday, we wanted something more than a week or two by the pool. Our kids loved nature and wildlife (don’t all kids!), so we fancied a destination that would allow us to observe exotic animals in their natural environment. We happened across a responsible travel and gap year company called Oyster Worldwide which offered people the chance to volunteer with sea turtles in Costa Rica, which sounded very exciting. After doing a little more research, we decided to give it a go. And once the kids had seen a couple of the pictures of the hatchlings, there was no turning back!

Sea turtle arribada in Costa Rica

We got loads of useful pre-departure information from Georgie, our contact at Oyster, including an extensive kit list of various things we should take (including dark clothes and red-light head torches for the night patrols!). The project itself was located at the beautiful Costa de Oro beach on the Nicoya Peninsula in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica. (As it’s located on the Pacific – i.e. west – coast, there are also some truly stunning sunsets!) The local organisation running things was Turtle Trax, which is the volunteering arm of The Center for the Rescue of Endangered Marine Species (CREMA), a Costa Rican research and conservation NGO that monitors and protects sea turtles, their eggs and hatchlings in the area.

Upon arrival at the project site, we were greeted by the project coordinator Katie who showed us around, told us a little about what we’d be helping with over the coming week and introduced us to the other staff and volunteers. After a long journey, the plan was for us to take things easy before getting stuck into various conservation-related tasks the following day. But within minutes of our arrival, Katie got a call from a researcher at CREMA who told her there was likely to be an arribada at a nearby beach that night.

She asked if we’d like to witness the arribada – our blank expressions prompted her to explain that an arribada (or “arrival”) was a mass-laying event when hundreds or even thousands of turtles descend on a single beach over the course of a night (or several nights) to lay their eggs. Clearly this was not to be missed and, after an amazing dinner cooked by Chila, a local Costa Rican woman with a great talent for cooking up scrumptious feasts, we set our alarms for 2.00 am.

Despite the slightly treacherous road conditions (that were bad enough in daylight hours but were another level in darkness), we arrived at Corozalito, donned our head torches (and switched to red lights), and headed to the beach. There were a few CREMA researchers at the beach who were measuring, recording and tagging the turtles, and there were hundreds of turtles. There were so many turtles on the beach that we had to tread very carefully to ensure we didn’t get in their way as they headed up the beach, dug nests, laid their eggs and then, often rather dazed and exhausted, headed back out to sea.

By the time the sun came up, the number of turtles had thinned out significantly, but there were still plenty of mother turtles to observe. Their singlemindedness as they journeyed up the beach and back was admirable, and they would take the most direct route even if it meant clambering over obstacles or even other turtles. Unfortuntely for the turtles, and indeed the prospects of their offspring, sunrise also brought another mass arrival: black vultures seeking eggs for breakfast!

Day-to-day Duties At The Sea Turtle Project

After getting lucky on our first night at the sea turtle project, and after feasting on pancakes for breakfast (cooked by the brilliant research assistant Colleen), we grabbed a couple of hours of sleep and got introduced to some of the more routine tasks that needed completing at the project.

Sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica

One of the main regular jobs was to check the hatchery to see if any baby turtles had hatched. Everything was very well organised and all details were recorded, checked and double-checked. As such, the staff knew exactly how many eggs had been relocated to each section of the hatchery and on which dates. And hence they had a fair guess about which nests would produce hatchlings next.

After viewing so many adult turtles at the arribada we were also fortunate enough to encounter hundreds of hatchlings during our week at the project. One of the many highlights of our time in Costa Rica was helping to release the hatchlings to the sea, helping them begin a journey that would be filled with peril and wonder.

Sea turtle in Costa Rica

Sometimes the majority of the eggs in a given nest would hatch within a short space of time, and sometimes we would find stragglers who’d been left behind by their siblings. In either case, we placed the hatchlings in large buckets and took them to a safe (i.e. raccoon- and vulture-free) area of the beach to release them on the beach around four metres from the sea. (This allowed them to stretch their flippers and build up their dexterity before taking to the ocean and also to gain recognition of the beach… females would return to the very same beach in the future to lay their own eggs!)

We were told that only around one in a thousand turtles that made it to the sea as hatchlings would survive to adulthood and hence to mate. Given how fragile and vulnerable the hatchlings appeared as they took their first tentative strides towards the gigantic, predator-filled ocean, this was very believable. Sadly, it is we humans who cause most of the problems for sea turtles: fishing with indiscriminate nets, discarded nets that ghost around the oceans snagging whatever swims into them, plastic waste and global warming are all having negative effects on each turtle’s chances of surviving long enough to breed. So it was heart-warming to hear that the project on that beach alone had released many thousands of hatchlings into the Pacific that season alone.

Other duties we undertook while there included collecting and sorting plastic waste that had washed up on the beach (another rather depressing example of how humans are screwing up our environment), making signs to promote turtle conservation and discourage poaching, checking old nests and recording how many eggs failed to hatch and general cleaning and maintenance of the project base and hatchery.

Nightly Beach Patrols

As well as monitoring the hatchery and helping to release the baby turtles and the other duties, each night we also patrolled the beach to search for freshly laid nests and mother turtles who had just laid their eggs (or who were coming up the beach to do so). The times of the patrols changed each night as they were dependent on the tides, but sometimes we would go from around 10.00 pm to 2.00 am, other times 2.30 am until 5.30 am (which was an especially nice shift as the rising sun made things that much easier).

We soon learned how to spot and recognise the turtle tracks that showed a mother had been on the beach seeking a nesting site. Sometimes a mother turtle had a little look around and decided against that spot at that time and headed back out to sea. Other times she laid her eggs. A few times during our trip we observed mothers finding their nesting site, digging a hole and laying their eggs. When this happened, we observed as Katie or Colleen tagged and measured the turtle and recorded the information. We would then retrieve the eggs and relocate them to a safer area of the beach. Usually this would be the designated hatchery, but because we were getting towards the end of the season (when the project would no longer be fully operational) we had to find other places on the beach to bury the eggs. Crucially, these would be away from the turtle tracks that poachers use to locate the eggs they (illegally) steal to eat and/or sell.

During our patrols, we often came across nests that have been ransacked by raccoons or other predators or, far more depressingly, by human poachers. More regularly we were able to retrieve the eggs before poachers or predators had struck, thankfully.

Not Just Work, Work, Work

Aside from the turtle-related activities, there was also plenty of time during our stay to explore the local area and generally chill out. We went on two local tours during our free time, the first of which was a brilliant visit to The Jungle Butterfly Farm.

Run by the brilliantly enthusiastic entomologist, Mike Malliet (known locally as “Jungle Mike”), the butterfly farm is different to most in that it is open-air as opposed to being in a greenhouse or similar. As such, you see butterflies (and many other animals, including bats, bees, termites and whatever else happens to show up on a given day) in their natural environment. It would be difficult to find a more knowledgeable to effusive guide than Jungle Mike whose insect-related anecdotes were wildly entertaining. He also produces various organic jungle products including honey and coconut oil that are available to purchase. And he’ll even feed you termites if you’re feeling brave!

On our second tour, we went on a boat trip through the mangroves. Run by a local fisherman, we cruised through this crucial ecosystem that is home to numerous interesting birds, trees, fish and… crocodiles! We saw a couple of crocs that were “quite little” according to the captain, but at around two metres in length, they were big enough to concern our eight-year-old.

Would We Recommend Volunteering in Costa Rica?

After spending time with the amazing people and wildlife of Costa Rica, we would definitely recommend volunteering on a turtle conservation project there. It was sometimes hard work and we had to get up at various points during the night for turtle patrols… and there were lots of pesky mosquitos. But all that was outweighed by the excitement felt when seeing a hatchling venture into the ocean for the first time. The staff at the Turtle Trax project were also brilliant, helping us learn so much about olive ridley turtles and indeed turtles in general and helping us and the kids develop loads of new skills. In summary, this was a trip of a lifetime.

And to finish off, how about a cute little turtle heading towards the Pacific Ocean for the first time?