Volunteer : • GROUPS OF STUDENTS : NATIONAL GEOGRAFIC •
Period : June- July 2017 and 2018 Nationality : Everywhere
Author: Kristen Sawyer
National Geographic Student Expeditions Trip Leader, Costa Rica Community Service
It all started with a baby turtle. I had never before held a baby turtle in my hands, its tiny fins pulling across my skin, as if it was churning up its own energy to embark on the longest journey of its short life thus far— surviving the sand, the threats of the water, and fighting for its right to live. I found myself here, on Playa Jobo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, through a perfectly timed connection, as so often happens when working on the ground in a location. My job as a trip leader with National Geographic Student Expeditions grants me the opportunity to plant new seeds in a location; in this case, the area in and around Cuajiniquil, Guanacaste.
Nat Geo Student Expeditions is a branch of National Geographic that encourages students from all over the world to explore other cultures and engage with different communities. There are photography, writing, science, and community service expeditions in over thirty countries. I am one of the co-leaders for the Costa Rica community service expedition. Most of our work takes place in Cuajiniquil, a small fishing town close to the border of Nicaragua. There, we have painted the community center, created murals on the high school walls, taught English, assisted farmers clearing their land, and helped to increase tourism to this part of Guanacaste, but we have never before ventured onto the sands of Playa Jobo, even though it is just a mere thirty kilometers away from Cuajiniquil.
My connection that brought me to this turtle release is in the form of a sinewy French woman named Mathilde; she is the Environmental Educator and volunteer coordinator of ETC, Equipo Tora Carey, or Team Black and Carey Turtle. Only a year older than me, Mathilde holds herself tall as a woman who has seen, and done, much more. She is the type of strong spirit you hope to win over as a friend, who you want supporting your arguments in a debate. Her values for conservation are strong, and extend into her everyday practices. A friend of a friend had connected us, encouraging me that the two of us should get together, and so, over coffee sips and talk of turtles, a new partnership was formed.
That first meeting, Mathilde explained to me the work of ETC. ETC is a NGO based in the town El Jobo; it was started by Maike Heidemeyer, a marine biologist and conservationist, almost two years ago. ETC has various branches, but its mission is based in conservation, research, and accumulation of resources for yellow neck parrots, sea turtles, and rays. It is an organization intricately woven into the fabric of the El Jobo community and the surrounding beaches. Maike knows that no change can be sustainable without the investment of the community members themselves. She and her team, including Mathilde, work with local fisherman to provide education about sustainable fishing practices, about turtle habits and nesting, and about recycling. The team also teaches kids in El Jobo about the same topics, as well as how to tag and collect tissue samples from rays and turtles. The data is used to prove migratory patterns, genetic of the species and to determine areas for protection.
We planned that some of the students I was leading in Cuajinquil could come to help out at one of the kid camps on the upcoming Saturday; they’d clean the beach, tag rays, and snorkel to see the turtles. But before that day came to pass, Mathilde sent me a message early Thursday morning: ‘Baby turtle!’ Later that afternoon, I drove over. I had always loved turtles, but knew very little; in fact, turtles remain a mystery for many. Biologists know they eat jellyfish. They know there are eight species of sea turtle in the world (although this is arguable; some biologists say seven); five of them nest along the shore in Guanacaste. In this particular area of northern Guanacaste, around the peninsula known as Punta Descartes, there are three sea turtles that come to nest: Pacific Black, Olive Ridley, and Hawksbill. Pacific Green and Leatherback also frequent the coast further south. Playa Jobo, where ETC is based, has been said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, but it’s also one of the areas that has seen immense drops in the turtle population.
Just off the shore of Playa Jobo, a little further south, a large alimentation site brings red snappers, manta rays, sting rays, sea turtles, lobster, octopus and more. It’s the secret feeding ground of marine creatures from here and from afar— sea turtles from the Galápagos Islands have been found at this site—but the secret is known by the large fishing companies as well. The majority of fishermen, who have fished their entire lives in these waters, utilize methods that optimize productuction, namely large nets with small holes. Even though the fishermen from El Jobo and the surrounding area operate on a smaller scale and don’t use such nets, larger companies from elsewhere in the country do. They drop their lattices to the ground and leave them there overnight, white-toothed jaws lying wide open; the jaws lazily close the following morning around baby fish not yet mature, and all colorful flaps and wriggles of bycatch– turtles, octopus, and even the occasional baby shark. What happens to these creatures when their existence is noted by the fishermen the next morning? Their corpses are left to float away on the waves, to sink or to be eaten; the fishermen shake their heads, counting what gives them profit, never noting the uncountable.
Along with the dangers in the water, the populated, touristic coasts of Costa Rica present their own challenges. The beaches, whether sand or rock, are often peppered with trash: plastic bottles, miscellaneous plastic, bottle caps, beer cans. Our Nat Geo group had worked with the Leatherback Turtle Trust in Playa Grande a few days before I met Mathilde; we learned about the conservation specifically of leatherbacks as we helped clean the beach. During a three-week period, the students from National Geographic Student Expeditions and Putney service trips collected over 18 kilos of trash, and this was just on a 500 meter stretch of land. Many of these beaches appear pristine at first, straight out a calendar or catalogue. But a bare foot and astute gaze sees beneath the polished promise of Costa Rican beaches: a toe crunches plastic and shell fragments alike; a forgotten Coca Cola 2L bottle rolls between the tall grasses. Where there are humans, there are our remains.
Other manmade threats dissuade turtles from coming ashore to nest: light pollution, beach chairs left in the sand from resorts, restaurant tables left out overnight, bonfires after sunset, and campers with lights above their tents. All of these factors lower the population of sea turtles in this part of Costa Rica. There used to be over one thousand leatherback sea turtles who came during the high season, September-November, to nest in Playa Grande; this past high season, there were eleven. Although other nesting areas around the world report that their Leatherback population isn’t declining, on this western coast of Costa Rica, the population has plunged.
Hawksbill turtles typically lay eggs from May to August; Pacific Black lay from August to September and December to January. The small Ridley turtles lay year round, especially in this northern part of Guanacaste. Here in Playa Jobo, biologists and locals have noted a significant decrease in turtles nesting as well as visiting the alimentation site. Why are some populations of turtles in the world increasing, or staying the same, while here in Costa Rica the decline has been so rapid? Biologists, locals, and conservationists here know the threats, both on and off shore, but single-sentenced answers are too neat and tidy for this mess of a situation.
ETC is one such group attempting to answer that question. One way of addressing the problem is to work with local partners. ETC offers classes with fishermen who, after years of fishing, have now changed their livelihoods to become conservationists instead. One of them is Pirricho. Pirricho is the brother of Randall, the first man from El Jobo who started working with ETC; Randall is lovingly named “the turtle man,” and he has been committed to the project ever since his first night patrols for turtles two years ago. Between the two brothers, they walk the sand every night of the week, receiving a small stipend generated from volunteers who work with ETC.
Their patrols are what led to the discovery of this particular nest that Mathilde had texted me about when she frantically messaged, “Baby turtle!” Pirricho had found a nest on Playa Coyotera, one of the neighboring beaches to Playa Jobo, and ETC had to make a difficult decision. Due to its high tide and the large raccoon population, Playa Coyotera has nearly a 100% mortality rate for turtle eggs. The organization decided that, to protect the eggs and give them a better chance for survival, they had to move the nest to a new location so that the turtles would have a stronger chance for survival than their certain demise in the little jaws of raccoons or the rolling waves. They transplanted the nest to Playa Jobo. This decision was taken with extreme care, because as far as humans know, it’s important for turtles to come into the water on the same beach where their nest is located. Survival of the fittest, aided by human intervention; it’s not in keeping with the ways of nature, but sometimes, I suppose, human hope transgresses the environment’s declarations. But still, I’m left to wonder, will these baby turtles return here, to Playa Jobo, or somehow, will something deeper within them pull them to Coyotera, a few kilometers away?
Typically, though not always, female turtles return to lay eggs on the beach where they were born. This is controversial: a tagged Galapagos turtle came to lay on these beaches just a few years ago. It is a mystery of turtles– just how do they know to return to the beach of their birth? Born here, in the Costa Rican sand, they’ll travel on currents down to the tip of South America, yet somehow return to these tiny beaches, a few hundred meters long, to lay their eggs. Fifty days ago, Pirricho, the fisherman turned turtle-walker, had found the nest, and on this lazy Thursday morning, the baby turtles cracked their shells with their miniature beaks, ready to make their way to the water. ETC gathered the baby turtles so that they wouldn’t start their trek during the day when the sand was already populated with beachgoers, campers, and fishermen. They guarded the turtles until sunset, when I arrived along with a small group of others curious to bear witness to this pilgrimage.
I came with the expectation of seeing one turtle. I didn’t realize I would bear witness to the trek of 127 newborn creatures instead. Mathilde gathered us in a circle, marking an arc for us to stay behind, and placed a baby turtle in each of our hands so she could count them. We lowered our palms to the wet earth and watched the flippered souls stagger their way across the sand, dragging their little fins. Young life, ferociously pulling itself forward, to the dark waters ahead. Out of every turtle nest, which can hold up to 200 eggs, although most around here hold between 70 and 130 depending on the breed, less than 10% will make it to adulthood. Some biologists say only one will survive from every nest. Of the 127 eggs that hatched, there were only a handful of deaths before they made their way into the surf. After that, the unknown begins.
As our small group watched the baby turtles travel toward salvation and security in the waves, we knew they also moved toward mystery. Humans don’t know what happens to a sea turtle between its arrival into the waters and its return to nest. “The lost years,” conservationists call it. So few baby turtles survive from a nest that it wouldn’t make sense to tag every baby turtle; only when they return to a beach to nest can conservationists tag them to start following their trail, to start attempting to understand these creatures with jelly-swallowing beaks and armor-coated flesh. But now, they feel so soft, their shells not yet hard, their bodies pulsing in my palm.
Just as humans don’t know what happens to the baby turtles, the turtles themselves are left to figure out their first decades of life. They expend so much energy in their first five days of swimming. This last baby turtle in my hand, one of the last from the nest, it will try to find a current when it finally makes its way past the waves lapping the shore. It will try to avoid the laughing larger fish that watch baby turtles learning how to swim. This turtle will struggle to find something to eat; it will seek algae to cling onto as it drifts along the current until, finally, it gains enough weight to float on its own. And yet, without knowledge nor guidance, except for perhaps an internal instinct, this baby turtle slides from my hand across the sand, from the sand into the dark waves, always moving forward. We humans are left to watch as their small shadows in the twilight embark into the unknown. We’re left to contemplate what we can do to improve these shores and waters so that, 25-40 years from now when a female return, perhaps she will find a place where she feels, temporarily, as though she’s coming home.
Volunteer : • FREDDIE•
Period : June- July 2017 Nationality : British
On my very first night in El Jobo, I was awoken, jet-lagged and disorientated, to news of a nesting turtle on a nearby beach, before being driven off immediately down a bumpy road to retrieve her and help fit a GPS tracker. This was the first turtle I had seen in my life and I had almost no knowledge of these animals, having arrived as a student of Intercultural Communication. I would later learn that this was a nesting Hawksbill turtle, and that it was a huge moment for everyone involved in the project.
It was immediately clear from this first experience just how passionate everyone involved with Equipo Tora Carey is for all of its projects.
Over the course of my stay, I especially learned a lot from the nightly patrols with the local community members. These patrols would sometimes feel long and tiring, especially after a day’s turtle monitoring, however I would always feel glad that I’d gone and helped out. Witnessing one nesting turtle, or one nest being born was worth countless nights spent under the stars seeing nothing at all. Even on those occasions, I’d still get back home late into the night having learned a great deal more about turtles, the local culture and the people themselves, as well as having practiced and improved my Spanish. Every single person involved with Equipo Tora Carey was a huge help and made everything easier, especially my amazing host family who looked after me better than I could have hoped.
My favourite activities were the mornings spent either turtle or ray monitoring, which involved lots of snorkelling and free-diving, enabling me to learn a great deal about these creatures whilst working with them directly. A personal highlight was when during these activities, I could float in the perfectly blue water and see nothing around except marine life. Again, the team of biologists, educators and locals were incredible during these activities, and I felt increasingly confident in helping teach visiting groups about the various protocols related to the monitoring processes.
Afternoon’s were mostly spent admiring the view of the bay whilst counting Loras. This was the perfect opportunity to sit in near silence and relax, until the usual 6 o’clock ‘rush hour’ when hoards of squawking Loras would soar overhead as I scrambled to note down each one.
My entire stay was full of surprises, and from finding a severely sick turtle which needed medical attention, to transporting a male Hawksbill to a nearby island on a boat guided only by the moonlight, I found that being able to adapt to any situation and embrace any opportunity were essential skills in order to make the most of this experience. Overall, I can safely say that my time with Equipo Tora Carey was one of the most memorable things that I’ve ever done, and every time I witnessed a presentation being made to a visiting group, I’d feel incredibly proud to have contributed to the work being done in El Jobo. Muchísimas gracias al equipo!
Volunteer : • CAMILLE•
Period : June- July 2017 Nationality : British
I’m now in my sixth and final week in El Jobo and I can truly say it’s been an incredible experience. This last month and a half has flown by and I just wish I could stay longer. I found out about ETC through my university as I am currently studying an MSc in Environmental Change and International Development. It’s a requirement that we do a 6 week placement with an organisation for our dissertation research. While many of my peers opted for the office based placements, I went for a more hands on one. How could I resist the opportunity to work with a community in protecting an endangered species in such a beautiful setting?!
It did take a little adjustment to the way of living here as it is different to what I’m used to in England and my Spanish isn’t very strong so communication has been extra difficult. However the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming so by 2 or so weeks I felt truly settled.
Even though I came to do research, I have been completely immersed in all of the volunteer activities. Each day is different and there’s always the high possibility of the plan changing at the last minute, so the best advice I can give for coming here is to just go with the flow. While the work here is crucial and the people work very hard to make sure it gets done, there’s also a much more relaxed pace to life which I love!
When I arrived I was given a schedule of activities which looked something like this:
Once a week we were to take a boat to a nearby island to catch turtles either by hand or with a special net, once caught we would measure, tag and sample the turtle and release it back into the sea. Even though it is low season for the turtles we still managed to catch some turtles, although there were a couple of trips where we didn’t manage to find any as the conditions were very poor. However, just the trip out on a local fishing boat to a beautiful island is an experience in itself.
Three times a week we would drive to nearby beaches to catch the smaller species of rays by freediving down to the seabed using handheld nets to catch the rays. Once caught we would take them back to shore and put them in containers, where we’d measure, sample and tag each one before releasing them. I found it quite difficult to catch the rays to begin with as I didn’t have much experience of freediving, but before long I gained confidence and now this is one of my favourite activities to do.
Most late afternoons were spent sat overlooking the sea out to two islands where the endangered Yellow Naped Amazonia parrot aka ‘Lora’ sleeps at night. The birds fly to the mainland in the day to forage then back to the islands at night where they keep their nests safe away from predators. Little is known about this species so we are tasked to count them on a daily basis so ETC can try and understand them better. This is a perfect way to relax after having usually had such an active day.
3-4 times a week I would go with one of the local men working with ETC to patrol one of four of the nearby beaches. Shifts would be from 8pm-12am and 12-4am. Patrolling the beaches is necessary to prevent people from poaching the eggs, other animals from eating them and to ensure the baby turtles make it into the sea when they’re born. It’s low season for turtles nesting at the moment so there haven’t been as many turtles as there would have been in the other half of the year, however I have still seen the whole process from when a turtle lays its eggs to when they hatch, and what the patrollers do in between. I had never seen turtles before coming here so seeing them hatch was an experience like no other!
Saturday mornings are dedicated to the local kids. Usually there’s about 15 kids that come along to take part in activities that range from week to week. They can involve anything from playing games like What’s the time Mr Wolf and Simon Says on the beach so they can practice their English, learning how to kitesurf, or going out on a sailboat to nearby islands. Whatever we do it’s never boring as they’re so full of energy and keen to try new things.
Then of course there have been other things that happened that weren’t in the schedule, like putting a GPS transmitter on a nesting Hawksbill (the only time this has ever happened in Costa Rica!), going to meetings with the local municipality to secure funding, finding and taking a sick Hawksbill to an aquarium four hours away to get looked after, getting to watch the world cup with a variety of nationalities, and just generally living like the locals do.
I could talk for hours about my stay here but I’ve already talked on for long enough. You should most definitely come and see for yourself how incredible it is here!
Volunteer : • BRIAN •
Period : July 2017 Nationality : United States
Saturday, July 8, was a holiday weekend for most Costa Ricans. People from all over the country traveled to Punta Descartes to visit the beautiful beaches and take a break. However, that day the local community agreed that the environment needed a break a lot more than they did.
Kids: cousins, friends, neighbors – perhaps twenty in total – traveled to the beach together under the supervision of Mathilde Giry and other adults. They could choose their own way to help out – one team cleaned the reef with snorkels, the other picked up mountains of trash along the beach, some painted signs that ETC would hang in beaches and other public areas, and some kids who specialized in science got to travel with a researching master’s student, Nathalie, to an adjacent beach to capture and record rays.
These efforts were augmented when a group of volunteers from the National Geographic Community Service Abroad program joined us. Some of their amazing artists got to work with kids in arts and crafts painting signs, while others picked up trash, supervised the children, or were introduced to the ray project.
Their community engagement project occurs in another community, Cuajiniquil, a little south of El Jobo. Each kid chooses a specialization project to enrich their neighbors with, and through it, develop connections. I had a wonderful conversation with their coordinatior, Kristen, about the personal benefits to doing such service as well as the impact it has.
Often, we think of giving back to a community or the environment – service in any form, really – as an altruistic act that we do because we are good Samaritans or because we are trying to write a great essay for college. Kristen and I discussed how this view is nearsighted and fails to grasp the whole picture. Many volunteers diminish their experience about thinking of it through the lens of a transaction – the community gets their work, and the person gets an experience to tell everyone about.
But beyond that, I think that service provides the volunteer a myriad of other benefits, often unseen and taken for granted. Science and countless personal affirmations have shown that service to others increases personal happiness. In addition to the foreign-country aspects of new perspectives, language skills, and an increased worldly empathy, going outside your community to any other allows you to think about what’s missing in your own.
For example, here, I learned how to just walk to another person’s house with no invitation, and sit down with them, teach, or just relax and learn. Why don’t we do that back in the states? Why can’t you just walk over to the house of your neighbor that always plays the drums with an apple pie and ask him for a lesson? Even better – why don’t we walk to each other’s houses with apple pies at all, no strings attached. “Hey, just wanted you to know, you’re a great friend.”
Without a phone, isolated from my community, I actually find myself more connected. How could that be? Is it simply a cultural phenomenon? I’m determined to find out. Let’s see if I can transplant a little bit of Costa Rican neighborly love into my own town upon my return.