My Turtle Time

by Volunteer Jan Lochner

Posted February 2018

Seeing a sea turtle come ashore and lay her eggs is like watching an ancient ritual of life, slow and majestic. Being in Costa Rica to help patrol the beaches with Sea Turtles Forever (STF) was a unique volunteer opportunity, tailored for one with a sense of adventure and a zest for nature and the ocean. After connecting with Marc Ward, President of STF about cleaning microplastic off beaches in California, he referred me to Nancy Tankersley, the lead biologist for their Punta Pargos, Costa Rica project. She set me up with a cabina, bicycle, and a connection with the local organic restaurant. Incredibly helpful, she even shared her detailed packing list, though you mostly need dark clothes and a red headlamp for the nightly beach patrols, and several swimsuits for the hot days.

Patrolling is great – turtles or no turtles. When there is a turtle, it is all business. Lay low and wait for her to nest and go into labor. Then gently take her eggs, get her measurements, check her ID tags, weigh and count the eggs, and relocate the eggs into a hidden hole (recorded on GPS), protected from poachers. The female turtle spends so much energy building her nest, digging the chamber, laying her clutch, and then covering the nest, she often drags herself back to the ocean. It’s a bit sad when the sand is too dry and she gives up, or gets scared and leaves the beach without laying.

When there were no turtles we sat on the beach and watched the moonlight or phosphorescence on the waves and spectacular stars, or practiced speaking Spanish with the regular patrollers. STF employs Ticos (Costa Ricans) –each a wonderful person. They patrol four beaches over a span of six miles for six nights a week, in addition to their day jobs! I was always in the company of another patroller or volunteer, as I was advised not to walk the beaches alone at night.

The days are blazing HOT in Costa Rica at this time (December-May is their summer/dry season), often 90-95 degrees F in January and February. There was often a wind, which I loved, as it kept me a bit cooler. I spent 2 to 3 hours in the ocean every day (2 blocks from my cabina), marking time by the rhythm of the waves. A boogie board gave me a way to play in the waves (Playa Negra is a popular surfing spot).

Middays were spent in a wet bathing suit to keep cool, sometimes by a neighbor’s pool in the shade, because my cabina had no air conditioning. There was time to read or knit or nap or get bored, and sometimes I helped Nancy with small project work. I found it wise to save energy for the night patrol, as sometimes we walked many miles of beach late at night.

Beach patrols are always at night, starting from 6:30 pm to 3:30 am and lasting from 3 to 6 hours, depending on turtle activity. When the patrol was in the late evening, the days seem chopped into segments. Morning swim, shower, bicycle to breakfast, quiet time and chores, shower to keep cool, afternoon shade, sunset swim, shower, dinner, sleep, patrol, shower, sleep and start again. I lost track of when to brush my teeth! I did fill in quite a bit of time picking up trash on the beaches, lots and lots of small plastic pieces (bottle tops, toothbrushes, combs, etc.), as well as the usual beer cans and water bottles.

We had a couple of days off during one full moon (typically low turtle nesting) to travel and explore the south Nicoya Peninsula, including Tortuga Island and Curu National Refuge. I also managed to visit the nearby Nandamoio River Estuary, Las Catalinas trails, Barra Honda National Park, and to sail and snorkel for an afternoon aboard a 1948 racing boat. Three of us volunteers shared a car and rented bicycles to get around.

A typical Costa Rican lunch or dinner is a “casado” – rice and beans with chicken, fish, or pork. I loved the shrimp and rice dishes, always fresh! A typical breakfast is “gallo pinto” – rice mixed with beans, though we often ate egg dishes or granola with juices or smoothies at the organic café. The fruit is a delicious treat, from cold coconut water to sweet pineapple and tasty papaya.

Playa Negra, at the center of Los Pargos, is a small, quiet community and quite rural. The dusty, bumpy dirt roads make bicycle riding more like mountain biking. There is no nightlife to speak of, and I did get a bit lonely during some long days or nights off. All technology is tentative in Costa Rica, so I had only intermittent cell phone service and sl-o-w Internet when I managed to get my computer charged. There are few amenities and little entertainment, so life is remarkably simple– “pura vida” as they say.

Although the heat and some boredom challenged me, this volunteer opportunity was fulfilling and left me feeling that my time on earth truly meant something. I recommend the experience!


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