Written by: Stephanie Ann Juganaden, YCI volunteer in Costa Rica
I have spent the best 2 weeks of my life (so far) with the best group of people possible. We were 5 chosen for the project and came from various parts of Canada. Maddie, Kate, and Tom came from Ontario. Jess is from Nova Scotia and I am from Quebec. I believe that it was destiny that brought us together in this beautiful part of the world. Costa Rica’s landscape tops all of the other places I’ve been to so far. The whole country is simply gorgeous. Everywhere I looked, there was always something remarkable to engrave into my brain. Whenever I will feel sad, I can just close my eyes and imagine Playa Caletas and the beautiful sand and the crashing of the waves along with the stars and the moon shining your path at night. If I were asked to pick my happy place, it would have been in one of those hammocks we had at camp overlooking the ocean.
Obviously, we were in awe with the beauty that resides in Costa Rica but we still kept our feet anchored to the ground in order to do what we were here to do: Turtle Conservation. We’ve visited one of Pretoma’s installments at Playa Caletas home of the Olive Ridley sea turtles. The protected beach covered 5km from the north to the south end and was separated by 50 posts every 100m. At night, our job was to patrol the beach in two groups: North and South. We left during low tide to ensure enough space for the turtles to walk up the beach and nest and for us to not get sucked into the ocean. I was very fortunate to have seen two turtles and to have released hatchlings on my first night. I also understood that the racoons are notorious for eating freshly nested turtle eggs. We have to protect the survival of these animals and the best way we can do it is by collecting the eggs and placing them into our hatchery. The hatchery is a small space at the northern part of the camp grounds that houses all the nests that have been collected throughout patrol. Once we collect eggs, we bring them back to the camp and dig a light bulb-shaped hole into the ground (like a nesting turtle) and leave the eggs to incubate for 45 days. Throughout our stay, we’ve released more than 1300 baby turtles into the ocean! They are so adorable!
Throughout the day, we each had our own chores revolving around the cleanliness of the camp. We either had to cook, wash dishes, wash the patrol egg bags, sweep the cabinas, clean the toilet and shower, throw away the trash and compost, get water from the well, and burn the paper (in Costa Rica, they do not flush toilet paper into the toilet bowls, they burn the contents instead). At night, usually after supper, we would have either Hatchery duty or Night Patrol. These would alternate every day. For night patrol, we would be split up into two groups and would walk along the north or the south side in search for turtle tracks. We were lucky to have had the moon to shine our way and we did not need a headlamp to spot the turtle tracks. You can spot an Olive Ridley track based on the asymmetrical markings in the sand.
At first I thought they were bike tracks or tire tracks but we soon learned that whenever we see one of those, a turtle should not be too far away! Throughout my stay, I saw approximately 10 turtles and 4 of them on our last day for patrolling. Once we spot the turtle, we would let her find her spot to nest and would wait for 20 eggs to drop before collecting the rest. At this stage, she is in a trance and cannot feel or hear anything going on around her. These are perfect moments for predators such as poachers and racoons to attack her. Instead, we tagged her and saw her going back safely into the water and her babies were safe with us. On our way back, we stop by the hatchery to place the turtle eggs for incubation. The day following patrol, we had hatchery duty which was a 3 hour shift from 6pm-5am. I really liked the 3-5am shift because you can see the sunrise and you can also go out for census at 5:30am to see if some of the nests that we could not find were predated (destroyed by the racoons or other animals.)
What I loved the most about this project is that we got to work together as a team and each person contributed their passion for the turtle conservation project. Everyone was lively and we all looked out for each other. Most of us have faced our fears. I for one have never been camping in my life and I am terrified of bugs, but not anymore! I enjoyed the escape from our rushed/constantly “on-the-go” lifestyle here at home. My biggest stress was making sure I don’t step on one of thousands of hermit crabs on the beach or cooking for 14 people with the remaining batch of produce, before receiving our next order. Also, this experience has taught me that we take running water for granted back home. We were there during the dry season and it did not rain once! The well quickly dried up and we had to use drinking water to clean ourselves or to wash the dishes!
I am thankful to have met these beautiful souls along the way and I don’t think that my experience would have been the same without them. I would recommend this project to anyone who wants to get outside of their comfort zone and wants to explore Costa Rica. Note that Playa Caletas is a minimum of 1.5h walk from the campsite to the town of San Francisco de Coyote. There is also a gorgeous path through the mountain from Playa Caletas to Playa Coyote. You also have to stop by La Veranera (a restaurant by the beach) for a refreshing drink and generous amounts of food. The locals are great and you get to practice your Spanish skills. Thank you to the YCI group, Berny, the people from Turtle Trax and Pretoma, RJI and YCI for making this one of the best trips of my life.