It never occurred to us that we might not see turtles at the turtle project.
When Corban was in CR two years ago he saw turtles laying eggs and babies hatching (eggs require an approximate two-month incubation). He was on the Atlantic side with Leatherback Turtles and we were on the Pacific side with Olive-Ridley Turtles, but still…
Sadly, the only turtle we saw during our three days at the beach was dead, washed up on the shore entangled in a fishing net. We had only just arrived, were engaged in our orientation with project leader Gabriel, in the midst of what would be a five-hour pounding rain storm (just when you think the rain has to stop soon, it rains harder!), and this was our first (and only) turtle.
Hey, guess what? It took us some processing to recognize the hard-yet-obvious truth: the turtles are a threatened-endangered species, hence the hard-working presence of turtle projects up and down both coasts! Of the five sea turtle species, the Olive-Ridleys are “vulnerable,” two others are “endangered,” and the remaining two are “critically endangered.”
We volunteered with ASVO, a non-governmental, non-profit conservation organization. In addition to turtle conservation, they supplement CR’s fire fighters and national park rangers. If you are an older teen or 20-something interested in animals/conservation, this would be an interesting place to spend the summer. They attract volunteers from all over the world; we met people from England, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Kenya, Canada, and of course, the US.
As with several of our other excursions, little about this trip met our expectations. The “charming” hotel was seriously bare bones – no towels, no air conditioning or hot water, broken fixtures, septic tank smell in the bathroom and water… We had to remind ourselves that Playa Matapalo is one of CR’s poorest communities (a few years ago the government razed all the homes within a certain distance of the ocean if families couldn’t pay a fee – understandably, this devastated the local economy) and the hotel owners were doing their best. ASVO had a few larger groups volunteering, so sometimes we felt more in the way than helpful. It wasn’t until our last morning, after we’d gotten to know better some of the staff and volunteers and “knew the ropes” so to speak, that we finally felt comfortable. This trip presented yet one more opportunity to face our own selfishness and the world’s brokenness and figure out how to “make lemonade from lemons” as we live as God’s people.
Humans pose the biggest threat to sea turtles. Pollution (mostly plastics), oil spills, fishing nets, climate change, and perhaps worse yet, poaching for eggs/turtles (soup? ugh!)/shells, human activity has significantly altered turtle populations. Some of it seems so simple to us – put your trash where it belongs, recycle, purchase less plastic, etc – and yet CR is really only beginning to understand what Californians have come to expect as “normal” practice. We are grateful for the CR National Park system and protected wildlife zones as well as groups like ASVO helping to promote environmental awareness. Two Canadian volunteers spending the summer with ASVO are working with the local primary schools (remember, it’s winter in CR and school is in session) to incorporate environmental education into the curriculum: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, people!
Green waves? We can do better…
But as we learned, it’s complicated. ASVO knows who the poachers are, and also knows that these families have been poaching for generations – it’s their way of life and their primary source of income to support their families. We were impressed with the grace ASVO demonstrates – they work against the activity of poaching while showing compassion to those who poach.
Turtle volunteer work takes two primary forms: night beach patrols and hatchery shifts. During beach patrols, volunteers walk 6-12km in the dark (no flashlights, even on red light) looking for turtle tracks and, better yet, turtles. They patrol from dusk to dawn so many hours on either side of high tide, at least four patrols per night. Dave loved patrol and did three shifts; the rest of us did one shift each. Patrol leaders walk the beach regularly so it’s no big deal to them to speed walk in the pitch dark, but it’s a little more work and a lot more intimidating for newbies. One highlight for Dave: he noticed that on each patrol people opened up to him as “pastor” and he was able to have good, honest conversations addressing people’s questions and hearing their stories.
If only we could see in the dark
During hatchery shifts, volunteers walk around the perimeter of the hatchery, set up as two grids with rows/columns, every 15 minutes to be sure no crabs or other predators have gotten in and to see if the nests have had any change. Siv and Corban had a 3-6am shift and the worst part was getting up at 2:30am; the rest went fast, and we enjoyed watching the stars and then the sun rise; Quinn also enjoyed hatchery, especially as we all felt like, in the hatchery, we were able to genuinely contribute to the cause. In addition, we also planted an herb garden to support the organization and Dave participated in trash pickup along the main road into the community.
View of the hatchery from the beach
We love the creative re-purposing involved in this garden – bamboo lashed together with “planters” cut into it, and the tops of plastic soda bottles as “pots.” We planted basil, cilantro, parsley, and a “mystery seed.” Bottles drain onto the ground where they plan to plant watermelon.
When we weren’t working we walked on long beaches, both in Matapalo and Uvita. We went to Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, a marine sanctuary with a unique feature: during low tide you can walk either from Uvita (to the south) or Dominical (to the north) to an exposed “island” between them. Fortunately, we also had beautiful weather for beach walking! We had a great lunch in Dominical and very briefly explored the small town. We swam in the small hotel pool. We read, napped, and played games. And we took our reptile-lovers to Parque Reptilandia, a really nicely done “zoo” devoted entirely to reptiles. We hung out with other volunteers and met some wildlife. We “worked” hard at having fun to counter some of the hard work involved with this excursion.
Standing at the Whale’s Tale
View towards Uvita
A black water monitor at Parque Reptilandia showed off for us – took a swim around his pool and then posed
A sweet and gentle guy, Frijolito nuzzled Quinn’s cheek
Frijolito (“Little Bean”) is a young 3-toed sloth being cared for by a local woman; she spent 6 months training at the Sloth Sanctuary
We made reservations to spend our “travel” day horseback riding to a local waterfall before heading “home,” something we were all looking forward to. Unfortunately, Quinn came down with a fever and we had to cancel. He was feeling better but not 100% in the morning, so we went for a nice creek walk to a much smaller but also closer waterfall. Very beautiful and refreshing, and a nice way to have some spontaneous family fun on our way “home.” We stopped for lunch in Quepos at a sweet little coffee house/restaurant and the kids had the best lemonade any of us have ever tasted – blended with ice and mint, it’s a funny green color but tastes fabulous!
We had the river and waterfall all to ourselves
Family waterfall selfie
We made one last stop at Rio Tarcoles Bridge to see the crocodiles and buy our favorite chile-lime plantain chips and were graced by three pairs of scarlet macaws flying overhead, including one pair that tipped their wings so we could see not just their gorgeous red wings/body but also their royal blue and yellow wing tops. It’s incredible to experience animals we think of as “zoo creatures” soaring in the wild!
Rio Tarcoles Bridge
Boys counted at least 42 crocs!
We have stopped at this “Frutera” so often they recognize us
By the way, the MVPC Foundation generously provided the funds for us to volunteer with ASVO and we continue to be grateful for their support of our adventures!