The fluttering of papery wings; back and forth, back and forth. They open and close their tiny mouths. Nocturnal hungry bats, paired with the incessant whir of cicada wings and the low, ominous drone of Howler monkeys are the evening calls of the Osa. These sounds signify the awakening of all things that dwell in the night. Usually, it also signifies our bedtime; unless it’s an evening of turtle patrol.
When I took herpetology as a senior in college three years ago, my professor used to joke that, “Herpetologists are the night-owls and ornithologists are the morning people”. But, working with sea turtles breaks the mold. Sometimes, we rise at 3:30am. Donning our headlamps, we make our way down the winding forested trail to Piro or Pejeperro Beach, and scout for turtle tracks and hatchlings as the sun paints purple and pink ribbons across the sky. Sometimes, we have to sip on coffee (like the local Ticos do) post-dinner to keep us from falling asleep before a night patrol. Patrols typically begin at 8:30pm and can last beyond 1:00am. In my three weeks of being here, I’ve seen five Loras (Olive ridleys) and two Verdes (Greens) gingerly crawl from the surf to lay their eggs. I’ve measured their shells and tagged their flippers . And just last night, we saw a white light flashing ever closer to us on Piro—a sign of poachers. We had to abandon patrol.
Poaching of turtle eggs is a sad reality here in Costa Rica. For many, it’s a feasible way to make a living and support a family. But through education, the next generation can learn the importance of conserving their country’s already threatened sea turtle species.
As a sea turtle Research Field Assistant, my main responsibilities are conducting patrols, maintaining the hatchery, and providing a steady presence on the beach. But the Carate Sea Turtle Festival last Saturday reminded me of my experience with outreach education. The enthusiasm and receptivity of the children around me was incredible, whether they be Spanish speaking locals or English speaking visitors. All partook in eagerly picking up and exploring local invertebrates with spoons and forceps, and dashing around the beach like a mother turtle (but a little faster). They learned what sea turtles eat (seagrasses, sponges, jellies, ect.), what they accidentally eat (plastic), and how we can keep plastics out of our ocean by using reusable alternatives. Later, we danced to a local band that sang songs about el bosque and la playa and the animals that call them home. Mid-dance, I helped a local toddler collect hermit crabs in a bucket. It didn’t matter that I hardly speak Spanish; our enthusiasm spoke for us. I can only hope that every child I met in Carate shared a similar enthusiasm and will remember the day we celebrated sea turtles, for their future is in all of our hands.