San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Biologist Turns to Activism to Help Leatherbacks

Biologist Pamela Plotkin is trying to save Costa Rican sea turtles from an unexpected threat. Like many of her peers who study the endangered leatherback turtle, she was moved to take a more active role to ensure her subjects live to see the next decade.

In 2003 she started Amigos de las Baulas (Friends of the Leatherbacks), a nonprofit organization that seeks to inform Costa Ricans about how important their beaches are to the leatherbacks, the largest and oldest species of sea turtle still in existence.

Researchers, volunteers and the Costa Rican government have been working together over the past decade to protect these giant, soft-shelled creatures that predate the dinosaurs. But one insidious threat still lingers on the horizon, literally. The threat comes from artificial light, such as porch lights and streetlamps that light up beach horizons and divert the turtles from the natural light of the moon. One of the goals of Amigos de las Baulas is to inform people just how harmful their lights can be for the leatherbacks.

Both nesting adults and hatchlings use the moon as a reference point to distinguish the land from the sea. Female turtles use it to locate a safe nesting site, and hatchlings, with their tiny, pinhole eyes, immediately move toward the first light they see, assuming it’s the moon sitting on the ocean’s horizon.

“When you’ve got lights coming from houses, condominiums or hotels in the background, the hatchlings will turn around and head toward those artificial lights instead of heading out to sea,” Plotkin said.

“And when they do that, they can quite often run into predators, they can get run over by cars, or they’ll just dry out because they’ll never make it (back) to the ocean.”

Las BaulasNationalMarinePark in the northwestern province of Guanacaste has been a crucial nesting site for Pacific Ocean leatherbacks since the 1980s, when severe over-harvesting of eggs depleted most of the nests in Mexico. In 1980, Mexican beaches supported roughly 65% of the total population of leatherbacks, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Playa Grande, the largest beach in Las Baulas, has been protected by the government since the mid-1990s. Egg poaching is no longer practiced here, and no one is allowed on the beach at night when the turtles are nesting without a guide. Even the nests are protected: after a turtle lays its eggs, volunteers dig up the nest and plant the eggs in a safe, fenced-in location where they can be protected from predators and monitored to ensure a high rate of hatchling survival.

In addition to Playa Grande, Las Baulas National Park includes Playa Ventanas and Playa Langosta, all within a few miles of each other on the northern Pacific coast. Between their protected shores sits the popular tourist destination of Playa Tamarindo.

At night, the shores of Playa Grande are illuminated by dueling light sources: the moon, and light coming from Tamarindo’s string of hotels and condominiums, which runs perpendicular to Playa Grande’s nesting beaches.

As the only official member of Amigos de las Baulas, Plotkin goes door to door in Playa Grande and Tamarindo, targeting hotels and other businesses with outreach materials such as flyers, pamphlets and green doorknob hangers shaped like sea turtles (her favorite of the outreach materials, all designed by her). “It’s just a pretty, simple thing that any hotel can stick on a guest’s door and use to educate the tourists who are staying there,” she says. The response has been mixed, Plotkin says. She gets e-mails throughout the year from people who have seen her material, asking what they can do to help. Often they ask for more materials, which she happily sends. But, just as often, her materials go unused.

Her greatest obstacles are distance and time. She’s a full-time professor at EastTennesseeStateUniversity in the United States. She’s also married (to another biologist) and has a young daughter. This year, Plotkin was able to come to Costa Rica only once, for a few days in December. She was busy finishing a book on the olive ridley sea turtle, her main area of expertise.

Plotkin says it was a difficult decision, making the leap from objective science to activism. She started working at Las Baulas National Marine Park in 1995 and noticed the problem then, but didn’t do anything about it – a decision she regrets.

“I was only interested in the science, so it just wasn’t on my radar screen,” Plotkin says.

“For years I kept saying, ‘Well, someone ought to do something, someone ought to educate these people, someone ought to provide some outreach,’ and year after year went by, and finally I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should do it,’ instead of complaining that nobody else was doing it.”

Plotkin is not the first researcher in her field to jump to activism. She says the nature of studying an endangered species fuels the desire to do something.

“When scientists are studying organisms that they see vanishing before their eyes, it’s hard for them not to get involved in the advocacy part of it, because you want to do something to save the organisms or to save habitats, and ultimately to save the planet,” she says. “So I think a lot of people do get engaged, eventually.”

For more information about Plotkin’s efforts, visit her Web site at


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