It is 3 a.m., we have been walking on the beach for four hours, we are not allowed to use flashlights or insect repellent, it has been raining hard for the last two hours, all our clothes are soaked, and we have not seen a turtle. How does that sound for a school excursion? This is what happened to some of the students of LibertyChristianAcademy during a trip to MatapaloBeach, on the central Pacific coast.
All 11th-grade students in Costa Rica are required to do volunteer work to graduate. Our school decided to participate in a project that protects endangered sea turtles. We coordinated a trip with ASVO (Asociación de Voluntarios para el Servicio en las Areas Protegidas), a volunteer association in Costa Rica. ASVO was founded in 1989 and since then has helped place volunteers in protected and non-protected areas of Costa Rica to make up for the lack of personnel. ASVO has developed projects in Matapalo, Buenavista, Punta Mala, and Playa Hermosa, among others.
During our trip we were assigned two jobs. One was to patrol the beach at night to find turtles laying eggs. This involved a 10-kilometer walk in the dark without a flashlight on a beach littered with driftwood. Hopefully our efforts would be rewarded and we would spot a turtle crawling up the beach. Flashlights, strong odors like insect repellent, light-colored clothing and noise could all scare the turtle, causing it to leave the beach without laying its eggs. Once the female turtle laid its eggs and returned to the sea, we would take the eggs to the hatchery.
The second job was to take part in the 24-hour watch at the hatchery to protect the eggs from poachers, who would sell them on the black market. After the eggs are collected by volunteers patrolling the beach, they are taken to a closed-off section of the beach and put in a manmade nest. All nests have to be checked every 15 minutes for hatchlings. If we found any hatchlings, we would protect them as they crawled to the sea, hoping that they would reach adulthood. It is amazing to know that only one out of a thousand will survive the harsh journey to adulthood.
I would like to tell you about my personal experience on this trip. My trip began at 6 a.m. as we left San José for a four-hour bus ride to Quepos on the Pacific coast. There we transferred to a second bus, which took us for an hour and a half through African palm plantations to Matapalo. The last leg of the trip was a 20-minute walk on a dirt road to the volunteer station. We were then assigned to our cabins, which exceeded my expectations, as they were very clean and comfortable. Following that, we received a training session provided by the ASVO staff, which consisted of a video detailing our responsibilities.
My first assignment started at 9 p.m. My team was composed of members of my school and other volunteers from Germany and Sweden. Our task was to patrol five kilometers of beach looking for sea turtles. As I was not accustomed to walking on a beach with no lights or even moonlight, I found it very difficult to distinguish between sand, driftwood, water, rocks, etc. As I stumbled across the beach, I tried to keep up with the other, more experienced volunteers and tried to be on the lookout for turtle tracks. After three hours of strenuous walking and heavy rainfall, we managed to see a turtle, which unfortunately turned back to sea before laying its eggs. At midnight we arrived back at our cabin, soaking wet and ready for a warm shower. The next morning at breakfast I found out that I had been very lucky because my team was the only one to see a turtle.
That morning I was notified that my next task would be from 6 to 8 a.m. the next day. During that day, we were assigned some short, enjoyable jobs. For example, we had to cut bamboo for a new fence at the volunteer station. The next task was to dig a small trench in front of the hatchery to prevent high-tide waves from disturbing the nests. This work was a bit boring, because even though we checked 30 nests every 15 minutes for an hour and a half, we did not see a turtle hatching.
But finally, about 10 minutes before my shift was up, one of my friends found a baby. I was so happy I finally had the chance to see one! After taking dozens of pictures of the poor turtle, we freed it into the ocean. Even though the hatchery job was monotonous, this was the most gratifying experience of the whole trip. To free the baby into the water was all the reward I needed for the hours of long work I had done the days before. I hope that some day this same turtle will come back to the beach and lay some more eggs to help its species multiply and not be endangered any more.
If you would like to go through a similar experience and help the sea turtles of Costa Rica, you can call our school, Liberty Christian Academy, at 2236-3886, or call ASVO at 2258-4430 to sign up for this extremely rewarding experience. You can check out the ASVO Web site at www.asvocr.org.
Tico Benjamin Worsfold, 16, is in his fifth year of high school at LibertyChristianAcademy in the northeastern San José suburb of Moravia. He lives in San Francisco de Dos Ríos.