What’s it like to work as a volunteer for leatherback sea turtle conservation? Well, apart from the obvious care for animals and the environment, you shouldn’t be too afraid of the dark. Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to save the Leatherback Sea Turtle!
The Leatherback Night Patrol
It was our first night doing a night patrol in Costa Rica and we were told to wear black and leave our headlamps at the cabin. We walked down the beach in a single file looking for turtle tracks, nests and leatherbacks. The light of the moon guided us as we dodged beach debris and creeping plants. It was so dark we could only see as far as the person in front of us. We were instructed to follow that person’s footsteps- if nobody in front of us fell, we could rest assured that we wouldn’t trip.
Sea turtles come ashore and figure out where they will lay their eggs by the light of the moon. Flashlights would confuse the mama turtles which is why we had to leave our cameras at the camp. No pictures, in case someone forgot to turn off their flash.
Some turtles wait in the water for days for the perfect time to lay their eggs. Others will come ashore, assess the beach and return to the ocean if they think it’s too dangerous. This sounds fine when you have legs, but when you have giant flippers the size of your body, this is no easy feat.
Why work with Poachers to Save Leatherbacks?
So, why were we patrolling the beach?
100% of the nests on the Caribbean coast will be poached if conservation groups don’t get to them first.
Sleeping with the Enemy
Patrolling the beach meant that we could save these eggs and the leatherback population would have a better chance at surviving. The conservation group we were with had a good relationship with the local community members, even with the poachers. They actually hired ex-poachers to help with patrols (giving them a legal and guaranteed continuous income they could depend on and support their families with). The conservation group had an ongoing agreement with the poachers. Whoever saw the sea turtle first could keep to the eggs.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was better to work with poachers so we could eventually convince them to switch to the conservation side. This agreement also enabled us to take the turtle’s biometrics and tag them when they came ashore regardless if the poacher saw the turtle first and took her eggs. This isn’t the best scenario but it means volunteers would be respected by the community. It ensured the safety of volunteers and that the turtle’s information could be tracked.
A Log with Flippers
After walking for hours we still hadn’t seen any tracks. A tropical storm was forecasted the next day and the surf looked intimidating, even for the most experienced of sea creatures. We took a break and sat on a log. Our group leader commented on the surf and told us it was early in the season so we’d be lucky to see one. With the surf this high, it was unlikely because leatherbacks don’t move under the waves, they surf within them.
As I walked under the Costa Rican moon, keeping one eye on the shirt in front of me and another on the ocean, I had no idea what I was looking for. I just didn’t want to miss a 1,000lb turtle deciding this was her night to surf ashore. Our leader suddenly stopped and like a cartoon, we all piled into each other.
She saw something on the beach. I looked at the log she was pointing at and was disappointed. But then I saw its flippers move. We picked up the pace and walked carefully toward the flippered log. Once my brain recognized the shape of a leatherback turtle- something I had only seen in books and on TV, I grabbed my friend’s arm and tried to utter ‘leatherback’. I couldn’t make a sound because I was just so astonished by this huge creature.
A Mother’s Love
She was big and beautiful. Around 29 years old (my age), she was 158cm (about my height) and probably laying her first nest of eggs. Our leader told us she was probably a new turtle mom because she took a very long time to carefully dig the perfect nest and even longer to lay her precious eggs.
Surviving the Ocean
We measured her, tagged her, and checked her body’s condition. I ran my hands over her flippers to see if she had any injuries. There was a thumbnail-sized wound on her right flipper. The rest of her was perfect. This young leatherback had survived the ocean amongst sharks, boats, plastics, fishing nets and oil spills for almost 30 years. The only thing she had to show for her perilous life was this tiny wound.
About 1 in 1,000 leatherbacks will reach sexual maturity.
The fact that we saw this leatherback meant that 999 other leatherbacks born on this beach didn’t make it. This is both devastating and admirable at the same time. We carefully collected her eggs while giving each other the “I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE SO LUCKY” look.
A Sigh of Relief
A pang of guilt hit me when we finished collecting her eggs and started covering up her nest. I wished I could tell her not to worry about her eggs and save her strength for the trek back to the ocean. Like a good mom, she spent the next few minutes camouflaging her site to make sure predators didn’t see her nest and poach her new eggs. She did a turtle dance with her front and back flippers and mixed up so much sand it was impossible to see where she had just laid her eggs.
She turned to go back into the ocean but seemed to pause. Sea turtles raise their heads at a 45-degree angle to breathe. But this breath seemed like a sigh of relief. She recollected herself and used her powerful flippers to drag herself back into the ocean–where she would be able to glide through the water effortlessly and hopefully live for another 29 years.
Protecting the Leatherback & the Importance of Conversation
While the volunteer organization works on changing public opinion and opening up the conversation on the importance of wildlife conservation, it doesn’t forget about the local community. As they develop educational programs for locals, they’ve made sure the community is the greatest stakeholder in the conservation plans.
The beach was 10 km long. That’s a lot of tiny high steps along a moonlit Costa Rican beach. It’s also lot of time to quietly talk to people in the group.
Our group had people from all over the world from all backgrounds. The only thing connecting us was our interest in turtles–not a bad thing to bond over.
Talking to the other volunteers, I realized that for any change to happen, we had to communicate about it. All the volunteers had been inspired by others reporting about their own volunteer experience. This opened my eyes to why cooperating with the local community and even the poachers was so important for sustainable change to happen.
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Small Actions Lead to Big Changes
Our conservation group has saved over 36 leatherback turtle nests. They guard them 24 hours a day. Once there is movement, they monitor the sea turtles and bring them to a safe part of the beach. This is where they can run into the ocean without any predators, poachers or barriers getting in their way.
Sea turtle conservation groups need volunteers year-round to help patrol the beach, care for injured sea turtles and release the baby turtles after they hatch.
Are you ready for an adventure and excited to save the leatherback sea turtle?
If she can survive the ocean for 29 years, you can follow your dreams to help these endangered, powerful creatures.
Nora, Volunteer Coordinator and Founder of AEI.
Do you want to volunteer with Sea Turtles too? There are over 99 different opportunities around the world waiting for your help! Check out the different opportunities here.
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