A leatherback turtle at dawn

Pacuare, Costa Rica: The fight of the Leatherback turtles

By Matt Payne

A baby leatherback climbs a mountain of sand.

The silver light of a waxing moon, ancient and deliberate, highlights the elevated black and white spotted contours and ridges of the leatherback turtle’s giant prehistoric carapace, as the ancient beast makes its nest on the Costa Rican shore off of the island of Pacuare.

She does this just as all that have come before her have done for the last one hundred fifty million years. Dressed in black, speaking in whispers, and armed only with red LED lights, we have only seconds to get to her as she emerges from the sea, collect and relocate the contents of her nest before the hundred or so eggs of this extremely endangered animal will instead fall into the hands of local poachers. These poachers will then take the hundred or so eggs to the local markets where they will be sold for roughly a dollar apiece to insecure men looking for sexual fortification. Turtle eggs, at least according to local lore, are aphrodisiacs.

Through a company called Tropical Adventures, I have teamed up with a volunteer conservation group called WIDECAST. WIDECAST, also known as Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network is a non-profit organization that works in more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories to protect all endangered sea turtles.

The organization works closely with governmental and non-governmental scientists, conservationists, research managers, policy makers, and educators to develop various programs designed to rehabilitate the drastically declining number of Green, Hawksbill, and Leatherback turtles.Volunteers working the hatchery where more than a hundred babies emerge daily.

Pacuare, located off the Caribbean Coast is just one of their many projects. These turtles, like so many species of marine life have become endangered because of poaching, commercial fishing, and pollution just to name a few. Leatherback’s primary diet is jellyfish, for which a plastic bag can easily be mistaken. Once  in the turtle’s stomach, it will slowly and painfully starve to death.

To get Pacuare is an adventure in itself.  After arriving in San Jose and a quick night of sleep at the Don Carlos Hotel near San Jose’s Central Market, I make my way to the bus station where, I along with a full bus of Costa Ricans make the incredibly hot four-hour cross country trek over an exquisite rain forest to the town of Bataan.  The beauty of the rain forest covered mountain is diametrically opposed to the misery of my bus seat. There is not enough storage room overhead for my fifty-pound bag so it rests on my lap.

To my dismay, a well-fed woman in the tiny seat next to me oozes into my personal space, shifting constantly to find unattainable comfort. Periodically she engages in a heated debate with her sister across the aisle. My limited Spanish leads me to believe a romance has gone afoul. From her tone, I feel that the man has fared well. Each heated spat between the two ends with the peace offering of some sort of toxic-waste smelling Costa Rican corn chip. She offers me one.“Lo siento. Estoy infermo.” I lie, fearing for my life. In case my Spanish is completely incomprehensible, I also hold my stomach, make a frowny face just to drive the sentiment home. Though in the moment, she accepts my decline, it doesn’t stop her from offering the impossibly orange, repugnant chips at least a dozen more times in five minute intervals until I finally get off in Bataan. Like the turtles that return to Pacuare every three years to give birth as they have for millennia, this woman honors ritual.

The camp at Pacuare.
The camp at Pacuare.

In the breezeless town of Bataan, I exit the bus. Instantly, I am dripping and the sun is scorching. Waiting for me is a wiry man named Eric. He is Pacuare’s project administrator and speaks little English. He waits while I find the only internet café in the small town, check my email one last time and then Eric, two others and myself cram into one of Costa Rica’s notorious red taxis and we make our way down a dusty, high-centered gravely road twenty-five minutes to a small dock on an unnamed canal that ultimately feeds into the Pacuare River.

The chaos of twelve hours on planes and airports, a bus ride and mad taxi ride on Costa Rica’s bumpiest road give way to the peaceful chants, hums, whistles and buzzes of the jungle as water laps against the rusty hull of the boat. This peaceful moment is only temporarily broken by the guttural roar of a troop of Howler monkeys in the canopy above us. First, I am in awe then disgust as one of them, from twenty feet above me, urinates.

The boat to Pacuare.
The boat to Pacuare.

I sit across from Daniela,who sheds light on our mission. She is in charge of environmental education and outreach and explains that the team, which is composed of three research assistants and a handful of volunteers from all over the world, has three duties. The first is, rain or shine, to search for turtles between the hours of 8pm and 4am when they come to shore to lay their eggs. Those eggs are then collected and then re-nested near the base in a controlled environment.  To make matters more complicated, not only are our volunteers searching for turtles, but also locals are looking for them as well with far more nefarious intentions. While there is a mutual understanding between the two turtle enthusiasts that whoever finds the turtle claims the turtle, with each poached nest go roughly one hundred baby turtles, each vital to the survival of the species.

The second responsibility, Daniela explains, is to monitor the re-nested eggs. When tiny turtles begin to emerge from the dirt, fifty to seventy days after they are buried, they are to be weighed, measured, and placed into a sand-filled cooler. While this is happening, other volunteers rake a path in the beach so that the young turtles can make their way safely to the water without being eaten by crabs, stray dogs, or birds. Unlike the potentially emotional gravitas that accompanies the pillaging of a nest in front of my eyes, this process sounds far less daunting.

Newly hatched leatherbacks make their way to the beach while a volunteer rakes the way to keep the path a smooth one.

Lastly, it is the responsibility of the volunteers to keep base camp in working order. This includes building cages for the babies, working on the new hatchery and various other day-to-day chores, all of which are done, of course under the blazing Caribbean sun. The objective becomes immediately clear: Sweat a lot. Sleep little. Save the turtles.

As Daniela finishes going over the objectives and responsibilities, herons and egrets rest on the backs of submerged cattle line the ever-widening river as we snake our way towards the Caribbean Sea, which announces itself with a gentle breeze and the thunderous crash of waves hitting the shore.  We have arrived.

The camp, as promised, is rudimentary and teaming with wildlife. There are six sleeping cabins, each with three bunks, an open-air kitchen, open-air bathroom with two toilets and two showers. While the living conditions are not for the faint of heart, to someone who loves adventure, wildlife, doesn’t mind the occasional bug bite and is willing to forego their smart phone for a few days, there is no finer place. How often, I think to myself, do people say something along the lines of “I wish I could escape to a deserted island…” or “I want to make a difference in the world and see something different,” Look no further. But when you say it… Know you have to mean it.

the local sloth

Within minutes of my arrival, two brilliantly colored toucans feast on bananas left over from lunch earlier in the day. Near the gate to the beach, a sloth, with his long curved nails, hangs from a tree, lazily grooming himself. Electric colored lizards and iguanas occupy every sun-exposed tree and rock.  In the distance cry more howler monkeys. A moving carpet of leaf ants move leaves like a green conveyer belt from a large tree to their nest. Birds and butterflies of every color flash like daytime fireworks and there is a kayak next to the river as communal living will demand some for of solitude. It paradise as designed before the days of the Four Seasons beds, fast food and the smart phones. And all of this beauty set against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea whose waves pound the sand a hundred yards away.

After a brief introduction to the research assistants and volunteers, the mission to save the turtles becomes instantly clear. Word comes in of a hatch in the hatchery. Like soldiers going to battle, the volunteers leap from their hammocks, abandon their card games and make their way to the beach. Each has an assignment. The goal is to get these neophytes to the sea as quickly and as safely as possible. Within fifteen minutes, in a flurry of scales, measurers, buckets, and rakes, more than twenty tiny turtles make a mad dash toward the sea where they will hopefully spend the next fifty years of their lives, returning to this beach by way of the earth’s magnetism twenty-five years to lay eggs of their own.

After months in the ground, the baby leatherbacks emerge

The reverie lasts only a moment before another hatch and the cycle repeats. This time I put on some rubber gloves to pretend I can help, which I cannot.  By the time the babies have been sent away, it is time for dinner, which is invariably an assortment of rice beans and either plantains or yucca with perhaps a touch of pork. This is not just dinner but breakfast and lunch as well. Conversation over dinner tends to be about how nice it would be to eat something else. While I find the simplicity of the food somehow refreshing, one could see how eating it repeatedly for months at a time like many of these volunteers do, might conjure feelings of madness.

I chat with one of the research assistants, Rachel. She is delicately spoken, intelligent marine biologist from England. Her passion for turtles, like everyone here is infectious. “Every time I see a turtle I have to go into turtle mode,” she tells me, her eyes lighting as she talks.  “There is a process that has to be followed, but I always try to take a moment to appreciate what an amazing animal it is and how lucky I am that it is a part of my life.”

Measuring the newly hatched leatherbacks.

As dinner ends, darkness falls. The only light becomes that of the moon, which on this particular night happens to be full. Lightning flashes are a constant against the backdrop over the sea. Head lanterns become light sources and the evening’s patrol groups are laid out. The seven-kilometer beach is broken up into three sections. Starting at 8pm, each section is assigned to groups of two to three people led by a research assistant. One group watches from 8pm to 12am. The other from 12am to 4am.  Thankfully I am assigned the first watch.

There are few better ways to get to know someone than four hours walking up and down a Costa Rican beachfront in search of endangered sea turtles about to go into labor. My watch partner Amy is from Maine and fell in love with sea turtles after spending a summer in Crete. Since then she has traveled back to Crete several times, adding a stop in Kenya before landing in Costa Rica. It is admirable devotion.

As we walk, I notice the shadows of small men walking in pairs and groups of three, the embers from their cigarettes burning. They are poachers and tonight, they want the same thing we want.  Turtle eggs. Given the broad expanse of beach, often they first spot the turtles, who are more than six feet long and impossibly slow, emerging from the water. They arrive before us and we have no choice but to watch as they collect the poor turtles eggs and vanish to sell them as some crude sort of endangered reptilian Viagra. Unaware of what has happened, the turtle buries the hole anyway. It is heartbreaking. I am determined not to let that happen again. Poaching turtle eggs and killing turtles in Costa Rica is illegal, and while it carries a one to three year sentence, very little is done to stop it. On Pacuare, nothing is done at all.

An hour later, after having mistaken several rocks and logs for turtles, we see something dark and grand emerging from the water. Its slow cumbersome gait is unmistakable. It is a leatherback. She zigzags out of the water, searching for the perfect spot to nest, leaving enormous tracks in the sand behind her. It is as if an ATV came careening from the sea, only compared to a Leatherback an ATV is small.

Tracks of a leatherback

After she has found a proper place, the turtle first “makes its bed” with her front flippers. This explosive process involves the turtle throwing sand all over the place like some kind of a turtle fit. Fine sand hovers above the turtle like smoke after the implosion of an abandoned hotel. Next the turtle shifts her attention from the front to the back. It is almost our time. We are instructed to wait until she is finished making her bed before moving in.

Once the nest has been dug, the turtle goes into a strange birthing trance. We get inches behind the turtle, our eyes inches from its giant George Lucas-esque tail. The slowly wagging giant nub looks like something from Mos Eisley on a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. Using its massive flippers like alien hands, the turtle scoops sand with one flipper then the next, moving its mass from side to side with each dig. This process lasts for about 15-20 minutes depending upon the turtle’s attitude toward perfection. As she digs, we pull sand back from the hole behind her allowing us to put a plastic bag under the turtle when she finally begins to lay her eggs. Finally, the turtle takes a long breath. It is time.

A leatherback moments before it leaves land for the next twenty-five years

I put one hand under each flipper to hold the plastic bag in place. The turtle arches it’s neck and lets out a painful breath and with that, an egg falls. Then another. The tail wriggles and as it does, the Star Wars theme song plays in my head. More eggs fill the heavy bag. Each one a chance that this species may get to stay on this planet a little bit longer. The research assistants take measurements of the shell size and checks for microchips as I sit there, speechless. When all the eggs have been laid, in this case, nearly a hundred, we cover them with sand until we are ready to move them back to the hatchery. The white of the eggs, even though we have claimed them will attract poachers. The turtles are never fully safe.

I walk around to the front of the turtle and notice it’s eyes. She looks like she is crying. Though all that is happening is a salt excretion from the glands located behind the turtle’s eyes, I can’t help but think, that like me, the turtle is thinking that life is precious.  Having survived on the planet for more than 150 million years, I’m sure that somewhere is her genetic coding she understands this with far greater clarity than I could ever conjure.

A leatherback turtle at dawn
A leatherback turtle at dawn

That night, the group will save the eggs of thirteen turtles. The poachers will get the eggs of six. Over the course of my stay, we will save 959 eggs from 13 turtles, and 437 hatchlings will rise from 15 different nests. For every thousand eggs hatched, one will make it to sexual maturity and will be able to reproduce. It is a bitter victory but a victory none-the-less.

Somewhere in Costa Rica, after eating a turtle egg, a man will try to convince himself, according to preposterous myth that his libido has increased exponentially at the expense of a species. I will return, sweaty and sandy, tired and torn to my powerless room and with the company of the moonlight, the buzz of the jungle and the eternal grind of sea meeting sand and as the turtles make their way back into the hazy mysteries of the ocean, I will sleep.