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Conservation Tales from Costa Rica

Our Marine Conservation Researcher has spent over a month working at a leading leatherback turtle conservation project in Costa Rica, Estación Las Tortugas. We caught up to hear Kirsty’s exciting updates from the sun-soaked beaches of Central America.

How has your experience been so far?

My time in Costa Rica has been so different to anything I’ve experienced previously, not only in the turtle work we conduct but also general life. Most of the food we eat is from the surrounding farms and some days are spent picking coconuts, pineapples, avocados and corn for the chefs to prepare for dinner. We are also drying out cacao to make chocolate which should be ready in a few weeks.

The research is also very novel to me as it is more conservation-minded than data-focussed. For example, we are trying to save as many eggs as possible and get them to the hatchery quickly. As of today, we have successfully relocated 50 nests, which equates to roughly 3,750 eggs. Unfortunately, about 1 out of 1000 turtles survive to adulthood, therefore it is critical we save as many as possible to give the species the best chance at survival.

How does working with leatherback turtles differ from your previous experience?

Leatherback turtles compared to green turtles (which I have worked with in the past) are comparatively much larger in size. Green turtles weigh roughly 100kg compared to leatherback turtles weighing an astonishing 500kg. This means you have to really work with the turtle and take your measurements opportunistically when she is taking a break, or whilst she is in nesting trance. This is critical as otherwise you will be covered in sand or slapped by a flipper.

Additionally, in the past all my work has been in Saudi Arabia where you can expect the weather to be dry and hot each day. In Costa Rica, the weather is far less predictable, especially on windy nights when clouds can form in minutes and therefore working during a downpour is highly likely.


What has been the greatest challenge so far?

Aside from many sleepless nights, which are a prerequisite for turtle work, unfortunately on our first Saturday night poachers arrived at the beach along with many people from San José. During our morning walk at 5am the hatchery is not guarded and a poacher dug up my nest and stole the eggs I had relocated the night before. This was hugely  disheartening for me and highly unusual since it has only happened twice in the 20 years the station has been operating.

Usually the week before Easter, ‘Santa Semana,’ the beach is packed with people and poachers, with up to 2000 people congregating around the lagoon. It therefore can become dangerous to undertake our work at night. However, with COVID restrictions this year and less people travelling, this has enabled us to patrol the beach every night. As a result, we have successfully managed to save more eggs in 2021 than ever before at this time of year.

Please can you share a memorable moment?

I was doing my final pass down the beach and making my way back to the station at around midnight. Usually, you are patrolling with another assistant so the turtle can be worked between you, however it was only a guard and myself, so obtaining the data fell in my hands. Even if the turtle does not nest, it is important to find her tags or ‘placa’ in Spanish, to check if she is a new nester or not.

Suddenly I saw a large object making its way back to the ocean so I had to run down the beach and get in the water with all my clothes and backpack still on. I had to quickly read her tags which are located inconveniently under her tail, before she crawled too deep and was able to start swimming. Normally, the whole process of nesting takes more than one hour so there is plenty of time to read the tags. However for me, the challenge of gathering the data in a finite amount of time is much more exhilarating, particularly when you are exhausted from a five hour patrol.