Volunteering to Save Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

I was in Costa Rica around Easter last year, and one of the things I was most keen on was volunteering for a sea turtle rescue project in the Tortuguero national park area on the Caribbean coast. It was an immensely fulfilling experience and I learned a lot while working and staying in the remote community of Parismina.

Volunteer Work for Saving Sea Turtles

We emailed Vicky who leads the Association for Saving the Turtles of Parismina (ASTOP) with our request to volunteer for the cause. We heard back from her promptly, with a comprehensive outline of the program, requirements, accommodation, donation, etc. Getting to Parismina is a bit tricky, but we got there fine and got set up in a homestay with a very nice family.

The organization requires a minimum commitment of 5 days, registration fee of $35 per person, and accommodations with a family include meals for $27 per day. Expect plenty of gallo pinto (rice and beans) for all meals, plus some sides of meat, salad, patacones, etc. It would be very easy to ask for vegetarian meals as well. Accommodations are basic, safe, and with a very friendly family. When we were there, we had three other people staying at different houses in the village, and everyone had pretty much the same experience.

Work is pretty simple. During the nesting season, you will patrol the beach every night for eight hours (two shifts of four hours each) which is usually the prime time for turtles to come to the beach in search of suitable spots to lay eggs. The idea is that, with the presence of other people, poachers are unlikely to step in and steal freshly laid eggs or kill pregnant turtles for their meat or shell. This patrolling has yielded impressive results.

Usually you’d be paired up with a local guide who have experience with handling turtle eggs. They will accompany you on the patrols, rescue and relocate eggs as they see fit and camouflage the site. There’s a notebook to record the time and exact spot where eggs are buried. Later in the season there is also a hatchery that is built by the sea, monitored 24/7 by volunteers. It certainly helps to be fluent in Spanish. My Spanish is enough to get by and small talk, but not particularly useful to talk about turtles!

Other work involves digging, prepping, cleaning, and any other chores relating to the association’s work.

Wikipedia quote:

Asociación Salvemos las Tortugas de Parismina / Association for Saving the Turtles of Parismina, or ASTOP, is a community-based, non profit, conservation organization based in Parismina, Costa Rica, dedicated to protecting sea turtles and their eggs from poaching while initiating sustainable development and providing a viable alternative economy to poaching in the village.

While the turtles used to be hunted as a food source by inhabitants, a recent increase in poaching has been seriously threatening the population. In April 2001, local residents along with the Costa Rican Coast Guard initiated ASTOP. Prior to the formation of ASTOP, 98% of the Green turtles were killed for their meat and 98% of all three species of turtles’ nests were poached on Parismina beach. Since the project started, poaching has decreased to 38%. In addition to saving 10,000 neonates annually, ASTOP economically supports approximately one third of the village.

↑ Trails around Parismina are beautiful and offer plenty of bird and animal watching opportunities

Sea Turtles

Watching a turtle lay her eggs is an incredibly fulfilling experience. When a turtle comes on land, she will scan the area for a right spot to lay eggs. This is a very impressive process to watch: The turtle leaves a very clear track as she approaches and goes around looking for an appropriate place. She will then dig, and I mean dig a very deep hole, and lay eggs. Once the eggs are laid, she will cover the hole with sand, compact it, and return to the sea. The whole ordeal can take upto an hour.

The turtles are sensitive to light and sound and picky about the right spot – it has to be sufficiently away from the ocean tides, particular consistency of sand so that the little ones can dig out, etc. Once the turtle is laying eggs, she enters sort of a state of trance, so I took the opportunity to touch and pet her. These turtles are gigantic!

During our four nights of patrolling, we encountered four massive leatherback turtles, two of which laid eggs while the remaining two returned to the ocean (they would return in the next day or two). We also saw one green turtle, and only tracks of another – at least they led back to the ocean so the animal wasn’t slaughtered. The number of eggs deposited is immense, and near the end of it there will be some unfertilized eggs deposited on top. Over the next few weeks, these eggs decompose and provide a supporting structure and breathing space for newly hatched turtle babies. It is necessary to hatch the turtles this way since a baby turtle will have the process imprinted in its memory and will know what to do once it grows up. Only 1% of hatchlings will survive to adulthood.

Four different species of sea turtles nest on the beaches at Parismina, several of which are nearly extinct, particularly the leatherback sea turtle.

Logistics

The Northern Carribean coast is not very far from San Jose, the capital, but the remoteness and sparse population of this place can give you a sense of being in the middle of nowhere. Most of the places here are accessible by waterways only (or small airplanes) and protected under the boundaries of Parque Tortuguero.

Reaching Parismina therefore requires a little more work. Coming from the west (San Jose) or east (Puerto Limon), get off at the town of Siquirres. There’s not much to do here but to stock up on supplies and grab a plate of food from one of the eateries near the bus station or the main square. Line up for the next bus to Caño Blanco (they run twice a day) which is approximately a two hour ride on a very dusty road through banana plantations to nowhere. From Caño Blanco, you transfer to a boat which will take you to Parismina in a fun 15 minute ride.

Parismina

Barra del Parismina is tiny – about 400 people live here. Eco-tourism and sport fishing are the foundation of the village economy, augmented by volunteers brought by ASTOP and the employment that generates. There are a couple of sodas (small eateries) and a store that sells beer. Other than that, it’s a really small town.

If you are interested in watching turtle lay eggs and help the conservation process, I will definitely suggest volunteering here, or at any similar project. This probably costs the same as going on a tour, but in my experience is not only responsible but also very spiritual. This was the best part of my Costa Rica trip.