Our visit to Costa Rica this year included an opportunity to volunteer alongside researchers working to study and protect sea turtles that nest on Carate Beach. Read on to learn more…
A Green sea turtle covering her eggs as researcher takes measurements.
As human beings, we are wired to see babies of pretty much every species as adorable. Their flawless skin coverings, their big eyes and disproportionately large heads which give them a look of innocence, their adorably clumsy first steps, all cause our hearts to melt and we want to protect them.
Baby sea turtles are no exception and watching a nest of hatchlings work their tiny flippers off to reach the water’s edge made us fall even deeper in love with them.
This January, Summit Trek & Travel clients volunteered to help at COPROT, a sea turtle project in Carate, Costa Rica. COPROT works to collect and study data on the sea turtles that nest on this South Pacific beach, in order to help understand the threats facing these endangered animals. They also strive to protect sea turtles and to educate others about the dangers facing them. Of the 4 types of turtles that nest on here, 3 are endangered – one critically so – and the 4th is threatened.
As we walked the beach early in the morning looking for signs of new nests, we spotted a couple of stray dogs digging up something in the sand. Horrified, we saw that one of the dogs had a baby sea turtle in its mouth. They had found a nest of hatchlings.
Usually, baby sea turtles will emerge from their nest during the night. The searing sun of the exposed beach is dangerous for these little guys, because it can cause dehydration and keep them from reaching the ocean. However at this point, the only way to keep the dogs from killing them, was for us to dig up the rest of the nest and protect the hatchlings while they made their way to the water.
We stood side by side in two lines to create a safety corridor for the babies that stretched from the nest to the ocean waves. We guarded them from the stray dogs, as well as from hawks and vultures that were hanging around waiting for the chance to grab a tasty morsel. We rescued them from crabs that snatched the hatchlings that wandered too close to the holes where the crabs were waiting. And we gently righted the babies that tumbled upside down into our giant footprints in the sand.
It was a long march for these tiny turtles, exhausting and dangerous. But, just as a butterfly must experience the struggle of getting out of its cocoon in order for blood to pump and fill its wings, so baby sea turtles must experience the effort of struggling to reach the water to fully wake up and be ready to swim. Once they reached the turbulent shore, they were washed back up as far as 10-12 feet into the sand which they had to traverse again… and again… and again. It took some of them 7 or 8 attempts before they were finally carried off into deeper water.
We cheered and high-fived when, after an hour, the last of the 35 determined and resilient hatchlings finally disappeared into the waves. But our celebration was short and somewhat somber. All our baby turtles had made it into the ocean, but they will face as many dangers there each day, as they faced on the march to the water. Sea birds and fish of all sorts and sizes are waiting to gobble them up while they are still little mouthfuls. When they grow larger, they still have to fear larger fish and other marine animals. And then there are the human factors.
Habitat loss is an ongoing issue, as the beaches where sea turtles once nested are disappearing due to shore development. Discarded fishing nets ensnare turtles – and other marine animals – causing them to drown. Astonishing quantities of plastics floating in our oceans are also threatening sea turtles. The turtles confuse discarded plastic items for food and eat them. Toxins from the plastics sicken the turtles, and the plastic cannot be digested so it stays in their stomachs causing the turtles’ brains to signal that they are full… resulting in some turtles to starving to death.
Cleaning up micro plastic on Carate Beach
More severe storms due to climate change are causing beach erosion. And, as the world is getting warmer, the increasing temperature of the turtle nests is having an impact. Because the sex of sea turtles is temperature determinant, fewer males – which develop in the cooler parts of the nest – are being hatched. Researchers are concerned about the impact this gender imbalance may have on the turtles’ reproduction rates…
Under natural conditions, it is estimated that on average, only 1 of every 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive to sexual maturity. But with the added pressures of climate change, plastics, and other stressors, that number now is much lower. Estimates range from only 1 in 2,000 to only 1 in 5,000 hatchlings today reaching adulthood.
We want to help improve the odds for these slightly clumsy, totally endearing and beautiful creatures and we’d love for you to join us. Things to do:
- Reduce the use of all plastics. Find ways to reuse what you already have and replace with future purchases with glass or metal.
- Clean up our waterways. All our streams and rivers eventually run into the ocean. Carry a garbage bag with you and when you see trash, especially plastic trash, while you are swimming, boating, kayaking or taking a walk along a stream bed or beach, pick it up and dispose of it properly.
- Ask your favorite suppliers to find non-plastic options for items you wish to buy.
- Encourage others to change their habits, too.
You can also visit the COPROT website to donate: https://www.tortugasdeosa.org. Please tell them Summit Trek & Travel sent ya!