Sandpoint Middle School eighth-grade student Devan Fitzpatrick has a pretty good idea what profession she wants to pursue when she is older. But just to be sure, she thought she should investigate it a little further, so she signed up for a trip to Costa Rica to work with endangered leatherback turtles.
“I want to be a marine biologist so it (the trip) helped me see what my options are,” said Fitzpatrick. “The trip was definitely inspiring.”
Fitzpatrick, along with 13 other seventh- and eighth-grade Sandpoint Middle School students, recently spent 11 days in Costa Rica working on a conservation project through the Eco Teach Foundation to help save endangered leatherback turtles.
Student Sam Levora said the trip was one of the best experiences of his life. “The turtles have been around for millions of years,” he said.
According to the Eco Teach Foundation, the species have declined in population by 75 percent over the last 15 years.
“This is our third year of doing these trips,” said one of the leaders, Sandpoint Middle School teacher Perky Smith-Hagadone, whose students have helped protect more than 2,000 eggs and hatchlings.
Joining Smith-Hagadone on the trip for a second year was Sandpoint Middle School teacher Marcea Marine. The program, they say, is not affiliated with Lake Pend Oreille School District. While in Costa Rica, the students performed volunteer tasks such as cleaning trash out of rivers and canals as well as protecting leatherback turtle hatchlings from predators.
The young conservationists observed that Costa Ricans do not have the same values as Americans when it comes to doing their best to keep the environment clean. But when the students started cleaning plastic bags and other trash from the rivers and canals, the residents wanted to help.
“It was really cool to see them want to help,” said Fitzpatrick. “It made you feel like you made a difference.”
But the work with the leatherback turtles was definitely a highlight for most of the students.
“When they (the turtles) crawled on the beach, we caught their eggs in a plastic bag,” said Katie Nicolich. “We took them to the hatchery where we dug a hole to keep them (the eggs) safe from predators.”
Smith-Hagadone explains that new eggs cannot be put into a nest where eggs have already hatched because of the chance of disease. “So we had a bucket brigade, where the dirty, spent sand is dug out of the old nest and taken to a hole in the sand at the beach. Then new sand is placed in the nest for the next round of eggs.”
Marine explains that the hatchery is fenced off so predators cannot get in. After the students or other volunteers during the season collect the eggs, they place them in a nest about 70 centimeters deep.
“After placing the fertile and infertile eggs in the nest, we pack the sand down around them,” said Marine. “After 60 days, the hatchlings crawl out and then we gather the hatchlings. The hatchlings are weighed, the shell is measured and then we place them on the beach about seven meters from the shore. They follow the light of the ocean and immediately crawl to the ocean.” All of that work is performed between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.
“We let go 550 hatchlings this year,” said Bailey Tomazich, who also explains why it is so important to keep the river clean from pollution. “The turtles think the plastic bags (in the water) are jellyfish so they latch onto them.”
Another threat to the leatherback turtles is poachers taking the eggs to use as an aphrodisiac in drinks.
Marine said what she enjoys most about taking the children on a trip like this is watching them take pride in their environment.
“They really learn to work together,” said Marine.
While the students were there to work, they all agree that it was an incredibly fun experience.
“It was a balance of fun and actual work,” said student Sam, who along with others raised the approximate $2,500-per-person cost by shoveling snow, babysitting and holding craft sales and yard sales.
Sam said one of the things that surprised him was the friendliness of the people of Costa Rica. “They were very kind,” he said.
That was also an observation of Devan , who said until now she had never been out of the country.
“I like learning about different cultures. Their families are like ours but bigger. And even though they don’t have much, they want to share what they do have,” she said.
In addition to working on the turtle project, the students also stayed one night with a Costa Rican family and spent time with members of the Bribri Indian tribe.
“They (the Bribri Indians) had a performance for us and sang songs. Then we sang the national anthem and other songs like This Land is Your Land,” said Bailey .
The kids from America also played soccer against some of the Bribri Indian children.
There were also activities such as white water rafting, zip lining and a boat ride where they observed various types of wildlife.
An experience none will likely forget, the students also came away with a very important lesson.
“I’m interested in saving the environment and doing what I can,” said Katie . “We only have one earth and so we have to preserve it as long as possible to save it for the next generations.”