Sea turtles are one of the most ancient creatures on planet earth; in Stone Age they witnessed the extinction of the dinosaurs and the dawn of the human race.
But the worldwide number of living sea turtles is decreasing. According to a statistic just one of one thousand baby sea turtles survives. But why just one? What happens to the other 999 and how can you help them?
Facts about Turtle Rescuing
Four of the seven species of sea turtles are to be seen nesting on the South Pacific beaches of Costa Rica:
- Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea),
- Green (Chelonia mydas),
- Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea),
- Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata).
All of them are in danger of extinction. On Playa Tortuga, in the South of Costa Rica, the Olive Ridley Turtle is mostly nestling, but other species also arrive occasionally. Leatherback turtles sometimes come by to lay eggs, but the babies don’t make it because of the heat.
The nesting period takes place between July and December, with the months October and September as a peak. During this period, it is possible to discover one or two nestling turtles every night. In the past two years, around 140 nests have been located on Playa Tortuga, which makes over 5,000 hatchlings (each nest contains an average of 100 eggs) but not every little turtle makes it.
Reserva Playa Tortuga
The Turtle Rescuing Center Reserva Playa Tortuga is a nonprofit biological research and education center, founded in 2009 and located in Ojochal de Osa on Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific Coast. There are biologists, guides and volunteers working hard to protect the current state of environmental resources in the area. All of them are passionate about animal rescuing; every moment of being in nature makes them happy. The whole institution is funded by donations and provided by solar panels to be as eco friendly as possible.
Interns and volunteers (mainly from Europe, US and Canada) can contribute to the work of Reserva Playa Tortuga for example in the Sea Turtle Conservation Program, the Mammal Inventory Project, the Crocodilian Monitoring Project or help in one of the Education Programs. As a volunteer, you stay directly on the property, together with your friends and family if you like, and experience 60 hectares of nature while having private rooms, three meals a day and access to a washing machine.
Sea Turtle Conservation Program
In the Sea Turtle Conservation Program, which is only taking place from July to December, you will have the opportunity to learn about the biology and life cycle of sea turtles, see adult and baby turtles, hatchery work, be able to handle nesting females, eggs and data collection.
Most of the nests you discover will be moved to the station where they are observed and protected 24/7. In the hatchery, important data such as the incubation period and nest temperature (which influences the sex of the hatchlings) is gathered.
You will receive special training about how to use research equipment and appropriate behavior in the field. You won’t ever be on your own, there’s always a staff member by your side to bear a hand and answer questions.
Be part of the bigger picture of 5000 rescued turtles a year, and fight together for this endangered species. Dig out the nest on the beach, protect it in the station and release the tiny turtles in the ocean when they are ready. Some of them come back every year to lay their eggs where they have been born. Big turtles have metal tags to recognize them next time they come. GPS chips for tagging the babies are being tested, but you lose so many that it is too expensive to tag every baby turtle.
A Night at Work in Turtle Season
In the Turtle Conservation Program, you won’t have a normal working day; you’ll have ‘working nights’ from 6 pm to 5 am, so be prepared for sleeping during the day. You will be working in a group of two or three, waiting for a turtle to come and dig a hole to lay their eggs. Then you approach the nest and collect the eggs, send them into the station immediately in clean plastic bags with sand and make sure you always stand behind the turtles so they don’t see you. If you are on duty in the station in your shift, your task is to check the temperature (the ladies are hotter than the guys) and write down any changes. Once the babies are hatched, you measure and tag them and release them into the water.
But be prepared for many losses, in a good night you might be able to save 5 turtles, normally only one or two. Not every egg hatches, and even if it does, there is no guarantee that the baby turtle will make it into the ocean. Many hatchlings will die of dehydration in the sun, especially in hot zones like Playa Tortuga, or be caught by predators like birds and crabs. Once in the water, there are many obstacles like sharks and other big fishes, not to forget all the plastic garbage where baby turtles easily get caught and struggle to death.
Human beings are a big threat to sea turtles. Not only because they pollute and destroy their habitat, but also by poaching. In many coastal communities, unfortunately in Central America, sea turtles are considered a food source. Hunters often wait for the female turtle to deposit her eggs, then kill her for the meat and take the eggs as well. In some cultures, turtle eggs are seen as an aphrodisiac.
Others are making it a tourist attraction to collect the eggs, the tourists just don’t know better. Also money is always a reason: Hawksbill sea turtles, known for their beautiful gold and brown shells, are hunted to make ornaments and jewelry. There is literally a war going on between poachers and conservationists.
“Tortuga beach is an official nesting beach, but the sea turtles are in danger. As beach is public everywhere in Costa Rica, we can’t just close off the parts where the turtles are nesting. So everyone can access the nests and steal the eggs. Neither the locals nor the foreigners know that it is forbidden to collect the eggs. Earlier in Costa Rica’s history, turtle eggs were eaten for healing purpose or as natural Viagra. Some people still believe in those legends today. But it’s a crime.” says Oscar Brenes, director of Reserva Playa Tortuga.
What You Can Do
Even if you’re not able to or not willing to volunteer in a rescuing program, there is something you can do for this extant species:
Teach your children awareness and respect for Mother Nature and her creatures. Take them to national parks and public beaches or let them take part in a project like beach clean up or animal rescuing. Be a good example and clean the places where you have been picnicking.
Bringing knowledge about ecology and biology to the little ones is essential to learn that you can’t use everything like you want because it’s not there forever.
Also check out the documentation “Why Just One?“ scheduled for release by the Conservation Society Sea Shepherd in summer 2016. This will move people emotionally – and move them to take action for the turtles.