When my first volunteer shift begins, at 8 p.m. on a balmy Sunday night, the beach at Gandoca, Costa Rica, is eerily dark. I clutch my Wal-Mart flashlight closer. Then our patrol leader, a conservation biologist, motions to our group of newbie volunteers and says, “Turn your flashlights off. The light bothers the turtles.” Amid groans of disbelief, he adds, “If you always use a flashlight, you’ll never learn to see in the dark.”

Thank you, Zen master, I think. But I click off the flashlight.

Turtles are, after all, why I’m here in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a 13,000-acre preserve along the southernmost edge of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Each spring and summer, dozens of endangered leatherback turtles lumber out of the water at Gandoca to lay their eggs. They’re massive creatures, up to 10 feet long and 2,000 pounds, but because of poaching, pollution and other factors, their population is in decline.

As a volunteer on vacation with i-to-i, one of the world’s largest voluntourism companies, I’ll help monitor the turtles as they nest and make sure hatchling turtles make it back to sea. I’m feeling rather warm and fuzzy about it – as, apparently, are other travelers.

The only problem: Actually finding a leatherback. Because the turtles nest at night, most of the volunteer work happens in the dark. Once I click my flashlight off, I could walk right on top of a leatherback and I wouldn’t know it.

Thankfully, my night vision kicks in enough for me to make out the silhouette of a log I have to sidestep. But as it turns out, it doesn’t matter much. The patrol is a bust for leatherbacks. Just before midnight, I stumble past my mosquito netting into bed at a local guesthouse, reminding myself that I’ll have another shot tomorrow.

Despite the late night, I don’t sleep in. Mornings start early in Gandoca, cued by the rhythmic grunts of howler monkeys. I stumble downstairs and devour a breakfast of granola and fresh mangoes at the open-air dining table, then sprawl in a rocking chair on the wide balcony, watching exotic birds flit by.

With just 178 residents, Gandoca feels miles from the rest of the world, and it is – six hours from San Jose, to be precise, and an hour from the nearest paved road. There’s no cell phone reception, few TVs and even fewer cars, but hammocks dangle from nearly every porch in town. During the day, Gandoca practically enforces Caribbean calm.

After dark, on the beach, it’s a different story. Tonight I’m assigned to the graveyard shift, midnight to 4 a.m., and as I stomp 1.5 miles across the black sand in one direction, then the same distance back, I fight off grogginess. By the end of four hours, I’m soaked with sweat, my sneakers are brined with seawater and I’ve seen nada. I’m wondering if I’ll ever spot a tortuga.

I’m learning the secret truth about volunteer vacations: they’re not exactly vacations. They are, in fact, a lot of hard work.

But as with all volunteer work, there are unexpected treasures. Like being with other volunteers who readily pitch in to clean debris off the beach or prep the turtle hatchery. Like counting shooting stars during the turtle patrol. Like feeling that I’m part of something bigger than myself. Even without seeing a turtle, I’m glad I’ve come.

Luckily, I don’t go home empty-handed. On my third night in Gandoca, fortified by rice, beans, and crisp-fried plantain tostones, I head out on tortuga patrol with Maria, an environmental scientist from Spain; Alex, a young man from Portland, Ore.; and Catherine, a student from Germany. We haven’t been walking very long when we spot a dark form in the surf about 300 feet away. “Do you see it?” Maria whispers.

“I see it, I see it,” I squeal. How could I not? The leatherback is so massive it’s like watching a Prius emerge from the water; she’s more like a stegosaurus than an Iowa pond turtle. As we circle closer to her, I realize that this is the nearest I’ve ever come to an animal so wild.

Once the leatherback has settled into the rhythm of scooping her nest out of the damp sand, we volunteers get to work measuring her and scanning for a microchip tag. When the turtle deposits her eggs – more than 100 of them – our patrol leader scoops them up in a bag for relocation to a safer spot on the beach.

As I record the data we collect, I angle my flashlight carefully so the light doesn’t bother the leatherback. But with the fireflies flashing like paparazzi bulbs and the Milky Way glowing above Gandoca, I realize I have all the light I need.

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