Volunteering mixes family vacation with sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica

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      We waited for the signal. “Okay, one, two, three!” called Alice.

      We heaved. The turtle struggled as four of us lifted it from the water onto the boat, just as we’d been instructed, each holding a flipper.

      I had never come this close to a sea turtle before, and now I was helping to wrestle the 40-kilogram reptile into a boat. It smelled of the sea, and I could see the intricate, marbled-green patterns on its back as it settled down, breathing deeply, perhaps realizing it wasn’t in danger.

      My family and I were volunteering for a week at a turtle-conservation project on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Our project leader was Alice Carpentier, a bright and energetic French biology graduate student who had an infectious laugh and an easygoing attitude that matched the rhythm of our tropical, laid-back surroundings on the Pacific coast.

      We had taken a boat out on the calm waters of the bay that morning, capturing green and hawksbill turtles to record measurements and gather information. Earlier, Alice had taught us how to carry the turtles by their flippers and hold them to make sure they were safe and calm. I was surprised at how easy they were to handle.

      The waters off the peninsula provide rich feeding grounds for turtles throughout the year. Alice explained that a lot is known about what happens when turtles nest but very little has been recorded about what they do and where they go after they’re born, before they return to lay their eggs. The data would be used in research for conservation efforts to try to understand why and where some species—including greens and hawksbills, which are both endangered—have been depleted and how to sustain the population.

      About a year earlier, our family had decided to take a trip together over Christmas. After much discussion about physical limitations and time constraints (and my mother’s risk-averse approach to travelling), we narrowed it down to Costa Rica. My father and mother, who are in their 60s and early 70s, and my brother and I all jumped at the idea, as it’s rare for us to be able to spend extended periods of time together, since everyone but me lives in eastern Canada.

      Volunteering seemed to fit with the spirit of the season, and through Holidays for Humanity we found the conservation project in Costa Rica. The program allowed for hands-on work with turtles to aid conservation efforts, and it was flexible about abilities and timing. Although my parents would be the last ones to buy into an eco-adventure for the sake of saving the planet, we were all interested in having an experience that would be different from seeing the usual tourist sights, and we wanted to get a taste of the local Costa Rican perspective.

      The project is administered through a group called LAST, or Latin American Sea Turtles, which focuses on community-based sea-turtle conservation in partnership with WIDECAST, an international nonprofit scientific network. The group brings money into the Costa Rican economy by arranging homestays, providing work for people like boat drivers, and drawing tourists to local restaurants. The program also educates Costa Ricans about the importance of turtle conservation, in a culture where it’s been common to eat turtles and their eggs.

      For us, it was a pleasure to practise our Spanish with local people in the small village of Playa Blanca. The project headquarters were located in the home of Maria Elena and Jose Bustos, and they also hosted us as guests for the week. Through most of our stay we were joined by a large Australian student group, but volunteers generally made arrangements individually and various people came and went during our week.

      Our accommodations were simple bunk beds for the four of us in one room. The hosts welcomed us warmly and attended to our needs, and the food they provided—mostly beans and rice with vegetables and fresh fruit—was nourishing. On days off, you could take a walk, go for a warm dip, take a paddle with a rented kayak, or go on a guided tour of nearby parks.

      On our volunteering expeditions to rehabilitate mangrove forests or catch turtles for research, we glimpsed macaws, sloths, toucans, and snakes. The nights were warm and sultry, and in our back yard there were bright, lush blooms and gentle, gleaming waters.

      My parents impressed me by jumping right into the action that first day, grabbing a turtle flipper or a corner of the fishing net. They barely complained about the humid weather or the communal living space.

      As we said goodbye on the last night of our stay, we realized that in a short time we’d connected with both the local community and the other international volunteers, and most of all we’d learned about each other as a family. And for me, the first time I saw a turtle make its way across the beach after we’d released it, witnessing the powerful creature as it swam away into the ocean with a few powerful strokes—that image will likely stay with me for the rest of my life.

      Access: Holidays for Humanity can help make arrangements for this program, including accommodation; participants typically arrange their own flights and ground transport. WIDECAST has programs on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica, usually for one-week periods.


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      Aug 21, 2014 at 7:08am

      Please! Do not lift sea turtles by their flippers!