Our week volunteering with the Turtles

Published: April 14th 2012
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Turtle BeachTurtle BeachTurtle Beach

Welcome to the Pacuare Reserve
The Turtles Diaries
Saturday 17th March

Having not received any responses back from Andres via Carlos's email since we confirmed we'd like to start on Saturday at turtle protection, we decided to give him a quick call to let him know we were still setting off on the 8.40am Bus from Punta Uva and if the buses ran kindly to his timings we'd be with him by around midday.... No answer, so we sent a quick email saying the above and were on our way.... The rickety old bus made its way speedily across to Puerto Limon and the weather seemed to be drying up the further north we got which was a bonus.... Arriving at Puerto Limon we tried to buy tickets to Mantila as had been directed in Andres first email only to find we had to go to another terminal, so we trekked over to find out the next bus was at 12.20pm... It was 10.45am.... Bummer......not only would we miss our water taxi but we had no way of contacting anyone to let us now.....this we knew as we tried over a dozen times and bought a coffee at a cafe to try and use the Internet to
Fresh CoconutFresh CoconutFresh Coconut

Nice and sweet
send another email..... So we did the only thing we could.... Wait and hope they'd realise we'd just missed our bus and not changed our minds otherwise we were stuck.....

The bus for Mantila was full of local people and only got fuller as the journey contined... Top tip (which unfortunately we only thought about when we realised what a struggle it is to comprehend where you are going, is if you sit on the left in a foreign country on a full bus then you have no idea where you are and where you are going...) sit on the right hand side so you can see the signs and close to the rear exit so you can get off with your backpack quickly and easily.... As we'd done neither we relied on the great accommodation of the lovely local Ticas and with their help got off in the right place with our bags....

So 1pm and we were in Manila.... Which is a very small place with limited facilities (i'm talking we were dropped off in a street with no cars, no shops, just a quite street with an abandoned train line running across the middle) but
The canalsThe canalsThe canals

The ride down these to the reserve was beautiful
thank God one Taxi ..... So we followed the next instruction.... 10 Dollars in a Taxi to a dock where we'd be picked up......30 mins later down pot hole tracks and millions of miles of Banana Plantation the road turned and stopped... At the end was a small Finca, across a little make shift bridge (literally a hole had been cut through a grass bank to allow boats through) and a wooden plank resting on the muddy bank... Aka the dock we're looking for... One small problem... No one was there to collect us....So what do we do.... Get out the taxi and risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal or go back to town..... With I have to say quite a bit of coaxing from the taxi driver we got out and waited....the taxi driver assured us the man from the farm knew his number and could contact him if we needed to return...As soon as we got out the taxi, we were attacked.... I have never seen so many Mosquitos and they certainly had a quick feast on us before we got the bug spray out....... However we have now resigned ourselves to
Abundant WildlifeAbundant WildlifeAbundant Wildlife

Just one of the hundreds of herons we saw
the fact that we WILL get bitten, they WILL puff up and they WILL itch like hell!!!!So we waited for over 2 hours..... And continued to be eaten.... (glad we made something happy lol)

As Mantila is a small village and where we were was just a small house with a few animals, you can imagine

a) how many people we came across and

b) how much english they spoke....

So as you can imagine we had a challenging yet extremely rewarding 2 hours, with the fantastic man on the farm who constantly tried to call the reserve for us, to the plantation worker who was a character to say the least and we embarked on a game of word exchanges from Spanish to English each teaching the other all the words we could, only to be cut short by his 2 mates turning up to collect him in a dug out canoe...

Finally a saviour arrived in the form of a truck with supplies, evidently waiting for a boat!!! There was a man in the truck who spoke English really well and offered to give us a lift. Tony it turns out, runs a
Elvins PineapplesElvins PineapplesElvins Pineapples

Elvin was the norths guard and expert gardener
similar conservation reserve a bit closer than ours and was just here to check everything was ok before students started arriving for the season.....Packing the many stocks of rice, water, cereals, cleaning stuff, wood, plaster board and not to mention 7 people and our luggage into the small boat, which had been emptied of water along with a crab only minutes earlier...... We set off down the canal, which is a river really..... It was beautiful and within minutes we'd seen howler monkies, loads of birds and Tony was sharing stories of crocodiles and sharks......we had to reposition everything a few minutes into our journey as the boat stalled and wouldn't start again until we took the weight off the back.... After about 15 minutes of that we set off again, only to have another stop as some of the bleach had started leaking all over our bags.... Thankfully one of the guides had noticed it quite quick and the only damage is us smelling a bit 'too clean''...

You certainly get the sense of desolation on the river and we could feel we were going to love it here, despite the pesky Mosquitos .....Finally we pulled up at

More of the beautiful wildlife from an early evening ride up the canal
our destination at around 4.45pm ....

Gracefully exiting the boat by jumping into the shallow water rucksacks in tow we set off along the trail Tony had said lead to the reserve... A big house came into view and Hilda came out, mint tea in hand and with a perfect English Accent, that we were soon to find out came from her husband who is the founder and owner of the reserve. He had since 1989 dedicated himself to the conservation of the turtles and all the other marine and land mammals who have followed suit as the reserve has begun to thrive. Half way on our jaunt to the main base of the reserve, which was bigger and busier than I'd imagined as they had a group of 10 students aged 15-18 from the US here on a school excursion, we bumped into Jessy who runs the non turtle side of the reserve and she carried on with explanations and showing us to our hut, which is to be home for the next week. Where we met our resident spider who later had to be removed as he wanted to sleep with Jon.... He was huge!!! Bat and
Howler MonkeysHowler MonkeysHowler Monkeys

The troop passed through near our cabins every afternoon
predictably lots of Mosquitos.....We passed the canteen area where we were told tea would be served at 6pm, lunch at 1pm and breakie at 9am (a bit later as you obviously don't get in from patrols until 4 pm) ... We could smell it and we are pleased to report it tastes as good as it smelt, especially the super picante salsa, made especially to please Jessy, who although a Londoner is a very patriotic honoury Mexican as she's spent the last year there....Dominoes to decide who washes the pots and bed by 8pm as you are up and on patrol by Midnight in the search of nesting leather backs.....

Night 1 with the turtles

Midnight Sunday 18th March Going solo on my first night as Jon seems to have come down with the 24 hour bug the American 'Spring Breakers' had in Punta Uva.

Arrived at the canteen to report for duty for my first nights work, expecting to be the only one as I'd been told the American students were going home the next morning, however there were a few who made it out along with Claire who worked for the ecology project international who were leading the kids.
Even more wildlifeEven more wildlifeEven more wildlife

Never any shortage of things to see
She introduced me to Mark and Beatrice who were both 18 (think the terminology is Seniors) and Taylor who was only 15, but you'd never have guessed it, she was easy 5ft 10.......

Claire had got involved with the projects from an early age as she had spent her time split between Costa Rica and the US when she was growing up and had just graduated as a marine biologist, which I've later found out is what most of the volunteers here are, that or biologists.....It wasn't a bad night weather wise and the kids were really pleased as every other night had been really quite wet and miserable. They have to go out on 3 of the 4 nights they are here as a minimum and have to keep a journal of all their work in order to do a presentation, which I think they'd all done that afternoon, however Beatrice, diligently filled out everything in her book...

We spotted our first track after about 30 mins of walking. The tracks are quite easy to spot if you stay close to the water, as you can then see the tracks, which look like tire tracks coming out
A bit of down timeA bit of down timeA bit of down time

We were surprised to find a bar by the canal but it was a nice surprise
of the water, up onto the beech. Paulo, who as it turns out came here 5 years before on a turtle project with his school, along with Rucia asked us all to wait, so he could go and see what was happening and Rucia explained that once they'd establish where the turtle was at with the nesting process we would be able to go up 1 by 1, but had to at all times, stay behind the turtle as not to scare her from laying. Paulo reported the turtle had just finished digging and he had already placed a bag underneath the turtle in order to rehouse the eggs to a safer place. One student volunteered to count the eggs as the turtle lay them and the rest of us waited until we could go up 1 by 1. After she had finished laying we were able to measure her and I was lucky enough to be able to do that. Leatherback's are the only turtles without a hard shell and with a delicate jaw; the shell is composed of tough, rubbery skin, although it feels rock hard just like you'd expect a turtle shell to be. When you measure
Beer boat rideBeer boat rideBeer boat ride

The trip back from the bar
the length you start from the centre of the shell and take the measure to the tip of the tail of the shell. Most measure around 5ft in length but the longest one was found in Wales of all places and was 10 ft!!!! Width wise they are usually around a metre. The turtles have 2 ridges if you follow the shell down over their shoulder and it's on the 2nd that you measure as that is usually the widest part. You then measure the tracks and position of the nest from the vegetation and sea if you are not relocating the nest. Tracks are usually around 175cms and you measure front flipper tip left to front flipper tip right. A second group of students arrived with another 2 biologists and as they hadn't had any interaction with any turtles yet that evening we gave them the eggs to rehouse and left them to cover the tracks and we continued on.

It wasn't long until we spotted turtle number 2 and this time we were not quick enough to rehouse as she was up just about to start laying. This time whoever counted the eggs needed to be on
Team South StationTeam South StationTeam South Station

Us and the guys
it as their would be no double checking when you rehoused the nest, this was the only chance, one of the students volunteered and this time when we went up 1 by 1 not only did we not have to disturb the turtle but Paulo and Mark from their counting. It doesn't take a genius to work out they went with Paulo's figures.... 107 fertile and 7 infertile, not Mark's 97 and 10.......

Just time for a biscuit as the turtle covered her nest before we took the measurements and let her descend into the sea.....

We were back by 3.55am , teeth brushed and in bed by 4 am...Very satisfying nights work...

Night 2 with the turtles

12 Midnight Morning of Monday 19th March

After 3 hours sleep after tea, we both awoke to my alarm going off at 11.30pm and were waiting for Elisa at the meeting point outside the canteen by Midnight, ready for another night monitoring the Leatherbacks nesting.... Well almost ready it had been a real struggle for me to get out of bed as I'd been out the night before from Midnight to 4pm, whereas Jon had had bit more sleep so he
The look of concentrationThe look of concentrationThe look of concentration

This is matter of life or death, well at least a matter of will I be the one to have the dishes to do or not
was a raring to go....

We waited and waited.... A couple of guards came back from patrol and had a coffee and asked who we were waiting for and bless them went to knock her up..... And shortly after she came rushing round full of apologies... But you can only have empathy for them as they do this job 7 days per week for no money just board and lodge.... Plus bless her she'd been out on what they call the Census Shift, which is basically a shift at 5am, which goes out and inspects what happened the previous night, cover any tracks the night patrol has missed and also log any activity which may have happened after they'd finished.... All that and a full days work and a 5 hour Midnight patrol!!!

So we set off around 12.30am and by 1am we caught sight of our first track... Elisa went ahead to investigate and quickly came running back as there was a turtle and she was making her way back to sea, which they do surprisingly fast, so Elisa had to quickly try and ascertain whether or not she had tags and if so log them quickly, inspect her for damage eg. Bites out of her fins, feet, tail.... Scaring and also tumours, apparently lots of Leatherbacks suffer from a type of cancer, which appears as a tumour on their shoulders. Also try and measure if possible... But this turtle was moving at some speed and her head was already in the water so it was a mad dash to read the tags and inspect her ... Certainly no time to worry about getting the tape measure out....Once she'd disappeared and we'd logged her tag numbers and marks, Elisa explained the tracks. It appeared that this turtle had only exited the water, dragged herself up the beach to turn around without laying. We continued on and quickly happened upon our 2nd turtle and this time she had only just wandered out of the water so it was really important we stay back and let her settle and start to dig. Thankfully she did and we could easily ensure we moved the nest as we'd caught it so early. The best thing, well the most surprising thing is to watch them dig.... Their back flippers so gracefully dig down and scoop the sand out, it's really amazing to see.... When you consider how they struggle to get onto the beech and what an effort it appears, this action is totally the opposite and appears so natural...The same goes for watching them cover the nest... And boy do you have to be fast getting that about if you're rehousing or you get a face full of sand!!!

92 fertile and 34 infertile this time and after we'd taken all the usual measurements Elisa went off to rehouse the eggs and we stayed to watch her camouflage and watch her return to the sea. We then started our job of camouflaging her tracks...

Onwards, and our third turtle of the night..... This time she had her tags missing so we needed to tag her, easier said than done.... You have to wait until she 's laid all her eggs but still in the trance and that way she can't feel anything... A bit like humans, between the rear flipper and tail there's a flappy bit of skin.... Which is ideal for placing the tag..... Problem was this turtle didn't have any flabby piece of skin and after a few goes Elisa decided it would be too unfair to tag the turtle incase it hurt her. So we did the next best thing, recorded all the measurements and rehoused the eggs to ensure her babies had the best chance of survival possible. After a late start, we saw the sunrise and more than made up for any lost time as Arvalo spotted us coming in just as he was about to start his Census walk at 5.30am

A good nights work done ... And who knows maybe out of the 250 eggs which were laid a good amount make it to the sea in 2 months time when they hatch.

Night 3 with the turtles

Early hours of Tuesday 20th March 2012
After our 5.30am finish on day 2, we were hoping for a nice easy 4am finish tonight but when we arrived at the meeting point at 11.55pm to find 2 turtles within 300 metres of the canteen it was a sign.... We were in for a busy one... Poor Elisa had got to the station at 11.40pm to grab a coffee and some food before the night ahead and was met by a security guard panicking as 2 turtles had arrived at the same time and there was only 1 person free to do one, so she'd had to rush to turtle number 2 and by the time we arrived 'she' (the turtle) had just finished digging her nest, bless her, after struggling up a huge drop of sand that must have been at least 0.8m she'd literally just started digging, which meant this nest would have to be moved.To move a nest you have to wait patiently until 'she' has finished excavating and watch her feet, when they turn to a tiny sway that's when she's going into the trance ready to lay, so you have to be quick and delicately place the black bag underneath to catch all the eggs and juice. When you move a nest to a safer location to protect it from poachers, other preditors or just from the sea it also helps ensure you can accurately count the number of fertile and infertile eggs as its not easy counting them when they come in groups of 3 upwards, quite quickly and could be in-excess of 130...

She layed quite a big batch 97 fertile and 26 infertile so we had plenty a chance to watch and plenty of odd shaped infertile eggs to see, which can be as small as a marble...We measured her and checked her over for damaged, logged her tag numbers and measured the track sizes before Tor and Elisa, went off to dig a new nest and we were left to watch the turtle camouflage where she had laid her nest, which they take a painstaking amount of time and effort, especially when we've moved it you really feel for them.... They basically flick lots of sand about and then move around so it just trashes the whole area, with the desired outcome being, you would have no idea where to start looking for the nest even if you had the right area. After about 30 mins, 'she' started making her way back down the bank into the sea and away, something that when you consider how slowly they do the rest of the process, she did relatively swiftly... I suppose it was down hill! We walked up the beach very slowly and met Suzanh, who had been to re house her nest who told us where Elisa and Tor were, which was really helpful as its so dark, you're really looking for a needle in a haystack. She also told us, she'd started digging her nest and come across another nest so had to start all over again, something I would appreciate very soon. Tor saw us coming and came to get us, Elisa was just finishing off when we arrived and we had to discard the large amount of dislodged soil from the nest, which was obviously now replaced with eggs and chuck it into the sea as you can't leave it by the nest or even flatten it off near the nest as you'd easily be able to recognise the small mound to be a newly dug nest, as the sand is also damper. We moved on and at 1.3kms we saw fresh tracks and only the entry tracks, so it was pretty clear to see we had our 2nd Tortuga...Elisa went to check it out and she had literally just stopped and was starting to dig..... 'she was much higher up and it was a close call on whether we move the nest but I asked Elisa and she said if you aren't sure you move it, as it would be such we can't afford to lose the nests.'she' seemed a lot bigger this one and unlike the 1st she still had all her shell intact but it was clear to see her back flippers were trashed.... Her left had lots of pieces missing out of it and the right had a big slice in it, causing a separation at least 50cms in length. 'she' was struggling too, Elisa said you could feel her straining by just holding her flipper.'she did still lay 76 fertile and 23 infertile eggs. After we'd done all the measurements and inspections, where we found more of what looked like bite chunks out of the right front flipper but again thankfully no cancer, she'd lost her tags so we replaced them, which I hope didn't hurt too much after what she'd been through, measured her and the tracks, we left the boys to watch her camophlage herself and exit before they totally camouflaged all trace of her and I went with Elisa to rehouse my first turtle...

We headed up to the bank towards the vegetation and a bit further away from the sea and maybe 250m more north. We picked our first spot and I started digging. You have to dig a 25cm diameter circle, which is 0.8m deep but that goes much wider at the base, again in the direction of land not sea. ...Tough going as you also have to pile the sand you excavate into a mound to put in the bag later and take to the sea. Also tough as I'm sure my arm isn't 0.8m, so you are lying down with your face flat against the sand, reaching as far as you can!! Finally once we'd finished we could start placing the eggs, which were shallowly resting in damper sand, into the nest. The temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the turtle, the warmer eggs are females and the cooler ones males. We counted the eggs whilst packing them with damp sand as we went (they must never come into contact with dry sand) and covered the nest using a stick to triangulate the nest, which basically means measure its distance from 3 points to ensure its exact location can be pinpointed. Elisa used the heavy bag of excavated sand to compress the sand in the area we had been digging and then I walked all over it, again in an attempt to camophlage.

The boys were back at this point and they took the heavy bag of excavated sand and threw it into the sea.

It's 4.15am at this point and we were at 1.5kms..... This wasn't going to be an early night!!! We started walking to 3.5kms and came over 4 more nests of which all looked like the turtles had laid however you can never be 100%!u(MISSING)nless you see it. None had been camophlage so we lined them to mark the fact we'd seen them incase we didn't have chance to camophlage them on the way back and that way the person on the census shift, which was Rocia could do that, but not to worry about taking down all the track sizes etc, as it was already done. We had a couple of cookies on the way to give us a much needed energy boost and carried on walking.....When we arrived at 3.5kms, none of us wanted to stop and we kept on going.... It was 5.15pm!!!! On the way back, we walked our socks off and camophlaged 3 nests faster then ever!!!! By half way the sun was truly up and you could start to see lots of tracks and Jon was intrigued, pointing them all out!!! Think it would be fair to say for once we all weren't interested in anything but our beds!!!!!

At 6.15am....we were finally back.... A good nights work and 2 hours sleep to look forward to!!!!

Our night in the North Station

With an influx of people due at the South Station ... (17 teachers from the schools taking part in the Ecology International Project) we were glad to escape and head up to the quieter North Station and help them out for a bit....

We were due to go up with the shopping, which was great as that meant by boat and the ride is stunning....... And we werent disappointed....we were lucky despite it getting dark.... 3 crocs, lots of birds, howlers and one special bird with a funky tail that looked more like a rooster or a football clubs mascot !! Must find out the name....

When we got there Elvin was there to greet us along with everyone from the North Station and the uber large wheel barrow which we loadened up and Jon helped push....It was pressing 6.45pm when we'd finally sat down for tea, which was even later as they'd been waiting on some veg from the shopping to finish it off..... So we loaded all the shopping and chatted until it was ready.....

You have to have lights off in the canteen by 7.30pm for 2 reasons....

A) because everyone needs to gets their butts to bed and have some sleep before their shifts


B) most importantly so the turtles don't see the light and think its the horizon and head back out to sea without laying..

We were on the 10pm shift with Pan as leader and another volunteer, Letisha or Suiz as she was affectionately known!!!

The north beach patrol is less distance only 2.2kms to the cross over point so you have to walk the stretch 4 times which in fact is almost a km more than what you do in the south but I don't know if it's the fact you have a break after every 2.2kms or the beach is a bit flatter or what but it just seems easier for some reason.

We walked the first 3 legs with only 1 false trail to show for it but as we were nearing the end of the third leg at about 12.30am we were rewarded... A turtle .... Her tracks showed she had made a perfectly straight exit out of the sea and was almost in the vegetation..... Perfect... No need to rehouse the nest and I was the first to volunteer to go and count the eggs. .....It was fantastic... I got to understand how she digs a bit more, which I have to say is mesmerising, and to observe the transition from digging to laying......What happens is she covers her tail with her flipper and depending on her age and experience depends on how quickly they start laying with the older more experienced females starting just as soon as the digging stops. We could tell this was an old female. Her skin was really saggy, she had loads of war wounds and 2 large gaping holes where 2 tags had been and gone. The latest tag she had on was also well on its way to working its way out as the hole was massive, but Pan explained how it's better for the turtle to just let them work their way out, rather than remove and replace. Once she started laying it was all eyes on the eggs and concentration to stay focused.... And count.....

The fertile ones are easy as they come out in groups of 2 to 6 and at a speed that you can easily count them.... The infertile ones however pop out all over the place and in a right flurry...... We counted 96 fertile and 35 infertile ....

The others got to help Pan with the other measurements and nest location and after that was done she continued to camouflage and we marked the tracks so Rocia could camouflage fully in the morning as she was on the Census...No more than 100 steps from our first turtle we spotted another set of tracks.... We had a bit more waiting to do here as she was still dragging herself up the beach and had yet to start forming the body pit or start digging.The last thing we wanted to do was scare her so she didn't lay and this was possible still due to the close proximity of the other turtle and if she sensed our presence. Thankfully she started digging but just as we were all about to get into positions Pan noticed she had stopped.... Reason being she'd hit a piece of wood way down under her in the nest.... She tried to remove it but in the end we could see her begin to fill the nest back in......

Again we waited hoping rather than call it a day, she'd dig anther nest, which thankfully she did and again as she was so high we wouldn't need to relocate... The whole process had taken us to well past 2pm and as the other patrol were passing us they took over and we carried on back to the station.

We saw one more salida falsa on the way and were just approaching the station at about 3pm and we could see Rocia working on a turtle..... Whilst we'd been out, a turtle had decided to come up right outside the station and Elvin had had to go and wake Rocia up to do it.... We could clearly see the nest was in a very bad place.... No more than 5 metres from the sea, miles from the vegetation.... Rocia had already moved it and was just about to rehouse the nest... Apparently she'd only laid about 60 eggs in total and didn't even build her nest properly, it being really shallow....Bless Rocia she had to be up in a couple of hours for the Census too....

3 turtles in 1 night.........What a way to finish our time here in Pacuare

We've had the best time, got to do something amazing, met fantastic people and practised our Spanish loads..... Hopefully of the 9 turtles and over 900 eggs we saw laid, some will make it back in 30-50 years time to lay their own eggs

What we did during the day.....Our working day diary

Sunday 18th 10:30 - 12:30

Make plant pots for new trees to protect the Casa Grande and the Cocina out of cardboard boxes

14:00 - 16:00

Clean equipment ready for evening turtle patrols

Monday 19th 10:30 - 12:30

Clean equipment ready for evening turtle patrols

14:30 - 17:30

Collect wood and other organic debris on beech and move in front of Casa Grande to form a barrier.

Tuesday 20th 10:30 - 11:30

Clean equipment ready for the evening patrol

11:30 - 12:30

Find planks of wood and cut to size to be used as signage ready for Easter Week when there will be many tourists on the beech

14:30 - 17:30

Paint wood collected this morning and strip coconuts of all the fibres to use in planting.

Wednesday 21st 10:30 - 11:30

Clean equipment ready for the evening turtle patrols

11:30 - 12:30

Find long planks of wood and take them over to the accommodation of the workers to be made into a walkway for their yard area where the washing lines are to stop them getting everything covered in sand.

14:30 - 17:00

Make pergola for growing vegetables and paint signs with the writing agreed

Thursday 22nd 10:30 - 12:30

Clean equipment ready for the evening patrol

14:30 - 17:30

Wash and sort all recycling and bag ready to take to the village for the ladies to sell.

Friday 23rd 10:30 - 12:30

Clean equipment ready for evening patrols

15:00 - 17:00

Put up signs made earlier in the week.


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