Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

All the evening patrols are going smoothly. Our expeditioners have now split into smaller groups to search for nesting turtles during the 4-6 hour walks on the beach each night, in a race to retrieve turtle eggs before the poachers. Eggs retrieved from the beach are brought to the hatchery and we have been taking 4 hour shifts guarding the hatchery each night too. 40 nests of eggs have been re-buried already. Those on hatchery duty check every 20 minutes with their red head lamps to see if any baby turtles are emerging or if there are any ants or crabs around to threaten the eggs. For example, Valeria and Lindsay were handed a bag of eggs during their shift. They promptly re-buried them. “We took turns. First Lindsay dug the hole, then I placed the eggs in and finally we covered them together. As soon as we were done we really wanted to do it again”, said Valeria, our Costa Rican placement on the team.
Each year, the hatchery is constructed using sand from the beach under the high tide water line. This ensures the baby turtles grow in sand free of bacteria from the previous season (the salt water sterilizes the sand). Armed with shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows the Biosphere Expeditions team made quick work of transporting sterile sand from the lower beach up to the hatchery where it sits on an elevated plateau to ensure protection from storms. Others raked and stamped down the new sand into a perfectly flat area. To protect the border of the hatchery, we also constructed a chain-link fence with Eilith and Neil hammering it in place to posts constructed from tree trunks and branches. The team worked so well together that it only took two days to construct the hatechery with a perfect grid space for 500 new nests, each marked with cute turtle-shaped tags. “I really enjoyed sweating like a trooper, moving the sand and hammering the fence into place”, says Neil, now on his seventh (!) expedition. “It was good to work as a team, getting so much done in a relatively short time.”

The night time patrols mean we only catch a few hours of sleep each night, making the hammocks a popular spot for more sleep during the day, when we are largely off duty. Firday night there was a lot of turtle activity, with false crawls all over the beach. But only three turtles actually laid eggs with two clutches taken to the hatchery. “It was extraordinary, she went ballistic”, said Helen from South Africa who witnessed a turtle camouflaging her nest after she had laid her eggs..

One of the clutches was collected by myself (Lucy), Fabian and Valeria. This gave me the opportunity to trial the thermal camera that we are testing out to aid in the detection of turtles on the beach. We have been lucky with a full moon this week, but during a new moon the turtles coming out of the sea are very hard to spot. The camera was able to detect the turtle from about 30 meters away, showing up as a red blob on the screen. When used close up, it was obvious that the warmest part of the turtle was its back flippers, and once laid, also the eggs. The camera also detected a poacher with a dog, he was only 10 minutes ahead of us, so it was very lucky we spotted the turtle first. All up she laid 68 eggs and they are now safe in their new home in the hatchery.

Candice and Eilidh working in the hatchery.
Putting up the fence at the hatchery, Helen, Eilidh, Cathy, Neil and Sandip.
Hatchery work: Cathy, Helen, Lindsay, Neil, Rosalyn, Lucy and Candice.
Valeria, Cathy, Lindsay, Sandip, Helen, Rosalyn and Lucy making nest grids.
Making grids, Rosalyn and Lindsay.
Making grids, Rosalyn and Lindsay.
Sterile sand to the hatchery. Eilidh and Frank.
Valeria and Sandip having a siesta.
Poacher and his dog detected with thermal camera.
Valeria sitting next to the turtle.
The beach.
Leatherback turtle. Red/yellow area is the warmest and is the turtle’s hind flippers and the nest.
Leatherback turtle detected from about 30m away. Orange blob.

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