Costa Rica: Record numbers of nests and eggs

The final days of the turtle conservation project unfolded and excitement filled the air. One night, our citizen scientists saw a group of over ten coast guard officers on the beach and later word came that the coast guard arrested two poachers. This is great news as our recent annual reports have made it clear that increased law enforcement on the beach would be a very positive step forward in turtle conservation. It seems our voice is being heard!

The following night, no poachers were seen on the beach patrols and turtle conservation teams recovered a record six clutches of turtle eggs. And the score got better when we discovered that poachers also got zero nests that night.

I was in the hatchery on the record night and over and over again, teams walked in carrying bags of eggs. My fellow hatchery attendant and I struggled to keep up with digging new nests and burying eggs. Once we were digging two nests at the same time, the research assistant counted her clutch of eggs in German while I counted mine in English, so we wouldn’t confuse each other. We hit a record number of eggs in one clutch that night: 120! That was twice the size of the next clutch that came in. The expeditioners carrying the record clutch of eggs had to split their heavy load into two bags so they could manage carrying them 5 km from where the turtle had nested: at the very end of the beach! We teamed up to dig the new nest for this large brood with suggestions from the local guide who led the crew. “Make it really deep and wide” Oscar advised, so it could hold all 120 viable eggs in addition to the 43 yolkless eggs that were part of the clutch. It will be an exciting day when this nest hatches in a couple of months, hopefully a large number of hatchlings will make it safely to the sea.

Our efforts this week really have paid off, we can feel proud of our success in reaching the turtles to retrieve the eggs before poachers. “You can tell what a direct difference the citizen scientsts are making on the project and that is very important to me”, said expeditioner Jilly.

All in all our expedition saved 25 clutches of leatherback turtle eggs, totaling close to 2,500 eggs. We patrolled the beachers for a total of 84 hours and were on shifts in the hatcher for 42 hours. During our week of patrols, only nine nests were poached, meaning that our success rate was 65%. Without the presence of our local partner LAST and our active conservation action of beach patrols and hatchery duty, probably 100% of the nests would be poached or otherwise lost. I think these figures speak for themselves in terms of the important role that citizen science plays in protecting the wildlife of our beautiful, beleagured planet.

This year we had very high nesting activity compared to last year, so both more nests were saved, and more nests were poached, compared to the previous year. This year has higher ocean and air temperatures and is considered an El Niño year, which often corresponds with higher numbers of turtles nesting on the beaches. The hatchery now protects over 10,000 eggs with more arriving every day. We consider ourselves to be fortunate to have been in Costa Rica during a peak turtle nesting year, right at the height of the nesting season. “The chance to see the leatherback turtles and to get up close and watch them lay their eggs was a once in a lifetime experience I will always treasure”, says expeditioner Cynthia.

We had more great news when Fabian, the lead scientist, announced that the first nest had hatched. Since we were all away on duty when it happened, we excitedly huddled around the research assistant’s cell phones to watch videos of the hatchlings flopping down the sandy beach, their front flippers disproportionality larger than their tiny bodies, like puppies with big feet who are destined to be huge. We were delighted to hear that 67 made it to the ocean and we loved seeing their tiny tracks on the beach.

It has been a joy to travel with such a dedicated group of expeditioners. Not only did we save turtle eggs galore, but we protected the hatchery, cleaned trash from beaches that turtles might confuse with their jellyfish prey, made baskets to protect the turtle hatchlings in the hatchery, and  had a fun rainforest canal boat adventure to see three species of monkey, sloths, birds and a caiman crocodile. We felt like a family by the end of the trip, tired from late nights and long beach hikes, but so proud to have made a difference for the leatherback turtles of Costa Rica.

Thank you to the whole expedition team and our local partner staff from LAST. You citizen scientists could have gone on an ordinary beach holiday, but instead you came on a much more important beach project. We could not have had the success we had without you, nor without LAST. Thank you again and I think we can all be proud of what we have achieved.

Lucy
Expedition leader

Costa Rica: Ancient ritual

All day our group of citizen scientists waits patiently for the most exciting part of the day to come after sunset. It’s the reason we came to Costa Rica: to walk on night time beach patrols to find nesting giant leatherback and other sea turtles. We feel a great sense of purpose making sure we find the turtles in order to relocate their eggs to a guarded hatchery to save them from poachers who also patrol these same beaches. We have saved turtle nests every night except our first.

Working together with our local partner Latin American Sea Turtles, the Biosphere Expeditions team has 7 km of beach to patrol each night. The earliest night patrols may start just after dark at 19:30 and the last group leaves closer to midnight. To prepare for these 4 hour, 10 km night-walks, each person dresses in dark trousers and a dark shirt to stay invisible to the turtles. Closed-toed shoes protect feet from logs and rocks on the dark beach. Other gear includes a backpack to carry water for the trek and a red-light headlamp for conducting the data collection around the turtle. And of course a pack with data recording sheets, small metal number tags and tiny electronic tags, similar to the ones found used on domestic pets. By reading these tags it can be determined if a turtle is returning to the same area to nest multiple times in the same season or in subsequent years.

Leatherbacks are huge and you can feel the ground vibrating when they thump down their 75 cm flippers to drag their 180 cm long body over the sand. We watch for 15 minutes as the turtle seems to be investigating the dark beach for the best place to dig her nest. Two human figures venture towards us and we’re happy to see it’s the coast guard, who are patrolling the beach to catch poachers. We stop them and point out the turtle and they stand by and marvel at her size, which is briefly illuminated by flashes of lightening.

Soon sand is flying away from the turtle as she flings her flippers to remove the surface sand to get to the perfect sand to dig the nest cavity. We stand back and wait for the moment to approach. She starts gently digging down into the sand with her hind flippers and we kneel behind her with our red headlamps on. Fifteen minutes later we insert a large, clear, thick plastic bag into the hole in the sand. Cynthia and I hold the bag open beneath the gentle soft hind flippers as the turtle drops large white eggs the size of pool balls into the bag, one or two at a time. The turtle smells a bit like fish, and she is quiet and still, just flexing her short tail every few seconds to drop another egg, over 80 total. It’s so incredible to witness this ancient ritual, repeated around our beleagured planet’s beaches since the time of the dinosaurs. We watch the eggs fall, the pile of eggs building up in the bag, feeling the soft skin of her feet pressing the backs of our hands. Soon smaller yolk-less eggs start coming out, and we know it’s almost time to pull the bag out before the turtle starts to cover the nest.  Cynthia and I pull the heavy bag out together and gently drag it up onto the beach behind the turtle. We quickly twist it closed and cover it with cool sand so we can collect the data on the turtle. We stretch the measuring tape across the turtle’s back and call out the numbers to Shawn who records all the data. Fabian reads out the tag numbers on her flippers.

We say goodbye to our beautiful turtle who is covering the empty hole and we promise to take good care of her eggs. Sean and Fabian take turns carrying the 5 kg bag of eggs back to the hatchery. Its not easy work, and hands and arms ache over the 1.5 hour walk back down the dark beach. But now we have a mission, to get these eggs to their new incubating place in the safe hatchery, guarded from marauding poachers. A meteorite streaks across the sky in front of us while we stride down the beach and we joke about how these eggs must be infused with good luck from the lightning that flashed during their appearance. Maybe one of the baby turtles that hatches from our eggs, will be fast as lightning, escaping all the predators, and return to father new baby turtles when he’s fully grown 15 years from now.

Since our arrival:

8 May: 1 nest saved and taken to hatchery where Barb, Phil, Cynthia re-burried it. Poachers got 2 nests

9 May: 2 nests saved, one by Barb and Cynthia and eggs brought to hatchery where Lucy and Simona re-burried 1 clutch of eggs at hatchery, Poachers got 1 nest.

10 May: 2 nests saved, one by Fabian, Sean, Cynthia and Lucy with 88 normal and 20 yolk-less eggs. 1 nest poached.

11 May: 2 nests saved, one with 83 eggs plus 14 yolk-less eggs. No poached nests.

Costa Rica: First clutch saved

Covered in black sand on knees arms and faces, the Costa Rican Biosphere Expeditions team practices digging perfect replicas of sea turtle nests on the beach, to prepare for our shifts guarding the fenced hatchery. We all lie face down on the sand and dig a vertical tube with one arm fully extended, straight down, as far as we can reach. Then we excavate a rounded cavity to one side of the base of the tube, like a boot. The holes we create replicate the holes made by female leatherback turtles, who use their 75 cm hind flippers like a hand, to deftly scoop sand from the bottom of the tube.

Fabian, the lead scientist, let us feel the hole he dug in the sand to test what the perfect example of an egg cavity should be like. Fabian reaches into everyone’s hole and gives people tips for perfecting the shape. “Make your base a little longer and a little wider wider” Fabian suggests to me after testing my first try. Once we perfect our holes and pass Fabian’s checkout test, we sprinkle sand back into the hole, like a mother turtle gently covering the eggs. Tapping the top of the hole down with a fist, we finally graduate turtle nest building class and we wade into the waves to splash black sand off sandy limbs. Barb, Phil and Cynthia laugh as they get knocked around by the strong surf and emerge beaming. But we are still not completely ready to be hatchery guardians.

Fabian points out that the fence around the hatchery keeps out predators such as raccoons or dogs. Each nest is covered by a white basket-like cylinder over the top to stop smaller predators and pests, such as crabs or insect larvae, from attacking the eggs. The baskets covering each nest also corral the emerging baby turtles, so they can’t flipper to the ocean and the citizen scientists can record how many hatchlings emerge from each nest as well as measure 15 of them from each. During their hatchery shift, every hour, guardians peak into each basket to see if a nest might be hatching. If it is, they call the other citizen scientists on the radio so people can come help, because there can be over 80 tiny turtles clambering to escape the confines of the basket. Some lucky hatchery guardians will get to be the proud adoptive parents of a new clutch of eggs, brought to them by other citizen scientists patrolling the beaches looking for turtles laying eggs. They can then employ their newfound skills as a nest cavity excavator.

Carved into the vegetation bordering the beach, the fenced-in hatchery now protects over 7,000 sea turtle eggs. As the nesting season continues, the hatchery will protect over 10,000 eggs, and statistically each year only ONE in 10,0000 baby turtles will survive to reproduce. Each clutch of 80-100 eggs is removed from a natural sea turtle nest and re-burried to incubate in the sand within the guarded hatchery. Citizen scientists will keep watch in the hatchery 24 hours a day for the 9 months of the turtle nesting season. Each nest takes between 55-100 days to hatch depending on temperature. Warmer weather helps the eggs develop more quickly, and during cloudy cool weather, incubation is slower. We hope that hatchlings will emerge while we are here.

Later that day, after a delicious traditional Costa Rican dinner prepared by chef Johanna, we check the schedule written on a whiteboard to see who is on hatchery duty and who on beach patrol that night. Beach patrol shifts last from 2-4 hours depending on if it’s light out or not. Daytime shifts are 2 hours , night shifts are 4 hours. Our citizen scientists cover the 4 hour night shifts this evening, starting at 21:00 and running through the dawn after 06:00. Some people get ready for their upcoming hatchery duty donning long pants and red headlights and others take a nap to wake up in the middle of the night to start their shift.

The next morning, during breakfast, we all chat about how everyone’s evening went. We learned that during the hatchery shift from midnight to 03:00 Phil, Barb and Cynthia were lucky enough to receive a bag filled with pool-ball sized turtle eggs, from citizen scientists who just carried the 6 kg bag for over two hours. Phil started work quickly and dug the long vertical shaft with the boot-shaped hollow for the eggs to rest within. Each of the three guardians took turns placing eggs into the hole, counting each out loud: “….88, 89, 90!” They carefully placed sand over the eggs and marked the new nest with sticks. They tagged the new nest with a number and letter designating its place in the grid of the hatchery. Everyone was  excited that our team helped protect this clutch of 90 eggs from poachers, stopping this particular endangered treasure from being sold on the black-market as snack.

In the afternoon, our crew cut and sewed baskets to protect the nests. Once the handicraft was complete, we ventured to the hatchery and fixed the edges of the new baskets around the tops of the nests buried the previous nights. The first clutch of eggs of our expedition is now safely tucked into its new resting spot in the hatchery. Some day in the next few months, “our” turtles will venture out into the ocean. Perhaps one of ours will be the one in 10,000 that will return to this beach to lay eggs again.

Costa Rica: Straight into beach patrols

The Costa Rican adventure began with the minibus ride from the capital of Jan San José through a thrilling tropical rain storm. As participant Jillian said “when I looked out the windows, I thought it was just like a rainy day at home in the UK, just with tropical vegetation, but when I stepped out into the downpour it was totally different, so warm, such an amazing feeling”.

Costa Rican wildlife is abundant and from the minibus our citizen scientists spotted troops of monkeys and a sloth. The animal spotting continued on the boat ride to the research station, where the tunnel-like trees, arching over the canals hosted birds, more sloths and monkeys. Even freshwater turtles rested on logs in the sun by the sides of the canal.

Soon after arrival training began, so everyone could be prepared for the upcoming starlight beach partrol to search for nesting leatherback turtles. Everyone jumped right in, amongst other things to practice measuring turtle shell length and width on the model turtle.

Later that evening, small groups of our citizen scientists followed researched asisstants and the expedition scientist down the beaches with no lights on. Everyone’s eyes adjusted to the ambient starlight and the glow of bioluminescence from the crashing surf nearby. We scanned the waves lapping the sand for dark mounds that could be turtles preparing to flipper up the sand to the high tide line to dig a nest. “Is that one? Look at how rounded that black shape looks!” Said Phil as he pointed to the white froth of the waves hitting the sand.

“What did you think?” Celine, the research assistant asked as we approached it and she shone a red headlamp on it. We had been fooled by a “tree-turtle”! It was the rounded root-ball of a palm tree with the trunk angling up the beach, which we couldn’t see until we had more light. We got used to being excited by many “log-turtles” rolling in the waves throughout the 2.5 hour patrol, but Celine helped us learn how to refine our search pattern. Most exciting was finding a set of tracks from a turtle that may have nested the previous day. The tracks were so wide and deep it looked like a tractor had driven out of the water towards the forest. The massive leatherbacks, can be close to 2.5 metres long, and more than one person remarked at how unbelievably huge the turtle model was at the research station. So we couldn’t miss one on the beach if it was there, but none of the three search parties were lucky to find a turtle this evening. But we learnt to look for black mounds floating in the surf, to feel the difference in the sand as it got softer underfoot if we crossed a track, and how you feel drunk if you walk through one of the massive holes they dig to burry their eggs in because you stumble into and then out of a deep pit in the sand.

The sand sparkled greenish blue with each step as we walked closer to the water on the way back to the station. Fireflies glowed so brightly they almost ruined our night vision. In the cloudy night sky, lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the forest edging its way up to the sand. The adventure has only just begun and we are enjoying every step of the way.

Costa Rica: Over 60 turtle nests already in hatchery

I have arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica and enjoyed seeing lush parks and flocks of parrots while walking around the city getting everything ready for your arrival. I had a good meeting with Nicki Wheeler of our partner organisation Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). She will be meeting you at the hotel on Monday morning and sending you on the minibus to meet scientist Fabian and I for the 40-minute boat ride to the Paquare beach research station. When you arrive there, lunch will be ready and we’ll get started learning everything we need to know about the first evening beach patrol. One part of the research station we will all be excited to visit is the hatchery, where over 60 turtle nests are incubating already, some ready to hatch during our expedition!

The hatchery

Nicki let me know that this year is an El Niño year, which means the ocean is warmer and it’s looking like a peak year for turtle nesting. LAST started work on Paquare in February, relocating turtle nests to the safe hatchery where the eggs take close to 60 days to develop. Our efforts will be well needed as there are many poachers on the beaches this year as well, and we hope to encounter the nesting females and relocate eggs before they are removed by people wanting to sell turtle eggs as food.

Rising global temperatures have made the sand on beaches warmer, which makes turtle eggs develop as mostly females. In order to keep the sand in the hatchery cooler, to ensure even numbers of male and female turtles, LAST has covered the hatchery with shading mesh to cool the sand.

March through July is the prime nesting season for leatherbacks on the east coast of Costa Rica, where we work. The height of the season is right now, so there is a good chance some of you will encounter nesting female turtles during night patrols. Other species such as green and hawksbill turtles also nest on Paquare beach during July to October. Rarer are the Olive Ridley turtles who nest in the region June thought November.

Leatherback turtle
Green turtle
Hawksbill turtle
Olive Ridley turtle

It’s amazing to think of so many species of turtles sharing the same beach, it’s quite lucky that they nest at different times of the year so they are not digging up each other’s nests! The baby turtles will continue to hatch throughout the year, but November through February, the beaches are quiet, and only the site manager of the research station, David, stays to release the last of the hatchlings. You will meet him on Monday as well and hopefully he and Fabian will have great stories to share about hatchlings and nesting females when we arrive.

To prepare for your journey to the research station, carry water, snacks, and a warm shirt in case the air conditioning is cool in the van. For the boat ride keep handy your sun hat, sunglasses and sunscreen as well as a rain jacket. If you brought binoculars or a camera, keep them handy but in a Ziploc in case of rain. This 45-minute boat ride though calm, costal-forest canals is beautiful and you might encounter wildlife such white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, caiman crocodiles or toucans.

Looking forward to exploring with you soon!