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.

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