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

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