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

The last egg

Each night during the leatherback turtle nesting season on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, a race takes place. A race for the precious turtle eggs between poachers, who demand a high price for the eggs on the black market, and conservationists who try to protect the Critically Endangered leatherback turtle population. By the end of each night, not a single egg is left on the beach.

“The eggs fetch one dollar each on the black market, and with an average clutch size of 80 eggs that is a lot of money”, explains Fabian Carrasco from Mexico, the onsite expedition scientist for Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST).

Fabio Carrasco

So citizen scientists/egg protectors patrol the beach each night, hoping to get to a turtle laying its nest before a poacher does. “We reached the turtle only five minutes before a poacher walked by. It is such a good feeling when you manage to save a clutch of eggs”, says Candice Cox, a research assistant from the USA.

Collecting eggs

When a nesting turtle is encountered, the volunteers carefully collect all the eggs, as well as measure and tag the animal. The eggs are then brought back to a fenced and guarded hatchery, where they are protected from poachers and other non-human predators until they hatch.

Guarding the hatchery

Biosphere Expeditions work closely on all this with LAST, and for the second year in a row a group of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists have been onsite, actively patrolling the beach and helping out with the important work.

Lindsay Hickman, an expedition participant from the UK considers “guarding the hatchery a big responsibility.  And it feels very good to know you are really helping.” At the time of writing, the hatchery held 4190 eggs, which amounts to over $4000 on the black market. “Without all the patrolling and safekeeping, 100% of the eggs would end up in bars and shops around the country, producing zero offspring, as has happened in the years before we took action”, explains Carrasco. “Turtle eggs are highly revered in Costa Rica, as they are believed to be an aphrodisiac. When turtles mate the male holds on to the female for several hours and the local legend is that by eating the eggs, this sexual stamina will be acquired. However, the actual mating only takes a couple of minutes and the eggs are in fact very high in cholesterol, and as such the effect is rather the opposite.”

To add insult to injury, each weekend poachers from surrounding areas also visit the beach, multiplying the number of poachers roaming the beach. “It is a known fact that on this beach there are few repercussions from poaching. However, the coastguard has started to visit the beach more often and I believe this is because we are around to put pressure on”, says Carrasco. “For example, last night was incredible. The coast guard arrested three poachers and rescued two clutches of eggs.” This is good news on all levels, not only did two nests get saved, but it also sends a message to other poachers that it is no longer safe to poach on this beach.

Biosphere Expeditions have also been testing out a new thermal camera to aid conservationists in detecting the turtles before poachers do. “I was impressed at how far away the thermal imaging system could detect a turtle” says Valeria, a local Costa Rican, funded by Biosphere Expeditions as part of its placement programme. “The nesting turtle could be spotted as a red blob on the screen from about 30 meters away, which gives us an edge over the poachers”.

Poacher & dog

Turtle on the beach

All in all the Biosphere Expeditions project saved eighteen nests, totalling 1397 eggs. “There is simply no substitute for ‘foot soldiers’ patrolling the beach at night. The volunteers by buying drinking coconuts, coconut oil and locally made jewellery also provide an income not based on poaching for the local community”, explains Carrasco. “And in this poor community without many options, this is vital”.

A selection of pictures of the expedition is below:

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

The last few days of the expedition have been busy! Teams from the night patrols have been bringing eggs back to the hatchery every night. Rosalyn and Frank encountered a turtle with missing back flippers “We had to help her dig the nest” says Rosalyn, “they have apparently encountered her before and her nickname is stumpy.” Leatherback turtles come ashore to lay eggs six to eleven times in a season, but only nest approximately every three years.

“It was magical to watch turtles emerge from the waves and then to see how delicately they use their back flippers to dig a nest” says expeditioner Lindsay. And further “its a real thrill to be there when the eggs drop into the bag for us to take them away to bury them safely in the hatchery. I am so happy, I can’t stop smiling”.

However, we also experienced nests being taken by poachers One tried to dig out a nest that was really close to sea. “He was trying to prevent water entering the nest” describes Neil. But it is not all bad news, because the coast guard arrived and arrested three poachers and gave us the eggs from two poached nests. “This is a big win all around as it not only means we can hatch poached nests, but it also send a message to other poachers that the coast guard does patrol this beach” says expedition scientist Fabian from LAST.

During our time at the LAST research station our team of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists put in 60 hours of patrolling the beach and 30 hours guarding the hatchery. During our time here, 18 nests were saved, totalling 1397 eggs. Eight nest were poached, however, the arrests made by the coast guard brought that number down to six and raised our nests saved to 20, resulting in approximately 25% of nests being poached. This is a significant improvement on last year’s 50% poaching rate and a win for conservation.

We could not do this without our citizen scientist volunteers putting in the time and effort, so thank you very much everyone. It was a joy to lead this expedition and I look forward to meeting many of you again sometime, somewhere on our planet, which needs all the help with wildlife and wilderness conservation it can get.

Eilidh spotting birds on the beach
One of the wooden markers on the beach that gives the location of where you are. Used for recording location of nesting turtles.
Lindsay and Sandip on a wildlife boat trip spotting monkeys and birds
Rosalyn and Valeria making nest baskets for the hatchery
Daily debrief by Fabian, the LAST scientist from Mexico
The Biosphere Expeditions team by the hatchery

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.

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

Our group of excited expedition members arrived at the Pacuare field station on Monday after travelling by bus and boat from San José. We all got straight into the scientific training and Fabian taught us how to collect turtle eggs, measure an adult leatherback turtle and the skills necessary to get the eggs to the hatchery where they will be placed in a new human-made nest and kept safe from lurking poachers and predators.

Armed with our new skill set we went on patrol the first evening, walking the beach looking for nesting turtles. The late night team, patrolling from 23:00 to 04:00, struck gold and encountered two turtles. One false crawl, where the turtle came out of the sea to have look, but changed its mind and went back to sea without laying any eggs. The second turtle they encountered had just finished laying her eggs. Fabian, Eilidh and Valeria measured the new mama turtle – her shell was 143 cm long, and she laid 73 eggs that they had to dig out and then carry to the hatchery. “The eggs were so heavy” said Eilidh from Scotland. It is no small feat to carry that many eggs through soft sand in the dead of night for several kilometers. Brilliant work!

Today (Tuesday) Fabian trained us in leatherback turtle nest building, so that we can also be put on hatchery duty and help get the eggs into their new homes. It is hard work to dig a 75 cm deep nest in the sand, and after our training we were all covered in sand, top to toe. A splash in the sea, however, quickly took care of that problem. Everyone is excited to get back out on patrol tonight, hoping for more turtles!

Lindsay, Cathy, Helen on the boat ride to the expedition base. Photo by Ida Vincent.
Intro and risk assessment. Photo by Lucy Marcus.
Turtle patrol training, Cathy, Valeria, Sandip, Eilidh, Neil. Photo by Ida Vincent.
Turtle measuring, Helen, Fabian, Lindsay and Frank. Photo by Ida Vincent.
Hatchery training. Photo by Ida Vincent.
Rosalyn digging a nest. Photo by Ida Vincent.

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

We have arrived in San José, and just met with Nicki from Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). She is excited to meet and greet the rest of the expedition team on Monday morning at Hotel Santo Tomas. Lucy and I head down to the research station on Saturday to prepare and make sure everything is ready for your arrival. We are told there are two turtle nests that are due to hatch any day now, so hopefully we will get to see some baby turtles. There has also been a lot of turtle activity on the beach with several leatherback turtles coming out to nest each night.

It has been raining here in San José during the past few days and we are told the research station has had hot and rainy weather, so don’t forget to pack for all weathers and to bring your rain poncho.

See you a few days!

Baby turtle
Mother turtle
Staff in Costa Rica (from left to right Nicki, Lucy, Ida) about to head off to Pacuare beach for this year’s leatherback turtle expedition

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

Here’s a first report of the season by our expedition scientist Fabian Carrasco:

Fabian Carrasco

The leatherback season started on 26 February with the first nesting female. Unfortunately she was poached. Later we had a nest in situ on 1  March. Her tracks were hidden by the waves in a couple of hours and the eggs remained safe from poachers. Our patrols with local assistants and international research assistants have started and in the past 43 days we have recorded 52 successful nesting activities:

* 1 natural nest (in situ)

* 25 nest relocated in Styrofoam coolers

* 9 nest relocated higher up the beach between markers 95-104

* 19 poached nests

* 1 nest saved by the Coast Guard and Police O.I.J.

Among the nests relocated in styrofoam coolers is one of green turtle (from 2 April). The others nests are from leatherbacks. No hawksbill have been seen yet.

The fist hatchlings are due between 1 and 8 May at marker 79.

Green turtle returning to sea after nesting
Leatherback turtle returning to sea after nesting

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

Welcome to the Costa Rica 2017 expedition diary! My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my second year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Pacuare field station and working together with Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST).


The field station is located just behind the beach where the turtles nest and during our time in Pacuare we will work closely with the onsite biologist from LAST, Fabian Carrasco, who will be training us in sea turtle monitoring. Lucy Marcus, expedition leader in training, will be assisting me throughout the expedition and we all look forward to meeting you on 8 May.


Lucy and I will already be in Pacuare helping to prepare the field station for you arrival, however, Nicki Wheeler from LAST will be meeting you at 09.00 in the lobby of Hotel Santo Tomas. Make sure to be on time as our first night of patrols starts that very evening and there is a lot to learn prior.

Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list, remember that your head lamp needs to have a red light mode.

Hopefully you will all have read the 2016 expedition report too, so you already know why we are there and do what we do. As you can read in the report, support from citizen scientists such as you is critical, so thank you for your support and see you in a couple of weeks!


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