Costa Rica: Roundup & pictures/videos

Direct effects of citizen science

On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs each night during the early February to late May nesting season. The Caribbean leatherback turtles is listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list and one of the main threats to its survival is poaching of eggs. In Costa Rica turtle eggs are believed to be an aphrodisiac and sell for about $2 per egg, a significant sum of money. Poachers roam the beaches at night stealing the eggs from female turtles coming ashore to build their nest. Conservation projects have been established along the beaches to combat this problem. Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) run such a project, with Biosphere Expeditions providing citizen scientist volunteers.

At the beginning of the nesting season, a hatchery is constructed and then guarded 24 hours a day, keeping poachers away. Eggs from turtles encountered during the nightly beach patrols are relocated there. “The first year I was here, in 2016, we encountered several teams of poachers each night” says Biosphere Expeditions leader Ida Vincent, “but this year I have seen far fewer”. The data collected by the citizen scientist teams supports this observations: In the previous two years about 50 percent of nests were lost to poachers, but in the 2018 season only 20 percent appear to have been poached, with 80 percent safely developing in the hatchery. “There are a few reasons why the number of poachers has dropped” explains Fabian Carrasco, the onsite scientist from LAST, “last year four poachers were arrested by the Coast Guard, which has scared other poachers from returning this season. We have also been sending out a lot of patrols each night, which is deterring poachers. With more citizen scientists on the beach each night than poachers, the numbers are simply against them and we are more likely to encounter a turtle before they are.”

There has also been an increase in employment in the village and as such the need to poach for income has decreased. LAST is part of this effort through their guide programme, which trains former poachers to be patrol guides and therefore protect, rather than poach eggs. “Their knowledge of spotting turtles and collecting eggs makes them expert turtle finders and with a steady income, the incentive to poach is much reduced”, explains Carrasco. LAST have also set up a weekly market day when people from the community come to the research station selling their goods (fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed souvenirs) to the visiting citizen scientists. One of them is Talar Attarian from the USA, who says that “it’s wonderful to support the locals, providing an alternative income to poaching”.

Below are some pictures (thanks to Georg Berg and Nicole Stinn for many of them) and videos of the expedition:

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Costa Rica: Nest number 100

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 were busy!

On Friday and Saturday nights there is usually an increase in the number of poachers on the beach, as people from nearby towns come to the beach to try their luck over the weekend. In response we sent out a lot of patrols trying to get to the turtles before the poachers.

On Friday night, for example, we had a leatherback nesting right in front of the station and we reached her only a mere matter of minutes before a team of poachers walked by. Expeditioner Scarlet from Bulgaria says that “it is amazing to me that nature can create such a beautiful creature and that I got to see this ancient nesting ritual”.

We carried 83 viable eggs back for reburial at the hatchery. This was nest number 100 in the hatchery for the season.

Later that same night we encountered the first hawksbill turtle of the season. If poachers encounter a hawksbill turtle, they will not only steal the eggs, but also kill the turtle for its shell. So it was imperative to transport the eggs to the safe hatchery and  see the turtle back to sea, which we did.

Our impressive total now stands at seven leatherback nests (608 eggs) and one hawksbill nest (150 eggs) saved, 56 hours of beach patrolling and 39 hours of guarding the hatchery. By contrast, the poachers got four leatherback and one hawksbill nests poached, making the average approximately 65% in our favour.

In addition to patrolling, we have also been busy making hatchery baskets to place over the hatchery nests, cleaning the beach of plastic rubbish, and maintaining the hatchery, making sure it is predator-proof.

Our partner organisation LAST has also set up a weekly market day for community members to sell goods to our citizen scientists and the very few tourists that find their way to this remote beauty spot. Goods include fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed jewellery.

Expeditioner Talar from the USA thinks “it’s great to able to support the community in this way too and providing an alternative income to poaching” and with this puts LAST’s thinking into a nutshell.

But I’ll let people and actions speak for themselves soon. Pictures are attached – and give us a few days to cut and produce some videos from the field too….

Continue reading “Costa Rica: Nest number 100”

Costa Rica: Hatched and unhatched turtle eggs

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

Wednesday morning Fabian had exciting news for us all. During the night a natural nest on the beach had hatched and that afternoon we were to excavate the nest to see if there were any stragglers left behind and what percentage of the eggs had not hatched.

When we started digging up the nest, we found five hatchlings that were still alive! They had been trapped in the nest unable to make their way out. Under normal conditions they would have died before making it to adulthood, as do about one in a thousand of them, including some hatchlings nearby that were trapped under a log. But now they had been given a second chance at life.

Inside the nest were also 52 eggs that had not hatched, all at various stages of development. Normally, an average of approximately 20% of eggs do not hatch. This can be due to fungal or bacterial infection, genetics or environmental causes. Out of the 52 eggs not hatched in this nest 25 were infected by a fungus.

Hatchling success rate in this nest was very low with only fifteen emerging, and out of those seven had died in the sun. Once Fabian had checked all the eggs and buried them in the sand it was time to see the five survivors to sea. We released them at the high tide mark and watched them make their way towards the waves. As they all disappeared into the sea, expeditioner Sherry  called them “amazing fighters”.

The excitement didn’t end there. On Thursday we were told that another nest, which had been relocated from its original nest to a secret spot on the beach before the hatchery was built, had hatched. So we went to dig up the nest to study survival rates, but when we did, we found a full clutch of still viable, but unhatched eggs! As we had already disturbed the nest, we could not rebury them as this would significantly decrease chances of survival. Instead we reverted to the accepted alternative method and placed the eggs in a cooler box and covered them with moist sand. They now live next to the kitchen, and we are all anxious for them to hatch.

Continue reading “Costa Rica: Hatched and unhatched turtle eggs”

Costa Rica: Leatherback hatchling

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

Just a quick video of a leatherback turtle hatchling making its way to the ocean yesterday…

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Costa Rica: Turtles on the beach, nests saved

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

Our 2018 Costa Rica team arrived at Pacuare research station on Monday lunchtime. We were immediately thrown into the training so that we could start patrolling that very night to get to nest before the poachers.  If we encounter a turtle, we take her eggs as well as measure and tag her. The eggs are then taken to a secure hatchery. At the hatchery the person on duty digs a new nest for the eggs that are then guarded 24/7, keeping the developing turtles safe.

Although walking along the beach in the dark and in tropical humidity is not an easy task, our first night yielded leatherback turtles straight away. “It was really impressive to see how big they are”, says expeditioner Gary. The larger of the two turtles measured 153 cm across its carapace (shell).

On Tuesday we completed our training with hatchery duties. This includes how to dig a  turtle nest so that we can rebury the eggs correctly while on hatchery duty. It was a sandy affair as the nests are generally 75 cm deep and it is very hard to reach that deep into the sand. We were all covered head to toe in sand after and enjoyed a dip in the balmy sea. As part of our training we also learnt how to deal with any hatchlings that emerge during our shift and how to safely see them to sea.

The Tuesday late patrol, leaving the research station at midnight, encountered a turtle only 40 minutes out from the station. We watched her make her way out of the sea and dig a body pit in the sand before finally starting to dig her nest hole. At this point we joined her and got ready to insert the bag into her nest hole, “stealing” all her eggs. We also measured the length and width of her carapace and checked her tags. She was 147 cm long and she had a broken finger in her back flipper, perhaps from digging her nests. Our data later showed that this is the third time this same turtle has come ashore to lay eggs on Pacuare beach.

Once we had all the measurements and the eggs, we transported them back to the hatchery were Eva and Stefanie were on duty. They were elated to get to put their new learnt skills into practice and to dig their first hatchery nest. “There were 75 viable eggs and 40 yolkless eggs”, explained Eva after she and Stefanie had finished building the nest and transferred all the eggs.

The first nest in the hatchery is due to hatch any day now, so hopes are high and everyone is waiting in anticipation for the hatchlings to emerge.

Continue reading “Costa Rica: Turtles on the beach, nests saved”

Costa Rica: 93 nests already in the hatchery

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

I have  arrived at Pacuare field station and Fabian and I are busy getting things ready for your arrival. I am excited to inform you that so far it has been a busy turtle nesting season and there are already 93 nests in the hatchery! The first hatchery nest is expected to hatch on the day of your arrival, so with a little luck it won’t be just Fabian and I greeting you when you arrive. There are also currently four research assistants at the station who will be helping us with our training and nightly patrols.

The hatchery
The hatchery

So far this season Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) have managed to relocate approximately 80% of the nests in to the guarded hatchery, with only 20% being taken by poachers. This is a great start to the season.

“A lot of the people in the village who used to poach turtle eggs have now found employment in town and as such there is no longer a need to poach for income. However, as the season progresses, it is likely poachers from further away will move in to take their place” explains Nicki from LAST. By the sounds of things, we will have a busy expedition with a lot of turtles coming ashore to nest.

Pacuare beach
Pacuare beach

Nicki will meet you at Hotel Santo Tomas at 09:00 on Monday and make sure you all get on the bus. Fabian and I will be at the dock to greet you when your bus arrives and will take you by boat to the field station. It is a beautiful boat ride – I spotted white-faced capuchin monkeys, crocodiles, a sloth and a myriad of birds on my ride here. However, it is the wet season and it can pour at any moment, so you keep your rain jacket handy for the boat journey (just in case).

The station
The station

Fabian and I and the rest of the crew look forward to meeting you all tomorrow.

Fabian & Ida
Fabian & Ida


Continue reading “Costa Rica: 93 nests already in the hatchery”

Costa Rica: First diary entry

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

Welcome to the Costa Rica 2018 expedition diary. My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my third 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).

Ida Vincent

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.

Fabian Carrasco

We both look forward to meeting you on 7 May. Fabian and I will already be in Pacuare preparing 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.

I hope you have read about the excellent results that came out of our last report, and that in reading the report, you have familiarised yourself with the work in hand and how it is conducted. It’s going to be quite a bit of work, but that’s exactly why we need you. Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list; remember that your head lamp need to have a red light mode.

I will be a few days ahead of you, preparing everything for your arrival together with Fabian and Nicki. I’ll send my next diary update from Pacuare with turtle and weather updates.

Save travels and see you soon


Continue reading “Costa Rica: First diary entry”

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