Sea Turtle Love in Gandoca

 Hola! We are back from Gandoca, Costa Rica with the bug bites to prove it. Sandflies are nasty things that I would not wish on my worst enemy, but it was a small price to pay to get to play with sea turtles. As I sit here to write this I don’t even know where to start. It’s been 10 days of turtles, beaches, Spanish and fun. I will try to sum things up as short as possible but for those who know me, that’s a long shot : )


We arrived in Gandoca from San Jose by bus in about 5 hours. I want you to picture riding in a small car down a bumpy road with banana plantations on either side, not seeing a house for 40 min. The road into Gandoca is the only road they have, with a few houses, an open patio style bar and the small "snack shack" that a local owns. I believe the population of Gandoca to be about 100. No lie. It’s a small community that relies on the non-profit organization Widecast to provide income to the small town by having volunteers do homestays with the families while they work with the turtles.


We chose to stay with Sandra and her family for the duration of our volunteering. She was a vibrant Tico (person from Costa Rica) who had a huge open style kitchen that made you feel like you were sitting in the jungle as you ate. During breakfast you would hear massive shrieks coming from behind the huge palm trees and plants that sounded straight out of Jurassic Park. The Howler Monkeys that lived there liked you to know how close they were. We had our little room with a fan (major plus) and nice cold showers.


Sandra loved to speak Spanish to us and help us learn the language. She cooked all our meals and loved to make fun of my pictures of our dogs. Dogs are not considered part of the family in Costa Rica and they crack up at the concept of a "dog park" because most dogs just run free there. I could go on and on about how great her cooking was but trust me, I will never look at eggs and plantains the same way.


After we had our turtle orientation at the research station, we began to understand why some people shy away from this project. The bulk of our volunteering was done between 8pm and 6am. All 4 species of turtles in Costa Rica are endangered because of poaching and other human threats like fishing and garbage in the water. All those plastic bags that we throw out end up killing sea turtles because they look like the yummy jellyfish they eat. Anyways, Widecast has locations in Costa Rica and Panama to help save the turtles and ensure their eggs stay safe and are not used as someone’s dinner.


The specific type of turtle that was in season was the Leatherback. It is the largest of the Costa Rican turtles and can grow up to 2 meters in length (or about 5 1/2 feet). These prehistoric looking monsters come up at night onto the beach during their nesting season to lay about 120 eggs at a time. Our job was to collect the eggs and relocate them to the Widecast hatchery where they would be watched over 24/7 by volunteers taking shifts. We also had to put red filters on our flashlights because white light scares away the turtles and they won’t even come onto the beach. We grew more excited as our first night patrol was scheduled from midnight to 4am.


That night was our first patrol. We tried to get sleep after dinner, but we were too excited. It’s never a sure thing if you get to see a turtle but I was hoping to get one our first night. Night patrol consisted of a group of volunteers (usually about 3) and a leader, which sometimes was a local tico. Even more interesting is some leaders used to poach the very eggs they now help to save.


So, on patrol you have one of two sections on the beach that average about 1.5 miles each. Your group walks the length of your section, looking for turtles or their crawl marks. Each night there are two patrol shifts, 8pm-midnight or midnight to 4am. So you are basically walking in the dark, trying not to trip on logs or kick the person in front of you. The other fun fact is that you have to dress in dark colors and wear long sleeves. Heading out for patrol looks like you are dressing like a ninja. It was so dark the first night I could not understand how the heck I was going to spot a turtle, not matter how big. Then I understood how when all of a sudden you step into a divot in the sand that is about 5 inches deep and 6 feet across. The crawl marks from a turtle coming onto the beach can only be described as looking like a tractor came out of the ocean. The marks usually lead to a turtle and sure enough, there was a gigantic one just laying there, playing in the sand.


What went down next is almost hard to describe. We spotted the turtle with our red light and then we have to wait until it finds a spot it likes before it will start laying eggs. We had to be careful and stay out of sight so we didn’t scare it back into the ocean. This process can take up to an hour. The turtle kept dragging itself around in circles and making a huge mess, kicking up sand and grunting. She finally decided that it was a good spot and started to make her body nest, which basically means flatten out the area. After 20 mins, the turtle started to dig it’s nest with its back two flippers. The flippers are about 1.5 feet in length and have amazing dexterity. She took one at a time, digging it into the sand behind her and then scooping and flipping it next to her. It’s a process but if all goes well and the nest doesn’t collapse, in about 20 min the nest is dug about 65 cent. deep (about your finger tips to your cheek). In the meantime, the volunteers and I were gathered behind her, ready with a plastic bag to catch her eggs.


This process of "catching eggs" is very unique. If you are chosen to hold the egg bag (which is a good thing I swear) you have to lay on your belly behind the turtle and wait for the signal she’s going to lay. She will press one flipper against the hole and hold it there for a few seconds. In that moment you have to maneuver the bag into the hole and under the turtles cloacae where the eggs come out. It’s not the butt of the turtle but closer to where a bellybutton would be. So, you are under the turtle, holding the bag, just waiting for the eggs to drop. When she does start to lay, it’s 3 at a time and you can feel the contractions. You get really up close and personal with your turtle.


So back to my experience…I got to hold the egg bag for a turtle who’s back flipper was half gone. It was hard to tell how it lost it or if it was genetic but I just saw it as having a disability. Her nest wasn’t quite deep enough but that didn’t stop her. She laid anyway which added an extra challenge to holding the egg bag. Laying there practically with my nose touching the huge shell, smelling like turtle, I was in bliss. After my turtle laid her eggs I had to quickly get the bag out before she starts to cover them and hit me in the face with her flippers. By the way, the turtle is in a trance-like state while laying, so she really doesn’t even know you´re there. The team of volunteers also measures the turtle and checks her tags during this time so we aren’t bothering her at all. It was exhilarating to walk to the hatchery with my first bag of eggs.


The hatchery is Widecast’s nest palace that is under constant surveillance. It’s a fenced in area on the beach, roped off into a grid system. Each bag of eggs gets a nest dug in a square on the grid, counted, and then buried under sand. Each nest is then marked with a tag as to when it came in, how many eggs, from what turtle, etc. Then, each nest gets topped with a canasta (mesh cage) that keeps out crabs and flies from infecting the eggs. When we left Gandoca, there were 92 nests in the hatchery, ready to hatch between now and June 30th. It takes 2 months for the eggs to hatch and the babies make their way to the ocean. Since each turtle lays twice during the season, eggs are hatching all the time. We were lucky enough to see little Leatherbacks making their way to the big ocean. They have to crawl on the beach to leave their "mark" so in 20 years when they mate, they will come back to the same beach to lay their eggs. Before coming back to nest, some travel as far as northern Canada and back to Costa Rica!


I could go on and on about the turtles and all the technical stuff but I won’t. It was amazing to get to be so hands on with the turtles and really feel like we made a difference. Widecast depends on its volunteers and would not be able to patrol the beach every night if we weren’t willing to wake up and walk around in the dark. It also made the experience that much sweeter being at a black sand, tropical location that you could enjoy during the day before your shift. I know it’s hard to believe that we worked so closely with the turtles but don’t have any pictures from our patrols (no flash photography) but hopefully the pictures from the Widecast website gives you an idea of how big the turtles were.


We were sad to leave Sandra, Gandoca, and the hammocks that are sprinkled everywhere, coaxing you into them to take an afternoon nap. -Ash



One Response to “Sea Turtle Love in Gandoca”

  1. Barb says:

    This is a great post. I felt like I was right there collecting the eggs. I have never even heard of such a thing. I am getting quite an education thru you! What a great experience! I was thinking until you said they were in a trance like state how dangerous it would be to lie so close to her while she was doing this.!! FUN STUFF!!! ENJOY! Love Aunt Barb

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