Baby Leatherback in the Caribean beach of Costa Rica. Photo: Rolando Parra Reyes
Costa Rica is a small country rich in biodiversity and natural beauty that has done a commendable job marketing itself as a premier ecotourism destination. The country is teeming with wildlife and endangered species such as the leatherback turtle find refuge on its secluded beaches as other habitats are ruined by development.
But Costa Rica has adopted its lofty goals with a shoestring budget and currently faces the challenge of affording its own promises, and balancing development with preservation. It has loudly announced a goal of being ‘carbon neutral’ by the year 2020 and held itself up as an example to the world, while at the same time holding out its hand in anticipation of foreign contributions necessary to achieve its loudly trumpeted eco-goals.
The leatherback turtle has a migratory pattern that is more global perhaps than any other species, and several Costa Rican beaches such as Playa Ostional offer some of the few remaining nesting areas, especially in the eastern Pacific where it has been particularly decimated by commercial fishing , human poaching and habitat lost by unsustainable development.
Ostional is a volcanic black sand beach and it is widely known for the Arribada, the periodic arrival of thousands of olive ridley turtles who pile on top of each other to make nests and lay eggs, and the Costa Rican government declared it and neighboring beaches to be protected natural reserves.
Lesser known is its use by a small and dwindling population of leatherbacks. Leatherbacks are offended by unnatural light, and a few females find their way to the mostly dark Ostional for nesting. However, because the black sand is too hot for the eggs to survive, unlike those of the olive ridley turtle, the intervention of volunteers is necessary to replant the eggs in a beachside hatchery where 30% of them will hatch, according to Micaela Cortez, an Argentine biologist who has spent the past year at Ostional overseeing the leatherback project.
This reporter recently joined a group of student volunteers seeking to protect the leatherbacks as they come ashore to lay their eggs at Playa Ostional, looking for hope for the planet, and a little travel adventure.
The job of the volunteers is to walk a four km stretch of starlit or moonlit beach in shifts at night, for a two week gig. When they are lucky enough to find a leatherback or a nest, they count the eggs and move them to a hatchery they have constructed where conditions are more favorable for incubation, which lasts about 60 days.
1. With this gun, a chip is inserted into the turtle in order to gather information on the frequency of its nesting. 2. Sunset at Ostional. Photos – Emiliana Garcia
Walking a black sand beach under only starlight left this reporter feeling a bit like a stumbling drunk, although the steady leadership of one of the research assistant, Andrey Castillo McCarty, who sees like a cat in the dark, and the occasional flash of his red light aimed at driftwood, helped this novice survive the march.
A later walk with another local researcher Rolando Parra Reyes, during the midnight to 5 a.m. shift that included the moonrise, felt much steadier. We walked by several partly dug-up nests of olive ridley eggs, the work of one of the many stray dogs. The dogs and vultures make a team effort of it, and the beach is littered with the fragments of leathery white shells, accompanied by a pungent aroma.
Over the oceans horizon distant clouds periodically flash from lightning, and in another corner of the dark sky we witness the flash of an exploding meteorite. Or something. It’s a vast, impressive nightscape in Costa Rica, and it’s easy to get that Twilight Zone feeling.
Why care about the extinction of these reptiles, whose leathery soft carapace averages 8 feet in length? Project Director Wagner Quiros has been studying marine turtles for 10 years and feels strongly about his mission. “They are an important part of our ecosystem. They’ve been around for over 100 million years. They are an indicator of the ocean’s health. If this population starts going extinct, after so long, then there is something seriously going wrong,” he said.
They are the largest of all reptiles, whose history is recorded in fossils but whose numbers in the Pacific have declined by 95% since 1980. Other than marking the planet’s fate, one reason is they each eat their weight in jellyfish every day, keeping the oceans in balance because jellyfish feed on fish larvae.
Quiros is the Costa Rica Projects Director for the International Student Volunteers, a global organization that brings about 700 students annually to Costa Rica for 15 community development and conservation projects, with between 60 and 90 assigned to the leatherback effort at Ostional, a dozen at a time. The volunteers, or perhaps their parents since they are recruited from college campuses, pay for their trips as well as fund the programs.
1. Large leatherback turtle 2. The soccer field in Ostional is where residents often gather. The school, community hall and church are around. Almost all shops have signs with turtles, from groceries to booths and restaurants. The entire community bases its economy on this prehistoric reptile. Photo – Emiliana Garcia
The cash-strapped Costa Rican government doesn’t provide financial support but provides permits and some cheap rent of government facilities. Volunteer Stephanie Stewart, 19, from New Zealand, is among a dozen recent volunteers from New Zealand and Australia who are contributing during their summer break. “We were really lucky. On our first night of patrol I saw a leatherback.” At high tide at the north end of Playa Ostional, she counted 67 fertilized eggs, and on top were an additional 21 smaller unfertilized eggs. The unfertilized eggs are seen by some as a natural sacrifice to predators, who may leave the fertilized eggs below undisturbed. Finding a leatherback and her nest may occur only every week or so during the October-March season.
While much of Ostional is free of artificial light, there are some homes on the beach whose lights interrupt the blackness of the night. While Costa Rica in 1995 declared a 200 meter protected zone for the beach at Ostional (and others), it never had the money to buy out homeowners and the properties have been in a state of eco-limbo since then, with residents afraid of the arrival of bulldozers but lawmakers afraid of political consequences.
The locals in Ostional have little source of income outside of the April-October turtle season, when they can serve as guides and legally receive up to 200 of the olive ridley turtle eggs, if harvested before succeeding waves make a mash of early nests. While poverty may be a state of mind, the lack of tourists or other activity is a real hardship.
When arribada season is finish and making a living is harder, a dozen families offer room and board to the leatherbacks project volunteers, and the over $20,000 in distributed income is a substantial community benefit during the project.
While it is a memorable cultural experience for impressionable minds, the lodging is bare light bulb simple with raggy bedsheets and no hot water. The meals are basic, traditional and reasonably balanced. My hostess greeted me initially with what might have looked like skepticism, but we parted the next morning after a hearty and caringly prepared breakfast with mucho gusto.
1. Ostional Beach 2. The high temperature of the sand, along with dogs and vultures, are part of the threat of to unprotected nests. Because the leatherback has no massive arrivals, like those of the ridley turtle, the eggs of the first one must be transferred to a specially built hatchery for this purpose. The community of Ostional began a castration program to reduce the dog population. Photo – Emiliana Garcia
We didn’t find a leatherback during my night under the stars, but of course one was found the next night, I later learned. Quiros expresses the views of many Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they like to be called. “We’re always optimistic,” he says. “We’ll continue as long as one leatherback comes to Ostional. Our focus is to try to reverse the situation and to make a difference there. We need to take care of nature or many other species will go extinct,” he warns.
But for many others here ecotourism is a business proposition, another approach to tourism and development and the money it brings to a country with big unmet needs, and big aspirations as well.
For more information about International Student Volunteers, go to www.isvonline.org, or contact Wagner Quirós at [email protected].