Service Learning

Punta Mala Travel Blog

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newborn olive ridley
At Punta Mala de Playa Hermosa, I spent three days working to save a disappearing species of sea turtles.  The Olive Ridley, or Tortuga Lora, have become famous for their ritual of arriving in massive numbers to lay eggs on very few beaches in the world.  The number of beaches where the Olive Ridley can be found are constantly decreasing.  Today, they are only found on few beaches in Costa Rica, and India.  There are several contributing factors to the extinction of these animals; the most prevalent of which is poaching, and thievery of their eggs, which are historically a delicacy in areas that were once rich in sea turtles.
    Since the banning of sea turtle egg collection, obtaining these eggs illegally has become a prosperous profession.
a special friend
  In four nights of raiding nests, a family can make an amount of money equal to a months wages for agricultural labor.  In order to curb the temptation of locals to illegally collect and sell eggs, Costa Rican law allows local communities to take eggs from the beaches during the first 24 hours of the nesting season (March through December).  In nature, most of the eggs laid in the first 24 hours are squashed by the shear quantity of turtles that will crawl up the beach to nest in the following couple of days.  The broken eggs from those nest rot and create diseases in the sand that can actually be fatal to the hatchlings that will follow.  Therefore, it has been found that this process is actually beneficial to the turtle population.
  Gathering the eggs legally and in a organized manner helps eliminate the incentive to steal the eggs illegally at night, and has cut down on egg thievery quite significantly.
    Still, poachers and nest raiders  plague the beaches of Costa Rica, and haunt the future of the Olive Ridley.  For my service learning project, I worked at the “Refugio de Vida Silvestre Playa Hermosa - Sector Punta Judas”, a center for the protection of the Olive Ridley in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.  The Refuge consists mostly of park rangers, environmentalists, and long term volunteers, who work long hours digging up nests and farming them for release in a hatchery.
the run for the sea
  They also research the turtle population at Playa Hermosa, and keep records of turtle activity in order to promote the protection of turtles and fuel the scientific community.  Despite the fact that we was only there for three days, our help was greatly appreciated, and needed.

    We started each day at the hatchery, where the turtle eggs are stored for the 90 day it takes for them to develop into hatchlings.  At the hatchery we gathered baby turtles who had hatched the night before and were ready for release, preformed excavations on the hatched nests, repaired cages that had been harmed by the weather or by predators such as birds and hermit crabs, and circulated sand from the hatched nests with fresh sand from the beach.
releasing the babies
    The hatchery is organized with a grid system; the columns are labeled with letters, and the rows with numbers.  Workers at the refuge keep close track of all that goes on in each nest.  For example, the number of eggs place in the nest, the depth and width of the nest, the date and time it was built, and the product of the nest are all recorded.  The grid system is an invaluable tool for recording and organizing data.

    Our first step was to remove the new hatchlings.  To do this, it is important to wear rubber gloves.  It is crucial that the hatchlings are able to smell the sand before they journey off into the open sea, as they with use their memory of this scent to return to the same beach as adults 15 to 20 years later when they are ready to leave their own nest of eggs.
the hatchery
  If lotions, scented soaps, or strong body odor interfere with the hatchlings ability to smell the sand, he may get confused, and not know where to come to breed and lay eggs.  Furthermore, residue of bug spays, or other chemicals can harm the health of the babies.  
    The hatchlings are removed one by one from the nest and counted before they are placed in a large and shallow bucket.  Even the smallest of details are recorded in a book.   When the hatchlings from each nest have been removed and counted, the now full bucket is taken to the shore.  If it is low tide, the turtles are released about 25 meters away from shore; at high tide they are released closer, about 10 meters from the water.  At the refuge, a huge focus is placed on imitating natural conditions exactly, or as closely is as possible.
dead fetus
    On the shore, the hatchlings are released, each by hand.  It is then their job to waddle their way, very slowly, to the sea.  Turtles normally born at night and they follow the reflection of light from the moon and stars on the water by instinct.  Foreign lights, such as car headlights, or lights from nearby buildings confuse the hatchlings and often prevent them from ever finding the ocean.  For this reason, flashlights are prohibited.  When turtles are born and released in the morning, instead of at night, it is difficult for them to find the sea and sometimes a little bit of direction is necessary.  The releasing process takes quite a long time as baby turtle are very small, and very slow.  Like excited children, the hatchlings “run” down the shore, stopping every few inches to rest.
the hatchery
  They leave miniature versions of their parents tracks behind them, like tiny tire tracks.  Occasionally a hatchling will encounter a small rock, or a dip in the sand where some water has collected, and will be stuck for ten or fifteen minutes trying to maneuver the obstacle.  Other times, the baby will simply walk the wrong way and trek feet in the wrong direction before realizing his mistake.  More often than not, when the hatchling finally reaches water, he is swept six feet back up the shore by a wave, and so he tries again.

    Several hours later, all the hatchlings have made it to the sea, and we return to the hatchery.  It is now time to perform excavations on the nests that hatched the night before.  These are the nests from which the hatchlings we just released were born.
first look at the babies
  To excavate, you put on gloves, get on your knees and start digging where the nest was.  Nests are underground, shaped like genie bottles.  A tea saucer sized tunnel extends from the surface down into the ground.  At roughly elbow to fingers depth, the tunnel opens up to a larger pod.  This is where the eggs are lain, and where they develop.  When they hatch, the dig and push themselves upward to the surface.  The process of excavation is mostly for the collection of data, but live turtles that never reached the surface are also sometimes found and released.
    These are the steps of an excavation:
1)  All the sand is removed from the nest.  Along with the sand there are many broken shells along with live turtles, unfertilized eggs, eggs that never hatched, half hatched eggs, and dead turtles.
recording by headlight
  These things are separated very carefully from the sand.  It is important to collect all remnants of the nest from the sand, as it will all be counted and recorded.
2)  Then the nest remains are brought in a bag to a separate location.  A flat surface is made in the sand and the bag is emptied.  First removed from the pile of remnants are the shells of hatched eggs.  If more that fifty percent of a shell is found, it is counted as one hatched live baby, probably one of those we had released earlier.  
3)  Next the left over empty shell pieces are picked out.  The goal is to estimate how many additional eggs these pieces represent, so each time you hold enough pieces to form one whole shell, this is counted as one.  The figures from the second and third steps are combined.  If dead turtles are found in the nest, their number should be subtracted, assuming that one empty shell belongs to each of the dead turtles.  This final figure: shells larger than 50%, plus fragments who’s surface area is roughly one shell, minus dead turtles, is recorded in the book.  The figure recorded should be equal or very close to the number of live hatchlings released from the nest.
4)  The remaining eggs must each be opened and classified into one of three classes: A,B, and C.  Opening the eggs is not the most pleasant task.  They smell awful, sometimes squirt in your face, and the sight of the treasure inside is often stomach turning.

Class A:  These eggs have not been fertilized.  There is so sign of even the smallest beginning of a fetus, and there is no blood, red, or white spots.  The insides of these eggs look a lot like chicken eggs: just the white, and the yolk.
Class B:   Most eggs are class B.  I developing turtle fetus is a tiny, brown, mushy, turtle; it hugs the egg yolk and together they look kind of like a three dimensional yin yang symbol.  If the yolk, or food sack, is larger than the turtle, then it is class B.  Eggs that have blood, white or red spots, or any fetus smaller that the food sack, no matter how small, is Class B.
Class C:   In Class C eggs, the fetus is larger than the food sack.  Some Class C eggs have fully developed turtles babies inside.  As long as the egg never hatched, even the fully developed fetuses are considered Class C.

5)  All the data must be recorded: How many eggs in each class?  How many dead hatchlings?  How many hatched, left empty shells, and were released?  All of the figures together should be equal to the number of eggs originally placed in the nest roughly 90 days before.
    After excavating the nests, the sand must be prepared to hold and protect a new family of hatchlings.  This involves circulating the sand, a process in which the sand that held the previous nest is traded for fresh sand from the beach.  Circulating the sand in this manner prevents the spread of disease from family to family.  Eggs that have cracked and dead hatchlings rot in the nest and infect the sand;  maturing in this sand could make a new group of eggs sick before they even hatch.
    After circulating the sand, we fix any broken cages.  The circular cages are placed on top of each nest to enclose and protect the eggs.  The cages keep out birds, crabs, and mammals who might eat the eggs or disturb the nest.  They also keep in the hatchlings until they can be properly released closer to shore.  Also, the nests are an easy way to quickly see which areas are occupied in the hatchery.  In the morning we repair cages at the hatchery, and then return to the house to build more cages. 
    The cages are constructed with two long, thin sheets of wire.  Chicken wire holds the structure of the cage, and a second layer of wire mesh keeps smaller critters out.  The two layers are bent, one on top of the other, to create a tube.  Then another square of wire mesh is cut and attached to the top of the tube.  The cage is held together with small cut pieces of wire, like twist ties.  When constructing cages, it is important to remember that hatchlings are quite fragile, and sharp edges and wires must all be bent outward.  It is also I good idea to remember that fingers are quite fragile, and to be careful; wire is dangerous.
    After a long, tiring morning of work, we return to the house to eat.  We pass time with cards, board games and sleep.  But most importantly, we recuperate and prepare ourselves for an even harder, and more exhausting night.
    There are two patrols every night.  One leave about six hours before high tide, around 8:30 or 9:00 pm.  The second leaves four hours after high tide, at around 4:00 or 4:30 am.  Before going out on patrol we change into dark clothing; we dress in long sleeves, pants, and hiking boots.  Then we cover our flashlights with red cellophane, which isn’t as disturbing to the night.  We begin walking down the beach with no lights; there are two reasons for this.  The first is to avoid being seen by poachers.  We don’t want them to know our schedule or  where we take the eggs, and, if we are lucky, we might even catch one in action rather than stumbling upon the devastation of his actions later in the night.  The second reason is to avoid disturbing pregnant turtles in the shallow water who wont come ashore to lay if she sees lights or people.
    We walk down the beach in the dark scanning the sand for the distinct track of a turtle, like a wide tire track.  It is hard for us to spot the tracks in the dark as beginners, but before our first patrol is over it becomes much easier.  When tracks are seen we follow them carefully watching for possible nests.  Nests are usually found below a circular clearing in the sand, where debris and drift wood has been pushed away by the large flippers of the mama turtle.  The sand looks softer than in other places and is flat and smooth.  If we suspect there is a nest at the end of the tracks, a walking stick is used to probe the sand.  If there is a nest present, the stick will push through the surface layer and suddenly plunge a couple of feet through soft sand right down to the bottom of the nest.  It is sometimes necessary to poke around a small area of beach for 45 minutes before you will find the nest.  Other times, no nest is found at all.  This is called a false crawl, meaning for some reason the mother wasn’t comfortable laying her eggs there, and returned to the sea. 
    If the mother is there, she is watched until she begins to lay.  At this point we crouch behind her and collect the eggs as she lays them.  The mother, in a sort of trance, hardly notices our presence.  We also measure the mother and tag her fin with a metal clamp.  If we have already met this turtle, we take down her ID code.
    If there is no mother, but there is a nest, we dig the nest and collect the eggs in a plastic bag.  Again, everything is recorded.  We count the eggs, note how far down the beach and how far from the shore we are (there are three zones), take down the date, time, and type of turtle, and lastly, we measure the nest so it can be reproduced back at the hatchery.  There are three measurements of the nest.  The A measurement is the depth from the surface to the first egg, the B measurement is the depth of the nest from surface to the bottom, and the C measurement is the width of the nest at its widest point.  After the data is recorded, we continue down the beach.  The bag or eggs is labeled and left at the nearest place marker (there are something like 20 of them along the entire length of the beach), and we search once again for tracks in the sand.  On an average night, about 8 nests are found and dug in each patrol. 
    We carry the bags back to the hatchery at the end of the night however we can manage.  Two people can use a walking stick to carry three bags at once, but each bag contains about 100 or so golf ball sized eggs, and they are quite heavy.  If not enough people are on each patrol, workers will sometimes have to take trips back and forth from the hatchery down the seven kilometer beach to transport all the bags.  The more nests uncovered, the harder the trip back is.  Not only are there more eggs to carry, but as it gets later, the tide is constantly rising.  As the sea nears high tide, the river we must cross to get the hatchery rises.  Fully clothed and in hiking boots we must wade across the neck deep, crocodile laden river carrying two heavy bags of eggs above our heads.  The waves try to push us down, but the hopes of seeing these eggs hatch into healthy baby turtles keeps us strong.
    Back at the hatchery we dig holes that match the dimensions of the ones we removed the eggs from.  We put the eggs in their new nests, counting them a second time to be sure.  When the nest is full, it is covered in sand, sealed with a cage, and we say good night to the hatchery. 
    We walk back to the house and shower our cold sandy bodies.  We hand our wet clothes, dump the water out of our boots, and wake up our friends to get ready for the second patrol.  Then it’s finally time to crawl into our mosquitoes net covered beds, and sleep.

    My three days at the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Playa Hermosa were completely amazing, and of course, life impacting.  I was able to learn so much just by watching and participating in the protection of the Olive Ridley.  In the same way that listening to a record stands miniscule in the shadow of a live music performance, on an educational level, a service learning experience shadows studying from a book.  I was not only able to learn the facts about turtles and turtle protection, but also able to feel, see, and ask questions about the process.  All I learned about turtles will not be forgotten because I was able to live the experience.
    During the long hours of work, I felt as if I was doing something really important and completely necessary.  It was as if we were on a secret mission to save the world.  It was hard: we lay flat on the sand, digging deep with our bare hands, rain pouring down on us.  We waded across neck deep water, fully clothed.   We trekked down seven kilometers of beach in the dark, carrying pounds of eggs and baby turtles, tired and tripping over drift wood.  And none of it phased us.  Our heads were in an different place; the only thing we were thinking about was getting the eggs before the poachers did.  Saving the turtles, nothing more.
    At Playa Hermosa, I found a connection to the sea that I hadn’t realized before.  I was so moved by the experience, that I am seriously considering a lifetime of marine life protection.  Without this project, I may have never explored  marine ecology, or thought to pursue this field.

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Among the many and various contributors to the vast decline of living sea turtles around the world, is tourism.  With the rise in tourism, comes the expansion of hotels,  resorts, and day facilities.  Unfortunately, the most beautiful sandy beaches, those that attract thousands upon thousands of tourists a year, are also the beaches preferred by sea turtles.  The rise in tourism in costal regions comes at a great detriment to the recovery of quickly disappearing species’ of sea turtles.
    After 15 to 20 years of maturing in the open sea, an adult female turtle is ready to give birth.  It is estimated that only one in every thousand hatchlings ever reaches this year of her life.  With dangers even before birth, such as the ever presence of poachers and predators, it is even more rare for a turtle to reach adulthood.  Sea turtles are shy creatures, and wont come ashore to lay their eggs if there are lights or people present.  If she feels the atmosphere is safe, she will carry her 200 pounds of weight ashore to begin digging a nest.  Sea turtles need soft sand clear of plants and driftwood to be able to dig their nest.  It is the very same beaches that tourists look for.  As a result, the beaches which pregnant sea turtles seek are often covered in sun beds, campfires, and tourists.  If a turtle cannot find a proper place to lay her eggs, or cannot dig in littered sand, she will return to the sea, and lay her eggs in the water, where they have no chance of ever hatching.
    On Playa Hermosa, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica, a new road was made to provide easy transportation to a new hotel.  While visiting the sea turtle refuge there, I was told that sea turtles will no longer lay there eggs in view of the road because of the headlights of passing cars.  You can see this road from almost half of the beach, and so disappears the potential lives of thousands of turtle eggs.
    Development on beaches is not only harmful to grown sea turtles.  If the eggs ever make it to hatchlings, tourism poses a huge problem to them as well.  The hatchlings emerge from their sandy nest in a group.  Once they reach the surface, they follow the reflection of stars and the moon on the sea, and begin a slow journey to the water.    In tourist areas, hatchlings are born to the harsh beat of neighboring disco tech music.  They are born into the universe to the flash of cameras and the light of cigarettes.  Lights from hotels and beach side cities disorientate the hatchlings, preventing them from ever reaching the water.  
    Human and motor traffic on the beach have even more harmful effects.  Tourist walking on beaches at night step on and crush hatchlings.  Motor vehicles and walkers pack down the sand over nests, making it impossible for hatchlings to ever emerge.
    The future of sea turtles depends on preserving their breeding grounds.  Something must be done to stop the spread of tourism to these beaches, or else and entire species of beautiful sea creatures with be demolished.  

The sky is so dark it eats your words
Whole conversations are drowning
Down the throat of the night

It is heavy on my head
Feet sink deeper into the mush
It’s sand
The ocean pounds on my skull

I need an Advil

I’m on a mission to dig up some turtle eggs
Before someone decides to cook them up
And breakfast time is coming quick
I better hurry up

Follow the tracks follow the tracks follow the tracks follow the tracks follow the Find a treasure find a treasure find a treasure find a treasure find a treasure find Dig it up dig it dig it dig it up dig dig up dig it up dig it up dig it up dig up it up dig it
Blowing steam out of her exhaust pipe

No, this isn’t about heroin.

newborn olive ridley
newborn olive ridley
a special friend
a special friend
the run for the sea
the run for the sea
releasing the babies
releasing the babies
the hatchery
the hatchery
dead fetus
dead fetus
the hatchery
the hatchery
first look at the babies
first look at the babies
recording by headlight
recording by headlight
Punta Mala
photo by: lilymichelle