Falling in love was the last thing I had expected to happen on an expedition to the remote parts of Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. It’s the middle of my final night on Pacuare beach and darkness blankets the otherwise vibrant landscape I’ve come to know so well, interrupted only by the stars casting a fading spotlight over the waves violently crashing against the sandy shore. I’m out here wearing just Crocs and my underwear, thankful for the lack of light pollution in this remote haven.
The moon’s silver light outlines the curves of the body lying before me and I barely notice the bugs attacking my legs or the grains of sand flying through the air. Goosebumps creep across my skin as jolts of electric euphoria cause my mind to blank. It’s a moment so magical that despite my weary, sweaty body,
I almost hope it never ends.
When I arrived at Pacuare seven days ago, this was not the tale I thought I’d be weaving, but we have little say in the hand of fate.
I’m travelling with Biosphere Expeditions to a small beach-fronted research station in the province of Limon where I’ll be working with a team of scientists, research assistants and volunteers from conservation organisation, Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST).
A few hours drive from the country’s capital, San Jose, brings us to the canals of Tortuguero where we travel an hour by dinghy through the winding waterways. With every corner of the bend, the lush, green rainforest unfolds, and we play ‘I spy’ in the hope the tropical trees will uncover spider, howler and capuchin monkeys, geladas, caiman, green macaws, sloths and jaguars.
The engine of the boat hums to the chorus of cicadas and birds chime in for their solo, while white-faced geladas occasionally grunt their tenor parts like schoolboys whose parents have forced them onto the stage.
When we arrive at the station, we’re welcomed by the thunderous sound of the Caribbean Sea, and the delicate growl of Shakira, a deaf Rottweiler whose bark is as tough as her bite, but her nature as placid as a wise old owl.
“She is a guard dog,” our expedition leader Ida Vincent warns.
“She tends to go about her business, but we advise you avoid patting her because she does have a tendency to snap.” She points to Fabián Carrasco, LAST’s resident biologist, who reveals a nasty scar across his thumb and hand.
Teaming up with the volunteers from La Tortuga Feliz, a neighbouring program, we will walk a seven-kilometre stretch of beach each night in four-hour shifts between 7pm and 5am in search of leatherback, green and hawksbill turtles. We have one main goal – to find the turtles and collect the nests before poachers do.
Sea turtle eggs are hunted and sold on the black market, and for some species, like the green and hawksbill, they’re also traded for meat and shells. It’s long been a belief that the eggs are an aphrodisiac, which Fabián explains comes from an old sea tale.
“Fishermen were spending weeks or months out at sea. When sea turtles mate, they join tails and the male drops his sperm into the female. The process can take 30 to 40 minutes, but because the males want to stop others from mating with her, he hugs her for hours, or sometimes even days. The fishermen would see this and think they were mating the whole time.” I blush. The story is comical, but one that sadly results in a diminishing population, with almost all species appearing on the endangered list. Climate change, habitat damage, pollution, sand erosion, light pollution and fishing also play a part.
It takes us a while to adjust to our new surroundings. Our accommodation at the LAST station is rustic, dormitory-style bunk beds, some with a private bathroom, and others sharing the doorless washrooms, all fed by solar power. While the rest of our group search for phone service hotspots, I decide to make the most of this opportunity to completely detach from the outside world. It may be basic, but it doesn’t forgo comfort – there’s no need for hair dryers out here, and after a few hours in the sticky humidity, I welcome the pipe-style cold showers.
Our first day, like most days, is spent lounging in hammocks, attending lectures on sea turtles and getting to know our fellow volunteers. Sunlight hours are quiet and relaxing in preparation for our night shifts, but there’s still plenty to do and between chapters of books and dips in the sea, we help with beach clean ups, hatchery duty, fixing and cleaning equipment, and learning Spanish.
Fabián, a Mexican-born biologist who has worked with LAST for the past three years, runs the show and along with our leader, Ida, they make us feel welcomed and at home.
“In the beginning, I dreamed of working with big cats,” Fabián tells me, but an introduction to the world of turtles had him hooked. “It was something I wanted because I liked working on the beach, seeing the turtles and really enjoyed my time in the lab studying microbiology.
“Turtles are animals that cannot fend for themselves so when they come to the beach, they’re very vulnerable … They don’t do any damage when they come here, and we, humans, are their biggest predators.
I’m not here to be a hero, but I do want to protect them.”
Ida, who is also a marine biologist, agrees. “We could be really lucky on this trip,” she tells our group. “There’s a nest of turtles almost ready to hatch so we might get some babies.” Her smile and enthusiasm is infectious and despite our apprehension of what’s ahead of us on our walk tonight, we can’t help but embrace the energy.
After an early dinner of beans and vegetables (our meals are plant-based and organic, and alcohol is forbidden on the station) we are broken up into groups and head to bed to rest before our first shift.
My guide for the night is Hernan, a local who tells me he’s been looking for turtles for almost 10 years. Many of the guides are ex-poachers, now employed by LAST to lead teams during the season, which runs from May to November. For the most part of the four-hour walk, our group stays silent, chatting only between breathless puffs and during short breaks.
By the time we’re on our way back, my feet are covered in blisters, my body aches and I’m excreting so much sweat I can no longer tell if it’s been raining. A broken-English and broken-Spanish conversation with Hernan distracts me from the exhaustion, and while there are no turtles to be sighted tonight, it already starts to dawn on me that this trip is offering up more than just an opportunity to bond with my favourite oceanic reptiles. I was about to learn as much from the people as I was from the turtles.
Alongside the conservation work, LAST also invests in educating the locals, employs poachers and runs activities for the children who live nearby. “We want them to see us as a part of the community, rather than enemies,” Fabián explains as we scoff down our breakfast empanadas.
It’s only our second day here at the station, and our overnight introduction to saving the turtles is a reality check, but the hope of hatchlings keeps our spirits high.
The hatchery sits a few hundred metres away from the station and is a small, fenced-in section of sterilised beach that’s guarded 24/7 to protect the
re-nested eggs against predators – poachers, dogs, cats and crabs among them. Hatchery duty falls under our job description on this trip, but first, we need to learn how to recreate a nest.
Turtle nests, we learn, are circular holes with a lip pocket for air. As I dig my arms deep into the sand, my inner school student is desperate for praise. It turns out digging a near-perfect circle is harder than expected and with each “it’s too wide”, “it’s not straight enough” and “dig a little deeper” my overachiever persona is kicked to the curb.
I spend the afternoon soaking my feet in a makeshift saltwater footbath until the sun starts to lower its position in the sky. “It’s babies time,” Ida says, as we all walk over to the hidden nest Fabián buried earlier in the season.
The path there is as fascinating as the exhumation we’re about to witness. Geladas make frightening grunting noises from their thrones high in the trees, while leafcutter ants carry small squares of green on their back in a hi-ho fashion. Toucans squawk, desperate to steal the spotlight with their kaleidoscope beaks, and dogs follow us, baffled that on this rare occasion, no one is interested in playing.
A few kilometres up the beach, in an area covered in vines and overgrowth, we gather around Fabián who lies belly down. We’re given instructions for the hatchling release – never walk in front of a turtle, don’t interfere with their path to the sea, and above all else, watch where you step. As he scoops sand out of the nest by the handful, the occasional wriggling flipper is caught and gently placed in a polystyrene foam box to protect it from the sun. It’s important the hatchlings are released in the shade to avoid the hot sand frying their delicate bodies.
A leatherback nest houses an average of 80 eggs, and the exhumation takes a little over an hour, revealing a number of unsuccessful ones plagued by fungus, bacteria, or foetuses that died before hatching. As if the 1 in 1000 survival odds for hatchlings to reach sexual maturity isn’t enough, only seven are released from this single nest. Before Biosphere Expeditions and LAST arrived in Pacuare, poaching at this site was nearly 100 per cent, and has since been halved. I take comfort knowing that despite the small number, our release saved these hatchlings from a sure sale on the black market.
I stand in awe as they drag their tiny bodies across the sand toward the sea. One little guy lags in the back, trying to figure out whether he should follow his siblings to be engulfed in the ocean’s waves, or whether he’d much prefer to stay in the comfort of the box he’d just been released from, awoken from a tranced state. He’s my favourite, I decide, and with each simultaneous push of the flippers, it’s hard not to be moved by his conviction. Human footprints build mountainous obstacles, and while the lagging hatchling is not quick, nor graceful, his determination is unwavering. As a group of 20-odd humans standby rooting him on, my love affair with these chelonians strengthens.
Witnessing this has turned hatchery duty into a coveted role – everyone wants a break from the night walks and to be the first to see the near-ready nest in the hatchery emerge. I draw the lucky straw, along with my roommates, Scarlett and Talar, and sit on the 3am to 6am guard shift.
In 15-minute intervals, we inspect each nest, which are protected from predators by some netting, hoping to witness some bubbling sand indicating the exciting arrivals. The sun puts on a spectacular show, and a new day is dawning, but still no turtles.
It takes two more nights of braving the humid, rainy conditions before I come face-to-tail with an adult leatherback. It’s around 9pm and I’m getting some sleep when Ida comes knocking on our dorm’s door. “Ladies, come quick! There’s a turtle right out front!”
we hear her say in a tone somewhere between a shout and a whisper as to not wake the nearby sleepers.
Suddenly, body aches and wounded feet dissipate and I sprint to the station’s gate and out to the beach. This is the moment where exhaustion, relief and emotion collide and as I stand in the moonlight in my underwear, I feel my eyes well up with tears.
The mamma leatherback gracefully goes about her duty, sprinkling sand with a delicacy and calculation I’d been unable to match when digging days earlier. This is the only opportunity she’ll get to protect her babies, and once she’s satisfied with her masterpiece, she heavily turns her body back toward the sea. Her presence on land is far more laborious than her ability to glide through water, and just before she hits the wet sand, she takes a moment to rest and then, with a few more heaves of her flippers, she disappears, unknowingly leaving her babies in the safe hands of Carlos, an ex-poacher turned guide.
In that moment, my skin crawling with fervour, every step of the week becomes entirely worth it.
As I sit in the kitchen on my final day listening to paradise’s soundtrack, Fabián lies in the hammock somewhere between sueños (dreaming) and consciousness, and Shakira sits calmly by his feet. I stare out into the canal where Carlita, our cook, rests at the end of the dock, and I movie-roll my way through the last week. I’ve run out of clean clothes and my body is desperate for a hot bath, and yet, right here in this special part of Costa Rica, I feel totally and utterly at home. My heart is full.
United Airlines flies from Sydney to San José via Houston. Return flights start from US$1136.
Hotel Santo Tomas in San José is a French Victorian mansion turned hotel in Barrio Amon and rooms start at US$47 per night, including breakfast.
Accommodation in Pacuare is at the Latin American Sea Turtle research station and arranged through Biosphere Expeditions. It’s remote and rustic, located right next to the beach. Sleeping arrangements are in cabins with shared bathroom and shower blocks, and there’s a serviced kitchen. All three meals are prepared each day, and are based on an organic, plant-based diet.