With soggy socks and crusty crocs, walking three kilometres along a rainy Rio Oro beach at 2:00 am in the morning can make any conservationist question their decisions. Waves crash on the sand as red lights scan the beach for the tell-tale tractor-like tracks. Every sense is on full alert, listening for the flicking of sand and smelling for…… turtles? Yes, if you have worked with them long enough, you can smell a turtle before you see it!
On the Pacific coast of the bioabundant Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, the COPROT team spends most evenings patrolling the beaches for nesting sea turtles. The nearby beaches of Rio Oro and Peje Perro are some of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the South Pacific. In 2021, over 6,000 Olive Ridley turtles’ (Lepidochelys olivacea) and almost 400 Pacific green turtles’ (Chelonia mydas) nests were recorded.
Global sea turtle populations are in decline, as the seven species are under threat from issues including human consumption, pollution, habitat loss and climate change. In 2018 COPROT Tortugas de Osa was founded to address the need for more conservation and education in the local area of Osa.
Our project is right in the heart of an area that has a long history of illegal gold mining. At COPROT, we realized that for there to be changes on our beaches we needed to work with the community. We recognized that giving the gold-mining community the opportunity to work in conservation could solve a number of pertinent issues in the area. We began recruiting locals in September of 2018 with staff starting out as volunteers and then becoming salary-based workers for COPROT, with funds gained from sustainable tourism and donations from wonderful supporters all around the world.
Our primary aim is to conserve the populations of nesting sea turtles on our beaches. We collect nesting data all through the season so that it can be used to further our understanding of the nesting populations and develop conservation strategies to help reduce negative impacts. Collecting data on nesting sea turtle populations can be hard work. Each night our team head to the beach in search of nesting turtles. If we come across the mothers, we are able to collect important morphological data on the turtles as well as tag them with unique metal tags, allowing us to track the season-by-season behaviours of individuals within the population.
It can be hard to have eyes everywhere on our beaches at night, which is why every morning at 5:00am the team heads back out on to the beaches to check for tracks. If tracks are found, we can use special nest finding tools (also known as sticks we find on the beach) to check if the turtle laid a nest. If found we can record its location on the beach, allowing us to monitor the nests process.
The eggs in the nest take around 40-50 days to incubate. One of the most incredible things about sea turtle biology is that the gender of the babies is determined by the temperature of the nests! Hotter nests will be female and cooler ones will be males (hot girls and cool guys). By recording the location of the nests, we can get an idea of location preference and see if turtles are choosing to nest in hotter or cooler places on the beach.
Once the babies hatch, they then crawl out of the nest and make their way to the ocean, leaving their nest full of empty shells. Our team can then dig inside the empty nest and count how many of the eggs hatched successfully, giving us a nest hatching success rate. This data allows us to track the health of the population and make sure that our efforts of protection are producing high success rates.
Does this all sound like hard work? You bet it is. We could not collect all the data we have without the tireless efforts of our research assistants, interns, and volunteers. Everyone that comes through our project puts in 100% effort, but the rewards always make up for it, there is no experience in nature that can beat being by a mother turtles’ side as she lays her nest!
Our work doesn’t just stop with turtles, we strive to support our local community through our ocean plastics recycling scheme and providing educational opportunities for community members both young and old.
We are proud of what we have achieved so far and are forever grateful for the support of all those that have helped our project grow. Our work will continue as we strive to create a better future for our turtle populations and our wonderful local community.