Before leaving Costa Rica to do some travelling further North, I had decided to briefly volunteer at a couple of other turtle projects in order to get some experience of how the process was managed elsewhere. Also, I really wanted to see a Leatherback turtle nesting, and we were just entering Leatherback nesting season in the Pacific. I chose to volunteer for a couple of weeks at PRETOMA's most remote project of all, based at a tiny rustic camp situated halfway down a wild and deserted white sand beach called Playa Caletas, south of Sámara in the Nicoya Peninsula.
The chances of seeing a Leatherback were slim. The population in the Pacific Ocean has been all but wiped out and perhaps less than 1000 survive today. Of the 500 or so females out there, a large proportion nest at Playa Grande in Costa Rica - the last true bastion for this prehistoric giant in the Pacific - whilst the remainder spread themselves out sparingly across other beaches between Mexico and Panama (and a few beaches in East Asia). In 2010 just two Leatherbacks came to Playa Caletas, and none of their eggs hatched; these unlucky females simply had not succeeded in finding one of those 500 or so males in the vast expanse of the ocean. My luck, by contrast, was extraordinary, as on my second night at the project a Leatherback came to nest. I had just swapped cell phone numbers with the coordinator seconds before leaving on the patrol and was already at the far end of the beach working with an Olive Ridley when the call came through: 'Rob. Run. Get everyone from the camp on the way and RUN! Sector 32'. They were 3.2km away. We abandoned the poor Olive Ridley turtle and ran the whole way, passing another nesting on route - these turtles after all are not (yet) critically endangered and so we would return to save their nests later.
We knew at once where the Leatherback was even before coming across her tracks - we could hear the unmistakable crash of huge flipper-fulls of sand being hurled across the beach - the sound of her digging a body pit to nest in. I knew what I was about to see. I had seen a hundred photos of Leatherbacks and heard other people's accounts of the experience. But, the sight still knocked the wind out of me. I remember the moment clearly when I arrived and the grinning patrol team first parted to allow us to take a look: my eyes found the ridges of her giant carapace illuminated by the moonlight and the characteristic white markings splattered over her 2m+ long body; my ears filled with the sound of deep snorts of exhaustion emanating from her nose and mouth as she shifted around in the sand; and the only word I could manage was a long, slow 'wow'. We stayed with the Leatherback for maybe two hours as she nested, measuring her, tagging her, collecting her eggs, taking a few blurry red-light photos, and finally watching her drag herself back out to sea, disappearing in an instant into the oily blackness.
I heard some months later that, like her cousins from last year, none of these carefully relocated eggs actually hatched - the Pacific Leatherback is at a truly precarious moment in its 70 million year history. One nest from an earlier Leatherback, however, did hatch while I was there and four of her babies made it into the sea - check out the photos! These babies that we held briefly in our hands may well be some of the last ever to survive in the Pacific.
I definitely enjoyed the experience of volunteering at this project, even though I was surprized at how disorganised and questionable PRETOMA's work practices were at times. Living conditions were super basic, but that was exactly what was so appealing about it, and I shared my time there with what were to become some cohesive friends: Nicole and Mike (brother and sister), and Chris. While I was there, PRETOMA - in all of their professional wisdom - decided to end their contract with Nicole, and so we all left the project together and stayed a night at the Flying Scorpion hotel in San Miguel. Nicole was already friends with the owners, Rossi and Amanda, and mentioned that they were going to the States for a few weeks and were looking for someone to run the hotel for them while they were away. A thought suddenly leaped to mind… and by the end of the night the deal was done. I would return in a week to run the Flying Scorpion with Mike until the end of February, which conveniently bought me enough time to wait for the Leatherback nesting season in the Caribbean. So much for heading straight to Nicaragua in January as I had originally planned; it seemed that Costa Rica had pinned me down for the extent of another 90-day visa.