I've spent the better part of the last two weeks at Caño Palma, a biological research station run by the Canadian Organisation for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (www.coterc.org) on Costa Rica's east coast. They call this the Caribbean coast, but other than sand and some coconut palm trees, this place bears no resemblance to the tranquil beaches and turquoise waters that folks typically envision when they think of the Caribbean. This place is Costa Rica's version of the wild west.
First, there is a notable lack of civilization. I have yet to really venture into the main town here, Tortuguero, other than to catch a boat to this biological station. The closest town to the biological station is San Francisco (which will never be mistaken for the other SF) about 30 minutes from here. Of course, that's 30 minutes kayaking or walking… not driving. I've seen some locals on motorcycles or dirt bikes, but no cars. There are no "roads" per se, but rather a cleared path at the edge of the jungle that people use to walk, bike, or motorbike. In town, there is a strip of concrete a few feet wide that runs for 100 yards or so. And then there are the murky canals that snake through the jungle and serve the area's boat traffic. Because of the sparse population, there is a sense that anything goes here. People build "houses" (their year-round living quarters are minimalist to say the least) wherever they want. Illegal activities of all varieties - drug trafficking and poaching of animals and turtle eggs, which are supposedly a delicacy and believed to be an aphrodisiac - are apparently well known and tolerated. (The bio station manager has pointed out bars that are run by drug traffickers and warned us away from those establishments. She also knows which residents are poachers.) But with no law enforcement in these here parts, there's little that can be done about it.
Next, there's the environment. This is dense, hot, wet jungle. It usually rains at least once a day, which helps to cut the stagnant heat a bit, but what's a few degrees when you're already at 100? The rains are torrential downpours, leaving the ground covered in a few inches of water by the end of the onslaught. If you're caught in one, you can expect to be drenched to the core within exactly 27 seconds. When it's not raining, it's humid. More than humid. It's damp.
Then, there's the "beach." The jungle gives way to sand about 100 feet from the sea. But this isn't a soft, white sand beach. It is coarse and dark and the ocean has wicked rip currents that cut away the shore leaving 2-3 foot cliffs. The currents also bring in lots of driftwood along with all manner of trash - bottles, cans, bits of plastic - which is strewn all along the shore. This beach is dirty and treacherous… yet this is the beach that sea turtles have used as their nesting grounds for centuries, and it is why Caño Palma is here today.
This is the beginning of the nesting season for leatherback and green sea turtles. When I arrived, I learned that last year they recorded 31 leatherback turtles nesting on the 3-mile stretch of beach that they monitor, but this year only two nesting turtles have been recorded since the beginning of March. While I've been here, two more have been seen… but not by me. And it is not for a lack of trying that I didn't see them. Every night, two teams of three people go out in two shifts - one from 8pm to 1am and one from 11pm to 4am - looking for nesting turtles, which, if observed, will have various bits of data recorded, including number of eggs, nest location, size and condition of the turtle. The nests are then monitored until the eggs are expected to hatch 60-70 days later. On the nights that we're scheduled to do turtle surveys, we walk 8-9 miles, in the dark, in the aforementioned terrible beach conditions. There's also a team that goes out for a morning survey at first light. This is not a volunteer gig for the faint of heart. It is a LOT of effort.
In addition to the turtle surveys, I've also been helping with other monitoring studies, including mammal and caiman surveys and a monkey behavior study. Except for the caiman work, the other surveys take place in the daytime which is good because I can see where I'm going, but equally difficult because of the stifling heat. We have to wear long pants and sleeves because of the myriad of dangerous critters in the jungle (biting ants, mosquitos, poisonous snakes), so we get our own personal sauna while conducting the surveys.
Living conditions are spartan - but decidedly upscale for a bio station in the middle of the jungle. There is wifi, running water (cold only - but who wants a hot shower here anyway?), dorm buildings with actual (bunk) beds, and a cook who prepares lunch and dinner (both of which include beans and rice) for the 12 or so people that are here. I am the oldest one. Shocking, I know. The majority are in college or recent grads who are getting some field experience. There are a few older 20- or 30-somethings who are perpetual field assistants, living on the small stipends and moving from one study to the next.
For the most part, there is great energy here with so many young whipper-snappers around, although it has been a bit quiet the last several days since we've all been putting in so much time and effort looking for turtles… and not seeing them. I assume it's just a slow start to the year, and they'll come in droves as soon as I leave. Of course, there's this little pang in my gut that says, with a beach that is so trashed and threats from poachers, pollution, shore erosion, development, etc. further reducing what is already a low survival rate (something like 1 out of 1000 eggs actually survive to adult and reproduce), how much longer can turtles sustain themselves on this beach?
Conservation is a field for optimists to be sure. You have to be an optimist to believe that what you're doing is making a difference. After so many years in this business and seeing so much there is to overcome, sometimes I question how long I can maintain that optimism. But the turtles are still willing to fight their way through the rip currents, beach cliffs and other obstacles, and so I'm willing to try to help them. Despite the achy muscles, blisters, and sleep deprivation, I'm glad I got to spend some time here seeing the work that's being done and reinforcing my commitment to contribute to conservation efforts when I get back home.