The summer of my junior year I had the privilege of going on a trip with other students from my school to Costa Rica and Panama through the program Ecoteach, whose focus is hands on ecological conservation and volunteerism. Costa Rica is known for its rich biodiversity and eco tourism. The focus of our trip was leatherback sea turtle and manatee conservation; both are endangered species.
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Leatherback sea turtles are the largest all the sea turtles, and have few nesting places worldwide. Costa Rica has become one of their last strongholds, and there is now an effort to protect the species before they are gone. The eggs are incorrectly thought to be an aphrodisiac, and locals poach them to make a popular drink. Nighttime beach patrols discourage poachers and allow us to watch for female sea turtles coming ashore to nest. Often eggs are transferred to a hatchery where they can be more easily protected and monitored.
Our first major destination was Estacion Las Tortugas, or the Turtle Station. Located on the east side of Costa Rica, or the Caribbean side, the station is accessible only after a long drive through banana plantations, the road eventually gives way to canals, traveled by small outboard boats or canoes. The Pacific side of the country is more tourist heavy, while the east side is more rural and unfortunately, mosquito heavy. I highly recommend bug spray and lightweight, long sleeve, quick drying clothing.
Sadly, no adult sea turtles came to nest during our stay, but I was able to witness the hatching and release of baby leatherbacks. They look so fragile and adorable, it made me want to pick them up and help them make the long trek across the beach to the water. However, this wouldn’t be healthy for them because they need to build up strength, pulling themselves across the beach and “imprinting” the chemical signature of the sand, allowing them to return to the same beach where they were hatched as adults.
Next we headed south to Panama to the San San Pond Sak Manatee Project. Our stay at this station was one of the highlights of the trip for me. I loved the building, a pieced together two-story thing with an upper deck, hammocks, and a narrow walkway going around. Thankfully there was a mosquito net for each bed because the mosquitos, as our guide said, were, “as big as helicopters.” The natural beauty of the surrounding tropical rainforest and the Caribbean combined with the thrill of seeing a leatherback sea turtle come ashore, as well as a manatee cow and calf, far outweighed any small annoyances. Facts and measurements do nothing to prepare you for the sheer size and beauty of adult leatherbacks. I find it amazing than such an animal is able to drag themselves ashore, with their heavy weight and body adapted for life at sea. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and makes the female very vulnerable, yet she must in order to lay her eggs. The entire process takes a couple of hours, and was a truly amazing sight throughout.
The trip also included white water rafting, a zip line ride, a visit to one of the last remaining indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, the Bribri, a stay at Don Juan’s organic farm, and a visit to Arenal, an active volcano known to be one of the most dangerous in the world.
For anyone wanting a trip where they can fully experience the natural world while actively working to protect it, a trip such as this would definitely fit the bill.
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