Costa Rica: La Tortuga Feliz

The Project: La Tortuga Feliz is a non-profit organization that works on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica to protect sea turtles with the help of volunteers. Their beach is a 10km strip, just south of Tortuguero National Park, and is the nesting site of many leatherback and green sea turtles.  I volunteered there for a week in November 2011.

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), are a species of sea turtle that live in subtropical and tropical locations throughout the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  Adults weigh an average of 68–190 kg (150–420 lb), and grow to be around 1.5 meters (5 ft) long.  They are mostly herbivorous, feeding primarily on seagrass.  Similar to many species of sea turtle, green sea turtles swim long distances and lay their eggs by burying them in sand on beaches usually during the night.  Unfortunately their eggs are hunted by many species, including humans, and green sea turtles are now listed as Endangered by both IUCN and CITES.

Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), are the largest species of turtles living today, and they are the fourth largest extant reptile after three species of crocodilians.  Adults can weight 250 to 700 kg (550 to 1,500 lb) and have an average carapace length of 1–1.75 m (3.3–5.74 ft). They have the widest distribution of any turtle species, living in all oceans from the Arctic Circle down to the Cape of Good Hope.  They feed almost entirely on jellyfish and have been known to migrate 9,700 kilometres (6,000 mi) for feeding.  After their eggs have been laid in beach sand, they hatch in 60-70 days and then the baby turtles head to sea where they will spend almost the entirety of their lives.

Since 2011, the management of La Tortuga Feliz has been performed by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), an international expert network of biologists, managers, community leaders and educators in more than 40 nations and territories.  And in 2012, they opened a new turtle rescue and rehabilitation center, where volunteers are also accepted.

The work: The type of work changes throughout the year depending on the reproduction stages of the various species of turtles. When I volunteered, green sea turtles were hatching and during my week-long stay we helped 101 baby green sea turtles safely reach the warm waters of the Caribbean. The work mostly consisted of guarding the turtle nests from poachers and various predators. Once the turtles hatch, they must be measured and weighed before they are released to make their way into the ocean on their own. Other work consists of maintenance around the grounds, building of nesting enclosures, and occasional dish duty.

How you can help: La Tortuga Feliz relies on the help from volunteers throughout the year to guard the hatcheries and for the general maintenance of the project, and this is the best way to help their organization.  Costs change throughout the year but in November are $25 USD per day which includes food and lodging.

For the conservation of sea turtles worldwide, it is helpful to understand how humans are impacting the reproduction of sea turtles. Sea turtles return to the same beach they were born in order to lay their eggs, and many times those beaches have undergone development, whether from industry or tourism. Baby sea turtles tend to hatch at night and climb through the sand to the surface. Once on the surface of the beach, they instinctively go towards the nearest source of light, which often tends to be the horizon. Unfortunately, with the development of resorts on many coastlines, sea turtles mistakenly follow these sources of light on shore and often end up dying.  Resorts that are built on or near nesting sites of sea turtles can implement lighting policies so as to reduce the risk of impacting sea turtle hatching, and if you are staying at a resort that does not have these policies in place where sea turtles are present, it would be helpful to bring up these issues to the resort management.