La Tortuga Feliz, Costa Rica: Volunteering with sea turtles

Organization: La Tortuga Feliz


Location: Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Volunteer date: April 2015

Story and photos by Sonner Kehrt from the USA

It didn’t seem like luck was my partner during my two weeks at La Tortuga Feliz. That first week, one of the other volunteers saw nine turtles. I saw zero. “It’s alright,” I reasoned to myself, as the first week rolled into the second, and the first group of volunteers left. “I have all of next week.” But the second week hurried by, and each night I returned from patrol without seeing a turtle—at least not one I could call my own. In the pitch-black night, I squinted as my guides pointed out a few fuzzy dark shapes, barely moving in the surf. I wouldn’t have known they were turtles if I hadn’t been told, and I never got to see them transform into those prehistoric sea creatures; each time, the shapes melted back into the sea, never venturing onto the sand. But the night patrols of the beach were quiet and dreamy, and my days were a blur of naps in the hammock, games of cards, and intense but regular bursts of frantic digging in an attempt to save the hatchery from an overzealous tide. As the end of my second week drew near, I consoled myself with the fact that these other experiences made my time in Pacuare worthwhile, even without seeing a turtle—and they did. 

On the night of my final patrol, the warm balmy winds held the rain, inescapable every other night, at bay. I could tell the walk was coming to an end as I began to recognize the path and the trees not far from La Tortuga Feliz, and I silently congratulated myself, as if I had been responsible, for avoiding the rain: no soggy clothes to stuff in my bag when I left! I wasn’t even thinking about turtles; I had long since given up hope. But just as I was making the mental switch from patrol mode to bedtime mode, about ten minutes from the end of the patrol, I saw a dim red light ahead of us on the beach. We came across Mauricio with two other volunteers kneeling next to—could it be?—an enormous turtle. The other volunteer with me excitedly explained in Spanish that it was my first turtle, and the group graciously made room for me to crouch with them next to that strange, silent creature.

In the warm damp sand, she pushed her flippers back and forth and back and forth. We knelt in the shallow water and waited. The Caribbean night was silent, apart from the persistent beat of the tide, and the darkness hid a grin that stretched across my entire face. Her flippers slowed and finally, she was ready. We held the plastic bag under her, and I watched her eggs fall out, a few at a time. Each one held the potential for a new turtle, another group of volunteers, twenty or thirty years from now, crouching to cradle new eggs, the darkness hiding their own grins. Just as she finished, a soft rain began to fall. I walked back to La Tortuga Feliz, my clothes wet now, but my time in Costa Rica complete: I had seen a turtle.