I don’t like the feeling of wet sand, but when I was told to get on my stomach to help catch a leatherback sea turtle’s eggs on the beach, I was so captivated that I didn’t think twice.
This summer, I visited Pacuare Reserve in Costa Rica with my family. The Reserve encompasses 1700 acres of lowland tropical forest on the east coast of the country. Employees and volunteers at the Reserve study and protect the many animals that inhabit the area, including the nesting grounds for some of the Reserve's most beloved animals: sea turtles. Growing up in Arizona, mangroves, humidity, and brackish waters have never been part of my daily life, let alone howler monkeys, two-toed sloths, and sea turtles. I was totally out of my element, and everything we did felt like an adventure.
We explored the surrounding canals and forests with our guides, where we spotted caimans wading in the murky water, and lines of carpenter ants waving bits of leaves like little green flags. During our stay at the Reserve, I was surprised by how involved we were in conservation work.
My family was invited to participate in a census, a nightly operation where the Reserve’s employees walk 5 km of coastline to monitor sea turtles coming ashore to nest. We jumped on the opportunity—it’s not everyday that you get invited to a sea turtle nesting party.
That night, we joined Jaimie, a jolly English woman and a passionate cephalopod enthusiast, on her census. Because white light can distract nesting turtles, we walked the beach with only the moonlight to guide us. We kept our eyes peeled for anything that moved. We walked up and down the beach for almost an hour and a half and came across nothing. Every promising candidate turned out to be large rock or piece of driftwood. We were just nearing the end of our walk when we saw a rock … that was moving!
A giant leatherback sea turtle was coming ashore. Jaimie carefully approached it, and once she could see it was starting to dig its nest, she gave us a thumbs-up to come over. We were standing behind a giant. There’s nothing quite like seeing an animal in the wild to appreciate how massive some of them are. This leatherback sea turtle had a head the size of a bowling ball!
Jaimie flipped on her red light, and we watched the turtle’s flippers, like huge shovels, delicately scoop out sand, deepening the nest. Once the turtle stopped digging, Sarah placed a large, tubular plastic bag into the nest and asked me to help her hold the bag. At first, I couldn’t see the eggs, but I felt them falling into the bag in small batches. When nesting, a leatherback sea turtle can lay up to 100 eggs. The fertilized eggs, about the size of tennis balls, come first. I saw the bag slowly start to fill up, and the sea turtle’s eggs got smaller. These were her unfertilized eggs, which was our cue that she was finishing up.
Jaimie hopped out of her kneeling position, quickly withdrawing the long plastic bag full of shiny white eggs just as the sea turtle began pushing her huge flippers to fill up the hole behind her. We wondered how the sea turtle didn’t notice our presence, especially with all the ruckus we were making behind her. But when sea turtles begin laying their eggs, they enter a trance-like state. The mama leatherback didn’t even know we were there. Now it was time to measure the turtle. Using a tape measurer, we measured her shell from front to back, and from side to side. She was 135 cm across.
After measuring her, we stepped away and let the sea turtle finish burying her nest. Within another half-an-hour, she would head back into the ocean, and her hatchlings would be in the care of the Reserve.
Leatherback sea turtles are under threat from the changing climate and illegal egg harvesting. When the Reserve was founded in 1989, 98% of nests were illegally harvested. To combat this, the Reserve relocates eggs from their original nest to a hatchery, which simulates nest conditions. In 2022, only 0.7% of nests were illegally harvested. Since its inception, the reserve has saved over 1.8 million eggs, and released more than 750,000 baby turtles.
As we walked away from the sea turtle, my dad said that seeing the work Jaimie and others do at the Reserve restored some of his faith in humanity. There’s no shortage of bad news in the world, especially when it comes to our impact on the environment.
It takes very little to find despair. But we are now more aware than ever about what we could lose, which is causing many to take action. The most wonderful thing is seeing people fight to make the world a little better in any way they can. The people I saw at the Reserve were doing just that.
Kaden's stay at the Reserve gave him a glimpse at the many conservation opportunities with EPI. Studying strategic communications with a focus on mass science communication at Arizona State University, Kaden wants to hone his skills as a Multimedia Intern with EPI Yellowstone. If you have a passion for conservation and communication, email Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org for how you can help make this internship a reality.