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Saving Sea Turtles during the Pandemic

Swish. The Caribbean Sea sweeps up the beach at Pacuare Reserve as a line of gloved high school students carefully extract the last of the season’s leatherback sea turtle hatchlings from sterilized bins, and release them just above where the waves seep into the sand. One day these tiny creatures will grow to be 800 pounds or more, and hopefully find their way back to this beach to nest. For now, as the flippered little ones scuttle to their permanent home, another season of leatherback conservation at Pacuare Reserve passes, once again with the help of hundreds of people.

a group of students release turtles to the sea on the beach at Costa Rica's Pacuare Reserve
Student groups returned to the shores of Pacuare Reserve in 2021

With the advent of the vaccine and border re-openings, this year Pacuare Reserve bustled with hundreds of volunteers, eco-tourists, students, and an even larger staff. Together, they walked 17,349 miles to monitor 665 sea turtle nests, protected 55,072 eggs, and released more than 29,000 hatchlings to their ocean home. Additionally, Pacuare Reserve celebrated an all-time low rate of illegal harvest. An area that once lost more than 80% of sea turtle eggs to human consumption saw that figure drop to less than 1% in 2021.

Pacuare Reserve holds one of the most important nesting beaches in the world for the leatherback—it safeguards an estimated 60% of nesting female leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica, part of the endangered Northwest Atlantic subpopulation of leatherbacks. Over the years, thousands of researchers, staff, students, and volunteers have monitored and protected these sea turtles, their eggs, and hatchlings from climate change, illegal harvest, and beach erosion.

For more than 30 years, EPI and Pacuare Reserve in Costa Rica have provided hands-on science education and conservation activities focused on leatherback conservation. Visitors to the Reserve help with nightly beach censuses for nesting mothers, threatened nest relocation, annual hatchery creation, hourly hatchery monitoring, and safe hatchling release.

a nest of leatherback sea turtles emerge from a nest while a group of students clean the beach in the background
Students and researchers prepare the beach for hatchling sea turtles

But, like so many in the global community, Pacuare Reserve faced uncharted waters with the outbreak of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic and widespread border closures, EPI was forced to shut down its volunteer and ecotourism programs and cancel its visiting student courses going to Pacuare Reserve. Sadly, the reserves just north and south of Pacuare Reserve were forced to close completely, leaving their nests unprotected during the pandemic.

However, when Costa Rica shut its borders, 17 local and international research assistants chose to stay on at Pacuare Reserve in a pandemic bubble—and continued to provide protection for nesting sea turtles, eggs, and hatchlings. These research assistants often worked more than 80 hours per week, walked up to 8 miles each night, protected more than 54,601 sea turtle eggs, and released 22,275 hatchlings. Donor support ensured that this team had the room, board, and research tools they needed to fuel their dedication.

Research Assistants and volunteers gather near the sea turtle hatchery – photo by Eduardo Rodríguez Romano

The impact that the pandemic had on sea turtle conservation work at Pacuare Reserve, and the response by these incredible research assistants and staff during the pandemic was recently published in the Journal of Biological Conservation, titled “Impact of 2020 COVID-19 Lockdown on Environmental Education and Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) Nesting Monitoring in Pacuare Reserve, Costa Rica.” EPI and Pacuare Reserve always seek to share what we’ve learned with other conservation groups and reserves to improve the odds for the leatherback’s survival.

For this season, the last lines of tiny polka dots from hatchling flippers are being swept away, and most visitors have returned home. In December, EPI staff at the Reserve will take a breath before starting new hatchery preparation again in January of 2022 for a whole new season of leatherback conservation. We are incredibly grateful to our research assistants, students, staff, and volunteers for their deep dedication to the wildlife at Pacuare Reserve.

You can help propel sea turtles at Pacuare Reserve toward a healthy future by supporting EPI’s Every Egg campaign, or by Adopting a Hatchling for yourself or a loved one. Or join us in Costa Rica and contribute to sea turtle conservation by diving into hands-on research during our Sea Turtle Ecology or Costa Rica Gap Year Programs.

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