Sea Turtle Rangers, Part 2 is the second in a series by turtle researcher and PhD candidate Christine Figgener: Chris has taken valuable time during turtle nesting season in Costa Rica to stop and share her thought-provoking personal insights into the world of these unsung local heroes of marine conservation. —
A Day in the Life of a Sea Turtle Ranger
The daily routine varies from project to project, but a typical day starts with breakfast around 8 AM at the station. Everybody (local assistants, international researcher, and volunteers) file into the camp kitchen after a long night of work to grab a mug of good Costa Rican coffee and a serving of “Gallo Pinto,” the one and only Costa Rican breakfast dish made from rice and beans. Over breakfast, the night’s events are shared among each other: how many turtles did you have? How many nests did you relocate? Where to (elsewhere on the beach or to the beach hatchery)? Did female XY come back? Did you see John Doe poaching? Did we miss any turtles and nests? (photo – Burt Jones)
The day continues with lunch at midday. After lunch, there is more to be done, such as building the beach hatchery (at the beginning of each season), which means shoveling and sifting sand for several hours. Or it might be a beach clean-up to remove drift wood and plastic debris so females are provided a safe nesting environment, and, later, for their offspring as they begin their long and dangerous voyage to the open ocean. (photo – Christine Figgener)
The All Important Nightly Patrol
During nesting season the beach is patrolled every night in two shifts (7:30PM-Midnight, Midnight-4:30 AM). To make things easier, the beach is split into 3 sectors of approximately 2.5 km each.
At 7:00 PM, the research assistants leading the early night patrol gather to check their equipment and meet up with their respective volunteers. At 7:30 PM, the first shift heads out and will walk their section of beach up and down for four hours, hoping to encounter nesting females before they start laying their eggs.
Eggs will be counted, measurements taken, and the female will be tagged or identified. In some cases, the eggs need to be relocated to a more suitable spot on the beach. If the nest is left natural, the area will be camouflaged so poachers will not find them. (photo – Christine Figgener)
At midnight, the next shift arrives on the beach. Equipment and a run-down is passed on to the next crew. The first shift walks back to the station, and after a quick shower, falls into bed to grab some sleep before breakfast at 8 AM. The last person on the beach is usually the morning survey at 5 AM. This person checks that no turtles and nests were missed and that nobody tried to poach any of the camouflaged or relocated nests.
It’s A Tough Life
My words might conjure romantic images of swaying palm trees, starry nights, and night-time strolls on Caribbean beaches, but the reality is that it is a tough life.
Your mind and body enters a state of chronic sleep-deprivation. We usually only sleep an estimated 3-6 hours per night. Our local assistants have been doing this for many, many years now. It can be quite miserable walking the beach, when it is pouring down on you for hours. When black flies are eating every piece of your skin they can get a hold of. Or when you fall asleep while walking, your knees giving way under you.
Many assistants develop unhealthy sleep patterns, like insomnia, as well as knee, back, and hip problems from constantly walking in soft sand with a significant slope. One might say, it is only for 5-6 months out of the year, and they have days off during the week, but the reality is that the years working with sea turtles take their toll. (photo -Christine Figgener)
International researchers might do this work for a few years, while they get their graduate degrees or move on to higher positions, but our local research assistants are walking the beaches year after year after year…
Wilberth, A Sea Turtle Hero
One of these silent heroes is Wilberth, a skinny, short guy in his mid-40s, originally from Nicaragua. He used to poach to make a living in a new country, but he became acquainted with some sea turtle researchers and came over to the other side about 15 years ago.
Wilberth can find a leatherback nest like no other, quick and without even breaking a single egg. It is a skill that is extremely valuable and one he’s very proud of. He was one of my first mentors on the beach, showing me how to find a turtle nest poacher-style, how to tag a turtle, and how to let me know what the turtle is doing in Spanish. (photo – Wilberth Villachica)
He now maintains a sea turtle conservation project at one of the most secluded beaches in Costa Rica, basically all by himself. You can only reach the project by foot after a several hour rocky car ride. Most of the time he is there by himself, sharing the beach with jaguars, tapirs, crocodiles, and of course, turtles. He does not complain and heads out onto the beach every night to collect data on nesting females and to relocate nests. During the day, he hangs out at a rustic station, cooks for himself, and walks to a certain point on the beach so that he can have a few minutes of cell phone service. Every few days, he hikes over a mountain to a meeting place where his food is left in a big cooler.
He does all of this for a small salary, health insurance, and his love for sea turtles.
He is getting older though, and when I see him, I can see the marks of sleepless nights deeply carved into his features, and I worry. He smokes too much, and eats too little, but when I ask him if he thinks about doing something else, he just laughs it off. The question of course is, what else could a guy like Wilberth do? He did not finish school, and has done sea turtle work for most of his adult life, not exactly a skill that is easily applicable elsewhere.
By Christine Figgener, a Blue Ocean Network contributor
Stay Tuned for More Turtle Talk
Part 3, of Sea Turtle Rangers explores the future for the next generation of rangers? While the older rangers could barely read and write the younger generation has completed high school and have other options for employment. Is the sea turtle ranger a dying trade?
Christine Figgener is a marine biologist that has been working in community-based sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica since 2007. A PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at Texas A&M, Chris has worked for several local and international NGOs in Latin America. Chris caused a stir in 2015 when she and her team discovered a straw stuck in a turtle’s nose; They shared the video, turning the sea turtle into a poster child and helped an eco-movement go viral.
In the midst of all this turtle activity, Chris co-founded COASTS (Costa Rican Alliance for Sea Turtle Conservation and Science), a grass-roots organization aimed at empowering the next generation of local scientists and stakeholders to become active in sea turtle conservation throughout Costa Rica.
Blue Ocean Network is proud to support the high impact PhD research Chris is doing, and YOU CAN TOO! Lend a hand (or a flipper!) at this GoFundme Campaign.
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