Written by Kelly Tyndall at TravelCuts
When I got the chance to volunteer with GVI International, I jumped at the opportunity. I saw the program for Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica and thought that if I was going to offer a week of my time I wanted to do it somewhere different and unique, with wildlife that I cared about.
I flew into San Jose for a two-night stay at a local hostel before starting my volunteer placement. On the Saturday that my placement was due to begin, I was greeted at the hostel by GVI staff member, Vix, who prepped me for the journey to our Basecamp in the thick of Tortuguero National Park.
Taking a combination of coach and local buses, we made our way through small towns and tropical countryside until we eventually pulled into a small marina. There, a low canal boat was waiting to take us on the final leg of our adventure. During the boat ride we spotted crocodiles, herons, kingfishers, and other wild things living along the jungle canals. We finally reached our debarkation point, and readied ourselves for a walk through the bush to get to GVI’s home within the park.
Turning into Basecamp with the sun beginning to set, I saw the first glimpse of the three cabins that I would be calling home for the next seven days. One was a “mess hall” with a kitchen and dining area, and was also where we met each day. The other two were dorms with bathroom and shower facilities. Basecamp was surrounded by beautiful, tall palm trees and gorgeous flowering jungle bushes, and 200 metres past the front gate you could see the waves crashing against the shore.
Many of the volunteers, interns and staff on this program had been in Tortuguero for months and others would be staying long after I left. A normal volunteer term is anywhere from one to three months, with staff staying for six or more. I learned that GVI offers two wildlife conservation projects out of Tortuguero — the sea turtle program I was in, as well as a jaguar project. These two projects are so deeply intertwined as jaguars have begun predating on sea turtles in higher volume as their own habitat slowly shrinks due to deforestation.
The first project I was assigned was a “Jag Cam” walk along the beach to check on small, motion activated cameras that were set up along the five mile stretch of beach. The Jag Cams were set up every mile to monitor the movements of a group of around twenty jaguars in the park. After replacing batteries and memory cards, we took the full memory cards back to camp to watch what had been captured. Many of the cameras caught footage of vultures, leaves falling, or GVI staff walking past. Then all of a sudden, a clip appeared and there it was – a massive jaguar casually strolling through the same area of jungle I had just walked through. We pulled up similar views of other jags recorded in the area and matched the rosettes (spots on their hides), until we found a match and were able to identify the animal from the database.
I also accompanied one of the teams on a forest survey. With a wildlife book in hand, we marched along a “trail” that led miles into the thick of Tortuguero National Park. We documented animal sightings in our records and continued on the trek. We found birds of every colour, spiders that were so large and interesting that they no longer seemed terrifying, lizards that were so tiny they looked like twigs, and even monkeys that swung above the trees and gave us loud warning sounds to advise that we were impeding on their territory. The forest that once seemed void of movement, was suddenly alive with wildlife. Coming back to Basecamp, I came across a spider similar to one I had met my first night on project, and I instantly walked up closer to examine it to see if it was a smaller version of the Central American Jumping Spider that I had just photographed on my adventure.
Later, I was given a new challenge: night walks along the beach to check for nesting turtles and to measure and tag them for data reporting. Walking along the shoreline we paused and quietly watched a turtle emerge from the waves. It made its slow climb up the beach towards the forest line, and there it began to dig its body pit to prepare its nest. We watched as once it was deep enough into the sand it used its strong back flippers to carefully dig a deep hole and create an egg chamber. A staff member from Toronto who runs the sea turtle program at GVI, turned to me offering me a latex glove and a metal click counter. The team around me was preparing to measure the turtle and check for tags. I was to count the eggs as they were being laid into the egg chamber!
One thing I learned during this process is that while a turtle is laying eggs, she goes into an almost hypnotic state and you could move her and measure her and even put your hands under her body to catch eggs as they fall into the nest, allowing you to count them. As an egg fell into my hand, I would click the counter and then gently place them in the egg chamber below. After laying 128 eggs, the turtle began to bury her nest, so we recorded her tag and took measurements to put into the database that is shared around the world. For the next turtle that came up on the beach to nest, I was given the job of checking her for any injuries, barnacles or other abnormalities to the flippers or shell. This green sea turtle was over 123 cm long! Being able to be that close to such a powerful and enormous creature was one of the best moments of my life. As I watched this enormous figure slowly make her way back into the ocean, I realised why I was here.
The next morning, I woke to discover that my 6am walk along the beach would be to check nests and look for turtle tracks along the way. It was our job to spot hatchling’s tracks and to dig around in any nesting holes we found to see if any babies had been left behind from hatching that morning. We were shown how to dig carefully, without risk of harming any hatchlings and as we found hatchlings, we would set them down onto the sand and turned to watch as they flippered their way towards to the big, blue ocean.
After that my days became more habitual: waking up at 5am to eat breakfast and get to the beach for nest checks every morning; walking the seven miles just to return with a huge appetite for lunch; drinking almost eight litres of water a day just to sweat it all out; trekking through the jungle and along the canal, trying to spot birds and other wildlife so I could identify them in our book and record them in the database; then strapping on a red light head lamp and venturing out into the dark oceanside to work on nesting turtles, until we finally returned home to collapse from exhaustion and crawl into our bug net sanctuaries.
This trip had originally begun as a fun adventure to hang out with some cool sea turtles on a beach, but it turned out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging adventures of my life. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that volunteering on GVI’s conservation projects in Costa Rica gave me, because now I know what I can live without, what I can handle physically and mentally, and also how important it is to challenge yourself and to test your boundaries.