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Field research in Costa Rica and the giant, dexterous, imperturbable leatherback turtle

Last winter, for the second time in two years, I volunteered with the Leatherback Trust, an organization dedicated to saving leatherback sea turtles. I had just finished my first semester of graduate school, six months of theory, classroom-based learning, and case studies. Albeit brief, time in the field with my human and animal friends in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, was crucial in reminding me of the on-the-ground work needed to achieve environmental conservation.

The Problem, The Research

Sea turtles have been around since before the Jurassic period; yet in a matter of decades, due to human activity, six of the seven species of sea turtles are in danger of extinction. Leatherbacks, the largest sea turtle, can reach a shell length of 1.7 meters and can weigh over 2,000 pounds. In 1980 there were over 115,000 adult females, but now there are less than 25,000 worldwide and they are close to extinction in the Pacific Ocean. Leatherbacks play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem by regulating jellyfish, which helps maintain a healthy fish population.

Because of leatherback hatchlings’ vulnerability to predators, dehydration from the sun (for this reason they tend to hatch at night) and myriad other challenges, only 1,000 leatherback hatchlings reach adulthood. Among those that do survive, however, they enjoy no natural predators. As such, the drastic decline in their population can be linked entirely to man. Turtle eggs are considered aphrodisiacs; therefore, egg poaching is a common practice. Additionally, bycatch from harmful fishing practices is a key contributor to the dramatic decline in population.

Climate change has been a factor as well: The temperature of the nest determines the sex of leatherbacks. If the nest is above 29.4 degrees, the hatchlings will be female. Due to the warming of the planet, the ratio of males to females is off-balance. To research more about the leatherbacks, I would strongly suggest visiting the Leatherback Trust (the source of all technical information in my post).

Working with Las Tortugas

The work, which was often a literal walk in the park, was no walk in the park. Collecting data on the turtles is as arduous as it is meticulous. It took extraordinary effort, but the biologists were unyielding in their pursuit of data. Our days were spent carrying buckets of water, excavating nests, triangulating nest locations, collecting nest temperatures, guarding the hatchery, and — when time permitted — wading in the Pacific. It was exhausting, and the work was done on little sleep or food. Despite the physical demands, I loved every minute of it.

At night we did the real work: patrolling the beach looking for turtles. In pairs, we combed the beach looking for leatherbacks, olive ridleys, and black turtles. We walked. And walked. And walked. Often we did not see a single turtle. Due to the hours (depending on the tides, the work ended as late as 5:00 AM) and the physicality of the work, power naps were a necessity. With my head on a log, my body nestled in the sand, staring at the moon and countless stars, I fell asleep to the rhythmic beatings of the Pacific. The romanticism of the situation and natural beauty of the park ameliorated my disappointment stemming from the lack of sea turtles. However, the true magic of nature showed herself when what looked to be a shockingly slow ATV wheeled out of the shadows of the Pacific to lay her eggs.

The leatherback laying practice is, well, involved. Despite the fact that the laying turtle’s huge body prevented her from being able to see her own butt, and that she was in a hormonal trance, she was incredibly dexterous. With back flippers about the size of dinner plates, she would carefully scoop up dirt and throw it to the side. She would then painstakingly pad the sides of the wall to reinforce the nest and lastly she would measure it with her flipper to ensure proper depth. It was incredible. Even from my apartment in Baltimore many months later, I can summon the smell of sand, ocean, and turtle, and be back on that beach.

When the nest was just to her liking, she would cover her cloaca (where eggs, and anything else she can excrete comes out of) and begin to lay.  In order to get a proper egg count, I would need to gently push the flipper to the side in order to see how many eggs were laid. I held her powerful flipper and felt spasms run through her body as she laid each egg. She must have known I was there, but she did not flinch.

After laying the eggs, the turtle covered the nest, camouflaged her tracks and retreated back to the ocean. Watching a 1000-pound creature wheel herself to the water with her powerful front flippers is truly a sight to see. Exhausted, she journeyed back to the ocean, slipping into the Pacific, occasionally bopping her silly-looking head to the surface. Watching her, I often felt proud of her accomplishments, hopeful for her future, bummed that my friend was leaving, and concerned for her hatchlings.

Leatherback Hatchlings: The Rocky Balboas of the Sea

Leatherback hatchlings epitomize underdogs. They face countless issues beyond their control. The eggs are prey for numerous critters, only 60 percent of non-eaten eggs will hatch, countless hatchlings will be eaten on their first schlep to the water, and even more will be eaten when they enter the water.  However, as mentioned before, the biggest problem is man. We did a lot to support the little hatchlings. The Leatherback Trust had created a hatchery, which we patrolled 24/7. We would excavate all nests to retrieve any hatchlings that did not make it up to the surface. Lastly, we would walk hatchlings to the water to prevent any predators from having an easy snack. (We would not place them in the water, as the lessons and activity from their journey to the sea are essential to their development.) This is a controversial practice, but in the eyes of many biologists, it is entirely necessary.

The hatchlings were only about 2-3 inches long. A hatchling that could fit in your palm could weigh 10 times your weight in only 10 years!  It was inspiring to watch these unflappable little guys work their way to the ocean. No matter how many times they flipped over, no matter how many times they got thrown back by the ocean, no matter how unreachable a retreating tide seemed — they just kept going.

Relevant Lessons

I am now a major consumer of scientific data. My summer internship, examining market-based mechanisms to curtail illegal logging, relies entirely on strong scientific and economic data. When examining issues such as the effects of forest certification on clouded leopards, I often think about my time volunteering with the leatherback trust. (This is aided by the fact that my desk came pre-equipped with a sea turtle poster!) More salient, however, is my appreciation of the link between science and policy. Policy does not exist without good science, and conservation science can be severely helped or hurt by governmental policies. Recent legislation such as the Lacey Act and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are important steps to promoting conservation on a national and international scale. But the implementation, evaluation, and enforcement of these types of laws are toothless without a basic understanding of the species they aim to protect.

My sister, a successful litigator, once explained to me that when fighting a battle, feelings don’t matter — only facts. This mantra is essential to saving species such as sea turtles, tigers, and Peruvian mahogany. Conservationists — a group I pride myself of being a part of — have taken on a career that is essentially fighting battles. Without data, and good data at that, we are little more than opinionated people. Simply put, individuals’ love for a species won’t save it. Proving humanity’s effect, and the associated ramifications of species population decline, is paramount. 

As I further immerse myself into the world of conservation I find myself relating many lessons to those nights on the beach, the group of very dedicated biologists who allowed me to assist in their work, and the utterly inspiring turtles, which, no matter the odds, were unperturbed, unintimidated, and unfazed by the innumerable challenges facing their existence.

Daniel Abrahams ’12 is a second-year student at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Excellent insight. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
# Posted By Scott Rabinowitz | 6/20/11 2:14 PM
Nice post for a newbie like me, and really interesting. Thanks !

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# Posted By Roger | 7/8/11 1:52 AM
the Dermochelys coriacea is not covered in a hard shell but more of a fleshy leather skin where i gets its name it was a wonderful trip i hope to make it again

# Posted By Matt | 7/23/11 1:19 AM
To be able to endure days caring for something in the brink of extinction show forth true love and courage.
# Posted By Pumps Australia | 8/24/11 11:12 AM
The leatherback turtle is an incredible creature, what a rush to see one while snorkeling. It was great!
# Posted By TV Pura Vida | 9/17/11 12:28 PM
I always thought watching newly hatched baby turtles run for their lives to the water is one of nature's saddest events. This must have been a life-altering experience for you. Let's hope smart young people like you can figure out a way to save the 6 species that are now endangered.
# Posted By Rickie Dotstry | 9/21/11 10:12 PM