Hidden amongst the Tortuguero canals between the National Park of Tortuguero and the city of Limòn is the village of Barra del Parismina, Costa Rica. Located at the mouth of the Parismina river, this village is only accessible by boat or plane. Parismina is home to the grassroots, not-for-profit association ASTOP – “Association Save the Turtles of Parismina”. ASTOP is made up of locals with a concern for the future of sea turtles that nest on the beach. Due to an increase in poaching activities and environmental problems such as marine debris and fisheries bycatch, they partnered with the Costa Rician coast guard and formed ASTOP.
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Parismina is a common nesting site for four species of sea turtle including green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles. The turtle season is longer in Parismina than neighboring areas due to the large number of leatherback sea turtles that arrive to nest in the black sand dunes along these beaches. The sea turtles that nest here are listed as endangered and critically endangered. ASTOP focuses on the conservation and preservation of these turtles by assisting with reproductive activities and safeguarding their eggs. ASTOP empowers local individuals as much as possible which promotes sustainable development for the whole community. My primary responsibility was night patrol which included monitoring the beach of nesting turtles, assisting guides with the collection and relocation of eggs, and data collection. Hatchery Monitoring is another duty that is carried out by local guides and volunteers. The hatchery must be monitored constantly during the incubation and hatching period. These protective measures prevent the eggs from being stolen by humans and prevent predation of the eggs or hatchlings from wildlife threats. Turtle eggs are often preyed on by crabs, ants, and wild dogs which will raid the nest and eat the eggs. Once hatched they begin the treacherous hike to the water where they face predation from birds, crabs, and other animals that see them as a bite sized snack. The placement and monitoring of the hatchery ensures the eggs stay safe until they hatch, and to protect the young from wildlife predation until they can make it to the ocean.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to do a work term in Parismina with ASTOP and it was such a rewarding experience. Our group arrived in the village via boat and were separated into teams and living quarters. While there we lived with a local family that fed us and gave us a room to sleep. Night patrol shifts were determined from 8pm to midnight or midnight to 4 am. These shifts were during turtle nesting periods where we assisted local guides in monitoring nesting turtles, collecting and relocating eggs, and collecting data on each turtle.
Preparing for our night patrols required us to wear all black as to not give away the positions of nesting turtles to poachers. During the patrols we would hike for kilometers keeping our eyes open for any signs of tracks, a nest, or a turtle. When I spotted a leatherback turtle in person it was amazing how much like a dinosaur they are. The immense size and sounds of the turtle reminded me of Jurassic Park. Turtle tracks can be used to determine if the turtle was exiting or entering the water by examining the sand formations. When examining the tracks there is a direction in the sand that is formed from the push off on the fins. Turtle tracks were followed when finding the turtle or nesting location. Nests are well hidden once the eggs are buried, the turtle will mix the sand in a large area around the nest disguising the location . When laying their eggs the leatherback goes into a trance which enables us to approach without scaring her away.
When approaching the leatherback, one of us would get close behind her and place our arm in the nest to collect the yolk and yolk-less eggs. The numbers of yolk and yolk-less eggs would be collected along with the shell and fin measurements. The turtle was then observed disguising her nest and moving back to the ocean. The eggs were then relocated to the safe hatchery location or another safe location if the hatchery was too far. Every night was a different experience. Some nights there would be more turtle sightings than others. while other nights you arrive at nests already poached by humans or animals. While taking turtle measurements and collecting eggs a poacher approached us indicating another turtle further down the beach, this was to attempt to get us to leave the current turtle we were working with. We did not want to leave the turtle or her eggs so we sent someone to check his claim and watched the poacher until they got tired and left. Once safe the eggs were transported to the hatchery where we dug a nest and hid them. The most exhilarating situation was when we were collecting eggs for one leatherback turtle then another came out of the water near us to lay her eggs. Thanks to the conservation efforts by ASTOP, poaching has decreased from 98% to 38% in the last decade. The experience of participating in conservation and preservation work of these sea turtles was incredible and something I will always remember. If you are interested in volunteering for this organization and want to discover a new country and its culture you can apply through the ASTOP website.
Hi, my name is Steven and I have had a passion for marine and freshwater sciences since I was young. Growing up in Ontario we would visit the cottage often where my interest for fish and aquatic conservation grew. Over the years I have enhanced my terrestrial and aquatic knowledge through 8 years of college and university education. Moving out to Newfoundland became a big step in the marine science direction. I attended Memorial University of Newfoundland for a few years then got a job with the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium where my interest in marine sciences expanded. Being able to be part of the Mini Aquarium over the years has exposed me to numerous marine species and education tools. Working with the public has given me the outlook that through proper education, there will be more respect and understanding for our oceans and species that call them home.