conservation tours

A Tour Of Turtle Projects in Costa Rica & Panama: Part I

Las Tortugas & Pacuare Leatherback Projects 

The journey to Costa Rica, other than most people wearing masks, was indistinguishable from pre-pandemic days. Long lines, full flights, annoyed travelers all abounded as I made my way to Costa Rica. Our plan was to get to as many turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica (and Panama) as we could pack into two weeks, joining our leatherback trip, visiting partners that we support through our Billion Baby Turtles program and checking out sites for new conservation trips.

We started off with dinner at my favorite restaurant in the country, Tin Jo, a pan-Asian restaurant that has been providing a diverse menu for more than 20 years. Joining my companion and I was Luna, a Brazilian student who was heading to Tortuguero National Park to be a research assistant with the Sea Turtle Conservancy for the next six months. Luna was a runner-up of our first Sea Turtle Inclusivity Fund scholarships, winning money to help cover her travel expenses. We learned about her experiences working with sea turtles in her native Brazil and her excitement for working on one of the world’s most famous nesting beaches.

The next morning, our group of travelers met to head out to the Caribbean coast for our Costa Rica Leatherback Turtle conservation trip. Our group was a diverse set of folks ranging from college students to retirees and all were excited to see their first leatherback turtles. On the way, we stopped at Jardin Pierella, an extraordinary oasis of wildlife in the Sarapiqui region. There we saw many species of birds, including the great green macaw, a wildlife success story that had fewer than 50 breeding pairs when I first worked in Costa Rica in 2000 but is now recovering. We also saw aracari’s (a type of toucan), poison dart frogs, sloths, and blue morpho butterflies. On the way out, as a heavy rain fell, we spotted a two-toed sloth making its way quickly (for a sloth) along a power line (which can be dangerous to wildlife).

Aracari (photo by @lulumuse)

Aracari (photo by @lulumuse)

Red-eyed tree frog (photo by @lulumuse)

Red-eyed tree frog (photo by @lulumuse)

 From there, we met a boat to take us the final leg of our trip to the Las Tortugas Station on the northern Caribbean coast. Our group did not have to wait long before seeing their first leatherbacks after we arrived. As we moved our bags from the boat to the rooms, we were alerted by project staff that some hatchlings had emerged. We quickly made our way to the beach to help measure a sampling of the baby leatherbacks and then release them to the water. After a break and dinner, the group readied to head out to the beach dressed in dark clothes to walk the nesting beach looking for leatherbacks.

Leatherback hatchling

Leatherback hatchling

 Our group split into two to divide up the beach and on our way to the further section, we came across our first adult leatherback. “Oh my god,” exclaimed one traveler upon seeing the giant (though small for the species) turtle digging its nest. This one was 140 centimeters (about 4 ½ feet) long, one of the smallest turtles recorded at Las Tortugas this season (though that length does not include their long heads). Several group members helped with the research, holding its back flipper to better access the eggs, writing down the data, measuring the turtle, and bringing the eggs to the hatchery for safekeeping.

A second leatherback followed later that evening, a great start for the first two nights at this point in the season (which starts in March and peaks in April/May.) On the way back to the station, we found a hawksbill nest, which the station biologist Tamara expertly found, even though I had been skeptical the turtle had laid her clutch. All of the nests were safely transported by project researchers to the hatchery for safekeeping.

Nesting leatherback turtle (photo by @lulumuse)

Nesting leatherback turtle (photo by @lulumuse)

 The next day, the group’s first full day at the station, just happened to be World Oceans Day and the official start of Sea Turtle Week! As the coordinating group for the week, it was great fun to be in the field with the turtles during the third year we worked on it. The week was a tremendous success with more than 170 participating organizations and 10 million people reached through social media, both records by a large margin.

We celebrated with a great presentation on turtles by the project biologist Tamara, followed by some nest excavations where the old nests are dug up to look for stragglers and collect data on the eggs that did not hatch. Also, puppies! One of the station’s dogs had puppies whose eyes were just beginning to open. The group also took a walk in the nearby forest, seeing two species of monkeys (howlers and spider monkeys), and saw a three-toed sloth in a tree by the station. That evening, as the group was about to head out to patrol, we were alerted of a turtle nesting right in front of the station, perfect for one of our group who was not able to complete the longer patrols. Las Tortugas is truly a heaven for animals.

The next morning, our group participated in a beach clean-up, helping to clear the beach of both natural debris (which can prevent hatchlings from reaching the water) and trash that washes up from around the world. Plastic waste can be a threat to sea turtles in many ways and by helping keep the beach clean, we improve the chances of survival for the hatchlings.


 That afternoon, my companion and I left on a boat to visit another leatherback beach further north along the Caribbean coast, the Pacuare Station run by Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). Their president Didiher Chacon, my former boss and mentor and a leading turtle conservationist in the country, and I discussed our shared work on the tortoiseshell trade and possibilities to support new nesting beaches in the country. Later we met the staff, including the philosopher poet Leo, a fascinating and inspirational activist who has worked across the region on conservation and social issues (see video below).

We headed out for a patrol that evening on this pretty unique stretch of beach. Unlike many other nesting beaches, Pacuare is not in a protected area and the nests are actively illegally collected by some local residents. To keep peace with the community, since LAST does not have law enforcement power, there is an unwritten agreement with egg collectors that whoever arrives to the turtle first gets the eggs. The rate of nests illegally collected varies from year to year but this year it has been more than 50%. The pandemic only worsened the situation for the turtles, with fewer people out patrolling and more people in need of food and income.

 Our run of luck continued with a nesting turtle shortly into the patrol. This was another smaller leatherback, one relatively fast in comparison for its speed during the nesting process. We were treated to both slaps from the turtles long front flippers as we tried to measure her as well as some bits of sand in the eyes and mouth as she camouflaged her nest. After taking her eggs to the hatchery, we crashed for the night to prepare for a long day of travel the next day.

This morning we headed down the canal that runs parallel to the Caribbean coast from Tortuguero to Moin. A beautiful ride included the wonderful scent of Ylang Ylang (where Chanel No. 5 comes from) as well as birds, monkeys, and more. We pulled into Moin and met our colleagues from Latin American Sea Turtles and visited their hatchery across from the giant new port that brings in goods to the country. LAST has patrolled this long stretch of beach going north since 2015, which was previously open to illegal egg collecting. Due to their hard work, this beach now releases more than 10,000 hatchlings per year.

From there we headed south for a couple of days of rest in Puerto Viejo, along the southern Caribbean coast. Though this area has become much more upscale than 20 years ago when I worked on Playa Negra to the north, the area retains its laid-back Caribbean vibe. One of my jobs 20 years ago was to scout the local artisan stands on the lookout for tortoiseshell products, which I fortunately never found. So it was with a bit of déjà vu that we visited the beachfront stands testing a new app that we are developing that will recognize these products from photos. Other than one product that we were told was real tortoiseshell (though we believed it was not real), the area remains tortoiseshell-free to our delight.

 Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!