Costa Rica - Wildlife Refuge Laguna Urpiano

Time flies. It's been a year already. I am thoroughly enjoying my job at Oak Ridge National Lab.

I got used to much of the U.S. American weirdness and other differences to home. Deep-fried sushi, deep-fried pickles, shitty bread, disgusting tap water, cars everywhere, lots of driving and so on.

July last year, three friends and I spent two weeks in Costa Rica volunteering at the sea turtle refuge Laguna Urpiano - a breathtaking experience. I'm not sure where to start. The refuge is located on the eastern side of the country without any direct access except through a canal. There is no sewage, no tap water, no electricity. The refuge has a well, runs a generator to pump water, and some solar cells that charge batteries for lighting at night, and smart phones.

On the way to the refuge

The canal

The toilets, showers and a little shack at the refuge

The housing is simple wood with a metal roof, not completely closed.

Early morning, and sometimes during the day Howler Monkeys made a lot of noise. They live high in the trees so you can't see them well. But you can definitely hear them, when they argue with their neighbors! It's not that bad, though. You get used to it.

We spent our days planting trees, helping out with work at the refuge, relaxing, drinking fresh coconut milk, and most importantly guarding one kilometer of beach every night from about 22:00 to 4:00, if I remember correctly. Napping during the day is mandatory.

Sea turtle eggs and, depending on the species, parts of the turtle are valuable. If countries like Costa Rica would not try to secure breeding grounds for sea turtles, they would go extinct. Sea turtles are very vulnerable when they lay eggs. Plus, laying eggs takes long and poachers can most of the time easily find the nests.

So we went out every night, traversing the same one kilometer every 30 minutes. When we found a turtle, we took its eggs and brought them to the refuge and built a new nest there. When we encountered a poacher, we would wait for him or her to pass. The idea is to try and be the first at the nest. The unspoken rule is that you leave the finder alone with its nest. No guns, just a machete for safety and perhaps sticks.

I can't show you any pictures of our nightly walks, and no turtles, because turtles only come ashore at night. And they use the moon for navigation. We needed to be dressed darkly and use no light except a bit of red light for writing into a notebook. No flashes allowed.

There are a few different species of sea turtles landing here, but during early July only the Leatherback visits (You can find some pictures here: (1), (2), (3)). It can grow to around 2m and 700kg. We saw just two in all our time, but during high season there are lot more. Both turtles were around 1.6m long. Impressive animals - Huge!

This is the trail of a Leatherback to its nest. The actual nest is a 20 by 20 by 40 cm hole. The rest is dug up sand to hide its exact location.

This is the remains of a fight with the sea. A Leatherback turtle decided to lay its eggs in a bad spot. The waves came in too far. If the nest / the turtle gets wet in process, the turtle aborts its mission, goes back into the sea and takes a new attempt in the next few hours or days. So we fortified the position in hopes to keep the water in check. ...But to no avail. The turtle went back without laying its eggs.

Another day we were lucky and witnessed everything. It was amazing! Such a huge animal. Paddling across the beach, inch by inch. Then it used its back fins to dig the nest hole and put the eggs in. We saw the strain on her face from the exertion. By the way, the head of such a turtle is as large as a human's. I felt deeply in awe. After that the turtle did what looks like a dance and dug up sand here and there to hide the true position of the nest.

The refuge's hatchery

The beach was littered with crabs that would hide in little holes and come out if no one is around. A bit like Whack-a-Mole where they hide when you are near. Another type of crab repeatedly rides in on a wave and tries to catch small insects like flies. Then it stands there and watches and eventually runs back into the ocean. It was a fun pass time chasing them. ... Wave comes, wave retreats, crab remains on the beach and watches around, I run in between it and the sea to try and cut it off. If that was successful, which it rarely was, I'd chase it around and try to catch it :D. And of course I'd just free it again, afterwards. I admit I injured one in the process once.

Marinera crab in its hole

A pineapple plant

We spent the last few days in Puerto Viejo, a very touristy place. Lots of surfers, lots of Germans.

The prime customer in the rescue center is the sloth, because it's too slow to cross the street quickly, and often gets electrocuted while climbing an electric pole.

These volunteers socialize with monkey children. Monkeys need that to grow up healthy.

And then it was already time to go to San Jose, and catch the flight home.

I really enjoyed my time in Costa Rica, and recommend spending a vacation there. The people at the refuge took great care of us and helped us navigate the country.

Thank you Barbara, Johnny, Emilia, Pedro, Eliseo, Alan, Maylin, Elena, Suzette and Claire!

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