Night watch volunteers protect turtle eggs in Costa Rica


Photo contributed by Naisy Flannery

Naisy Flannery recently traveled to Costa Rica to volunteer as a night watch person for turtles who were laying eggs in a nest in the sand.

Naisy Flannery, ’16, traveled to Costa Rica over winter break 2015-16 to work as a volunteer in a sea turtle conservation program. She also worked as a volunteer in Cloud Forest conserving and maintaining trails after the sea turtle program ended.

Flannery spent the first nine days working mostly with Pacific leatherback sea turtles. She was able to use expedition credits that she earned in place of money during her summer internship at Earthwatch in 2015 to fund her volunteer experience.

According to Faye Wilson, a volunteer from Houston, Texas who worked alongside Flannery, there were two parts to the sea turtle conservation program: protecting the leatherback turtles, their nests and hatchlings and collecting scientific data.

“They are linked in that the scientific research will help protect the turtles in the future,” Wilson said. “Nathan Robinson, the lead scientist would mark on a white board the tasks that needed to be performed; night patrol Ventana beach, night patrol North beach, night patrol South Beach, two different shifts in the hatchery and morning walk. Each volunteer would rotate between the tasks to ensure that they got to see everything.”

The night watch meant being in charge of the hatchery and watching for predators such as racoons and cats who make it past the fences and try to dig up the hatchling holes and eat the eggs.

“We bought this squirt gun and we’d squirt water at [the predators], sometimes we would throw sticks to scare them,” Flannery said. “That was one duty, to make sure that the hatchlings were safe and then if any were to come up during the night we would fill a little bucket of sand and water and put them in there until a biologist would come and they would release them down the beach.”

For the night patrol, the volunteers were required to patrol the beaches looking for turtle tracks and possible nesting turtles.

“You would walk for 20 minutes and wait a bit and walk for 20 minutes and wait,” Flannery said. “When the female turtle comes up to lay her eggs she tries to find the most optimal spot, but sometimes…if she’s new to the birthing process she doesn’t find the right spot and that’s when we have to intervene.”

Times when Flannery and other volunteers were required to intervene included when the female turtle attempted to lay her eggs in the tidewater area, in areas of high traffic or by bright lights.

“If we find a turtle…we have to approach them from the back so they don’t see us and then we decide what we’re going to do depending on where she is laying,” Flannery said. “When she’s finished with her hole, that’s when she begins to lay. If it’s in an OK area we let her lay the eggs in the hole she created but if not we take a bag and we catch them as she’s laying. Once she’s finished laying, we take her eggs…to the hatchery and we re-dig a hole ourselves and place them in there.”

Whether the team working decided to leave the eggs in the original hole the mother dug, or if they decided to relocate the eggs to the hatchery, they always placed a temperature detector in the nest with the eggs.

“The temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. Warmer temperatures would mean that all of the hatchlings are going to be female and colder temperatures mean they’re going to be male,” Flannery said. “They called it ‘hot chicks, cool dudes’. Now that it is warm in Costa Rica, most of the hatchlings are going to be females.”

The night patrol was a six-hour duty that began at high tide every night, as this is when the female turtles are most likely to crawl up onto the beach. The morning walk was a four-hour assignment, similar to the night patrol and that started every morning at 5 a.m. The morning walk required volunteers to walk the entire length of the beaches looking for turtle tracks and hatchling tracks to see if any of the hatchlings had hatched overnight and made it to the water.

There were a total of 11 volunteers who shared these three tasks over the nine days. As well as working with the turtles the volunteers also did a lot of outdoor activities in the area such as ziplining and snorkeling during the day when they were off duty.

“We were very tired but it was worth it,” Flannery said.

Flannery remained in Costa Rica in another, separate volunteer position after her nine days working with sea turtles had ended. This half of her trip was run through a small organization called The Volunteer Bay. Bailey Sheppard, ’16, was hoping to join Flannery in that experience but was unable, due to funding issues.

“I was hoping to go to Costa Rica for both the cultural experience and conservation work,” Sheppard said. “I personally believe a great way to better understand a different culture is to observe their relationship with the environment, which is why I was so enthusiastic about the conservation aspect of the trip.”

Flannery echoes this statement and said her experiences in Costa Rica have influenced what she wants to do post graduation.

“I wanted to [study] abroad but didn’t get a chance to, so this was kind of my experience and I think the biggest thing was culturally and understanding independence and being on my own in another country, there was a huge language barrier,” Flannery said. “As a senior I’ve been on my own for a while now, but this was a whole other level.

“I think that I’ve decided that I want to, after I graduate, continue working with sea turtles and hopefully go back to Costa Rica as a biologist. It’s really amplified my goals of being an environmental scientist.”