Location: Pacuare Reserve, Near San Jose, Costa Rica
Being here in the Pacuare Biological Reserveon the Caribbean coast has given me a renewed appreciation for Costa Rica’s beauty. Our journey from the capital city of San Jose began with an early morning bus ride through the mountains to a small farming community on the Caribbean coast. Once we arrived, we piled into the back of a rickety pickup truck and bounced down a dusty trail through acres of banana plantations. At the end of the road we came to the edge of the rainforest. We transferred our bags into a dinghy and proceeded to navigate the swampy, alligator-filled stream that led to the coast. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, we arrived and were greeted at a small weatherworn dock by a host of Costa Ricans (affectionately known as ticos) with their smiling children. We would be spending the next four days as volunteers on a coastal reserve that protects endangered leatherback turtles who come to this beach, the very same beach where they were born more than 50 years before, in order to lay their eggs.
The beach protected by the reserve stretches six kilometers to the north and is patrolled every night from nine pm until six in the morning. Here, between March and June, baulas, enormous leatherback turtles, swim north from Venezuela on a four-year cycle that carries them all the way past Spain and Africa, on their way back to Costa Rica to lay between 80-100 eggs in a nido, or nest. Unfortunately, these eggs are considered delicacies and are sold illegally on the black market in the nearby port city of Limón.
The reserve itself borders a beach and occupies a small area half the size of a football field. The landscape is comprised of four cabins, a little dining room and a string of hammocks lining the shore. The only source of entertainment is a volleyball net in the center of the courtyard; the entertainment of course, coming from watching us gringas in a pathetic attempt to join in the game. There is no electricity here so we use only candlelight and lanterns to navigate in the darkness. It is this very darkness, stretching as far as we can see and further than we can imagine, that summons the beginning of our adventure.
We are here for four days and three nights as volunteers, helping to give the tortugas a better chance to escape the hueveros, or poachers. On the first night we leave our cabin around 10 p.m. It is not long before we encounter our first mother turtle. We are still. She is immense and powerful. Slowly, she makes her way across the sand. She is as large as those turtle-shaped kiddie pools, at least five feet from head to tail. We are motionless as we wait. When she begins to lay her eggs, we move in to assist her.
We see immediately that she is missing one of her back flippers. Our guide tells us that it has most likely been bitten off by a shark some time ago. Despite its absence, she still goes through the motion of using her flipper to clear out the nest. I reach down and, with both hands, scoop out sand as she labors methodically, though uselessly. It is instinctual for her, just as the impulse to help her is instinctual for me. Together we finally dig her nest to the right depth and she is able to lay her eggs. Without my help, she surely would have retreated back into the water without carrying on her legacy.
Minutes earlier, I’d had no idea what our job would entail, but in the moment, something takes hold of me; I just act. Kneeling in the cold sand, I am speechless, in complete awe of the strength and perseverance of this mother turtle. It is three o’clock in the morning. Everything is so calm and peaceful. Being on the beach, listening to the gentle crash of the waves, blanketed by a moonlit sky of stars, I think of all the ways I have spent three o’clock in the morning and can’t think of a time when I have seen the ocean so late at night. The ocean feels so different when you are deep in the wilderness; it is like standing on the edge of vastness. To be alone, yet to feel completely surrounded by the stars, by the sea and by all of the creatures peering out from the edge of the rainforest is at the same time scary and comforting. The rest of the night is spent walking up and down the beach, relocating eggs to safer locations and disguising the area to prevent poachers from finding them. It is practically morning when we finally get back to our cabin. Up in my bunk, as I close my eyes, I can hear scorpions scurrying below the bed.
As I gear up for another night out on the beach, I feel a tropical mist in the air. As the heat fades and the sea and sky become one, my new five-year-old friend Marisol tells me that a summer shower is near. We are out on the beach with our drinking cups, building sand castles, waiting for the rain to try to scare us away. I look down the beach at the miles that stretch out beyond us and wonder where inside of myself I will find the strength to go out again tonight. Then I remember the power of the mother turtle, swimming through the shark-infested waters after her four-year trek to reach this coast. She doesn’t question it; she knows what she has to do. I remember her strength as she painstakingly works to bring life into the world. I see again in my mind her keen intuition and her graceful patience. It is in this realization that I find the courage I will need in order to face the darkness, the storms, the poachers and the obstacles that may lie in my path. I have seen something out there in the darkness that has shown me that our planet and the life on it is so much more beautiful and complex than I ever knew from the places I had visited before.
Lying on the beach that night, after helping seven turtles lay their eggs safely, I am full of excitement and exhaustion at the same time. I am looking up at the full moon from this place in the sand, a place I never dreamed I would find myself, a place that everyone should be so lucky to visit at least once in their lifetime, and already I have the sense that because I will carry this experience with me forever, I will never be the same again; and so I take in a deep breath and just let it be.
Anna Tiven spent an academic semester in Costa Rica as a Latin American Studies major at Middlebury College in Vermont. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California where she works in the action sports industry.
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