LAST Week One: In At The Deep End

Yesterday marked the end of my first week at the Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) Osa project. I’ve already learned a lot and have a much better idea of what the next nine weeks of my life are going to look like!

I met the other research assistants in San Jose on the 18th, and on the 19th we all took the eight-hour bus down to Playa Blanca on the Osa Peninsula. We didn’t have much time to settle, as we almost immediately went to meet our first group, 18 high school kids from Texas. Luckily this wasn’t really much work on our part – they were receiving the orientation presentation from the on-site biologist and coordinator, and we only needed to listen along with them.

One of the RAs has been on the project as a volunteer before, and there was another volunteer around who had been here for a little while, so we were able to split the groups for the first day. They went off to the mangrove replanting half of the project, while the biologist, the other RA and I were on “ocean day”. This is more of a beach day, after deploying the net out in the water the biologist and the local captain stayed on the boat, while the rest of us were dropped off to wait on shore.

When they catch a turtle in the net they bring it to shore to be measured, weighed, and if necessary, tagged and tissue sampled. The net is in the water for six hours and of course there is massive variation in how many turtles are caught in this time. I was on ocean day for the first four days here, and had everything from one to four turtles in that time. It was very hands-on from word go, and I have already tagged, microchipped, and taken tissue samples (though not enough times to have stopped finding it terrifying just yet).

Working a hawksbill

This is quite an interesting contrast to Pieterburen, where you had to spend a minimum of a month proving you weren’t an idiot before you were really allowed to touch seals except to take their temperatures. That’s no reflection on either approach, but an indication of the difference in environment (field vs. hospital) and the species (much less likely to give you a painful lasting injury).

There are three types of turtle found here – hawksbills, greens, and a subspecies of greens called Pacific black turtles (I’m sure it is only a matter of time before scientists decide it is in fact another species, as that seems to have been the trend in recent years). So far, I have seen hawksbills and blacks, but no greens. Hawksbills are smaller, so easier to work with in that sense, but more feisty and have longer necks with mouths like sharp beaks. I haven’t yet been bitten or slapped in the face, but we’ll see how that goes for the next nine weeks.

After pulling in the net we have to spend some time detangling it, a skill I have yet to master, and repacking it. Generally, the day is over around three in the afternoon, although that depends if there are groups arriving or other things going on.

Hanging out on the beach in Costa Rica for six hours a day has its benefits for sure, not least the spotting of red macaws (which are apparently only in the Osa Peninsula, even though they are on all postcards throughout the country – before arriving here I thought it was just me who hadn’t seen one!) and the sloth with her baby who decided to sleep in the tree just above us all day. I’m also getting pretty proficient at opening coconuts with a machete.

Sloth baby

There is also a rescue centre on site, although it is more a first aid centre than the hospital environment of the seal centre! If badly injured or sick turtles are found out on ocean day they are brought back for care. If it is something simple that can be done here it is, if not they are stabilised and sent to the nearest rehabilitation facility, which is six hours away. When I arrived, there were two turtles on the centre, one small and skinny hawksbill with a digestive blockage of some unknown description, and one black who had lost a front flipper due a fishing line entanglement. It was pretty gruesome, and they were both sad to see. They were picked up to go to the rehab centre on my second day, and so far the rescue centre has remained empty since. I’m hoping it stays that way! Once again, it is of course a very different environment and species, but it’s still interesting to relate my experiences at the seal centre to the work done here – the more ‘quick and dirty’ end of the process.

On my fifth day I went to the mangrove project for the first time. There is a small nursery which we collected some saplings from, took them across a river and up into the mud where we planted two plots – one of each type the project works on. By the time we crossed the river again it was about chest height, a pretty good indicator of how mangrove days are governed by the tide. In the afternoon we planted seeds in the nursery and collected mud to fill the pit. It’s dirty work, but satisfying as you can so immediately see the fruits of your labour (unlike with the turtles, where the project is eight years into the ten generally needed before you can start to publish long-term data sets).

I was back on ocean day for the sixth and seventh days of this week, and the biologist gave one of the groups a lecture on sea turtle biology – anatomy, ecology, evolution, threats, and conservation. It was very interesting but also thoroughly depressing, as most things are when you think about the state of the world as a biologist.

The seventh day was my first really busy ocean day with seven turtles! At one point this included two at the same time, both of which needed tags, microchips, and tissue samples. It was great fun – I’d definitely rather have that than a day of one turtle or even none at all.

Overall, it’s been a good first week. It’s a little frustrating to arrive in the middle of such a busy period, when I know it’s going to calm down significantly after school holidays in America and the UK are over, and there will be plenty time for all the training I have yet to receive (in the words of the biologist “after this I’m going to have to spend a week and a half explaining to you what we’ve been doing for the past week and a half”). In other ways, I like to be kept busy and the best way to learn is by doing. I’m beginning to grasp that the hardest part of the job isn’t going to be measuring turtles or planting trees, but managing people. That’s no reflection on the volunteers we’ve had, who’ve all been great, but a reflection of my skill set and how it will hopefully develop here.

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