Review: Research Assistant for Latin American Sea Turtles

I spent ten weeks as a research assistant for Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) on their Osa In-Water Project. This is one of very few projects that aims to study sea turtles in their foraging environment rather than on nesting beaches (which only make up 2% of the life cycle, and where you can only study adult females and hatchlings). I worked with hawksbill, green and Pacific green turtles. The project also has a mangrove reforestation element, and aims to work with and within the local community.

Location: Playa Blanca, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Duration: 10 weeks

Cost:  Accommodation and food at $5/day, return flights from the UK around £750. LAST may charge $10, $5, or nothing at all per day for board depending on your experience and language skills.

Pre-Departure:

Obviously I had to book flights to Costa Rica, luckily I didn’t have to have any vaccinations as my Hep A and Typhoid are still in date from when I went to Mexico, and my Tetanus is up to date too.

I decided to spend two weeks travelling in Costa Rica before I started on the project. I flew London-Miama-Tampa-San Jose. I had to apply for an ESTA (around £14) to transit through the USA. I was able to get a 90 day tourist visa in Costa Rica (just…) which is free and granted on entry.

On the 19th of July I met with the other research assistant and a representative of LAST in San Jose, and the next day we took the eight hour bus from San Jose to Playa Blanca.

 The project:

The project is largely volunteer based, which is a mixture of independent volunteers staying anywhere from a week to a month (or even longer, but the longest anyone stayed while I was there was two weeks), and groups, usually schools or young people, coming by for one to four days as part of a bigger Costa Rica tour. The activities depend a lot on the volunteers present. When I arrived it was very busy with big groups of young people, but then it got into the quiet season and we only had the occasional independent volunteer. The work continues in the absence of volunteers, but the pace and some of the activities changes.

 

Ocean days are at least twice a week, more if there are lots of volunteers present. Ocean days are the turtle part of the project. We would meet at the ‘bodega’ (shed) at 7.30am to collect all the necessary equipment. This is carried to the beach and onto a boat. The project works mostly with three local skippers – Davey, Ditel, and Andreas. We would then go to the monitoring site for the day. With volunteers these would be sites where we were very likely to catch turtles, whereas when we were on our own we could range further afield. The aim was to have the nets in the water by 8am.

At the start deploying the nets was pretty terrifying, and it remained one of the more stressful elements of the job as a small mistake could take a lot of time to fix. There are two 100m gill nets (with a very very wide mesh, in ten weeks I never saw any bycatch). These are left in the water for six hours. Most people wait on the beach while the captain and one of us (usually the project coordinator) stay on the boat. It is fairly obvious if a turtle is caught in the net and it will then be immediately removed, brought onto the boat, taken to shore and ‘worked‘. This involved taking measurements, weight, recording tag numbers, or if necessary, tagging, microchipping, and taking tissue samples. The nets are pulled in at the end of the day and before the next ocean day have to be untangled and repacked back on land.

The other major part of the project is mangrove reforestation, specifically planting red mangroves and tea mangroves. This involves collecting seeds/propagules, planting them in a nursery until they are a few months old, then planting the nursery plants out into the gulf. While in the nursery the plants have to be regularly watered and rotated. Mangrove planting is hard muddy work but really good fun and very satisfying. There is also always maintenance to do at the nursery – putting up posts, building a new mudpit, and unfortunately a couple of times digging it out from rocks brought up by the tide. Erosion is becoming a massive problem in the area and the whole nursery may have to be moved soon. Mangrove replanting is heavily dependent on tides as they have to be planted out across a river which can only be crossed between two hours before and after low tide. Mangrove plots have to be measured when they are planted and remeasured at one, two, three, six, 12, 18 and 24 months. All of this data is entered into a database. This has not been as extensively reported on as the turtle part of the project and while we were there we worked on putting together the first report of the mangrove project to date, although it has a while to go before any meaningful statistical analysis can be performed. Mangrove ecosystems are crucially important for absorbing pollutants, preventing erosion, and providing habitats and food for marine life.

Mangrove nursery

Obviously managing volunteers is a major part of the project as a research assistant, particularly when it is busy. We were responsible for entertaining and educating them, especially on the beach on quiet ocean days, keeping them safe, and motivating them to work. If you are considering joining LAST, do bear in mind that it is not a ‘pure science’ role.

I was very lucky that we were able to apply two satellite trackers while I was on the project. These were placed on fully mature hawksbill males in the hope that we will be able to track their reproductive migration. The whole process and theory behind this was very interesting and I look forward to hearing of any results that come out of it.

Every three months there is also a seagrass survey in the gulf, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Costa Rica. I was surprised that this was one of my favourite activities in my whole time there – three intense mornings out on the boat, taking seagrass samples, water samples, depths, and Secchi measurements. I love to be in the water and this was the only part of the project that provided that! Of course it didn’t hurt that the humpback whales were around in force. It was also really interesting to have the researchers from the university down for the last day and speak to them about their work, which is carried out all over Costa Rica.

Other random tasks included beach cleans, maintenance, helping out at the local recycling centre (which is very small but the only one servicing 8,000 people in the area), and environmental education days with local primary schools.

The project has a basic ‘first aid’ rescue and rehab centre which had two turtles when I arrived that had to be sent on to a more specialised facility. There were thankfully no other turtles that had to be taken in to the rescue centre while I was there, except for the hawksbills we wanted to track! However, this is something that may come up.

Overall this project was enjoyably varied for me, but if your aim is to work with turtles all of the time, perhaps not for you. That said, I definitely learned a lot about turtle biology and handling, as well as practical skills in tagging, microchipping, taking tissue samples, and satellite tracking, which you might not pick up the same way on a nesting beach (depending on the project of course). Being there in the quieter season meant we were able to do a wider variety of work, but also meant there was a reasonable amount of ‘down-time’, whereas my preference is to be busier. This would very much vary on time of year and is worth taking into account.

Accommodation/Area:

I lived in a house with the two other research assistants in Playa Blanca. The coordinator lived in a separate house of her own. The house was spacious and nice, with three bedrooms so we were able to have one each for the whole time that we were there (this is not always the case). We cooked on a rota, where on your cooking day you are responsible for lunch (packed, for ocean days) and dinner. Cleaning was generally a communal responsibility. There was a washing machine (yay!). There was not hot water (usually it wasn’t necessary given the weather, but if you’d just been caught in a rainstorm it was a bit of a pain).

Playa Blanca is a very small village. There is a ‘pulperia’ (corner store? sort of) where you can buy snacks and drinks, and some cooking essentials if necessary. Fresh fruit and veg were bought weekly in the nearest town, La Palma, 3km away (the project has bikes you can use to cycle here). Non-perishables were sent every two weeks from San Jose. In Playa Blanca there are two bars/restaurants, although we very rarely went to them.

The water of the gulf is usually fairly murky and there is stinging algae, but I still enjoyed swimming there, especially as you can often see the turtles very close the beach.

Pura vida!

It is impossible to exaggerate how rich in biodiversity and wildlife the Osa Peninsula is, and I felt incredibly lucky to be there every day.

Time off:

There is one day off per week usually, with plenty to do in the local area. Puerto Jimenez is the only real town on Osa and accessible by bus from Playa Blanca which takes about 45 minutes. Here you can go to a cafe and use wifi, as well as being the starting point for many tours in the area.

I went on a kayak tour of the mangroves in Jimenez, a whale watching trip (which turned out to be unnecessary given how many times we were able to watch the whales in the ordinary course of our work), a day hike into the famous Corcovado National Park, zip lining near La Palma, out to Matapalo, the remote and beautiful southernmost tip of the peninsula, and when we had a few days break, over to Drake Bay to dive at Cano Island. There is loads to do and it is all worth doing but not cheap, so it is worth factoring this into your budget.

In time off in the afternoons/evenings I often swam to the gulf or ran to La Palma and back, I read a lot, or just enjoyed sitting out in our garden watching the red macaws and hummingbirds.

Conclusion:

I definitely feel like I gained a lot of skills and valuable experiences. Particularly having experience of managing groups of volunteers is a brilliant addition for my CV, as it is something I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t feel it was as structured or busy as my time in the Netherlands, but as I have mentioned that is largely due to timing (and also perhaps being ‘staff’ rather than a ‘volunteer’ and responsible for creating some of that structure).

I was very impressed by the way the project operates within the local community, with local captains, cabin owners, and the recycling centre. The coordinator has built up excellent relationships and the project’s presence is generally warmly welcomed.

Ultimately, there can be no doubt that this project is ten weeks in paradise and I feel incredibly privileged to have been there.

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