Hello! My name is Jaclyn Gerakios, and I am the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Conversation Ocean. I am also a science teacher at Saint Paul’s School in Clearwater, Florida. I received an email earlier this year from Ecology Project International stating that I had been accepted into the Costa Rica Teacher Fellowship for 2017. Ecology Project International is a non-profit, educational organization. Their mission is to improve and inspire science education and conservation efforts worldwide through field-based student-scientist partnerships. During this fellowship, we studied the rainforest, but our main focus was working with the nesting leatherback sea turtles.
Throughout this journey, I kept a detailed journal of my day-to-day experiences in Costa Rica. We were able to explore many different ecosystems. Below I have highlighted the leatherback census patrol part of my experience.
April 24, 2017...
We arrived at the Pacuare River and we took our packs and boarded small boats and traveled down the river. It was about an hour boat ride, we saw many species of birds, crocodiles, and caymans. We arrived at a dock with a wooden sign that read “Bienvenidos Reserva Pacuare”. The reserve was bought in 1989 by a man from the United Kingdom. He originally bought the property to build a vacation home. He observed the leatherbacks coming ashore, and the poaching that was occurring. He decided that the property was too important and needed to be protected. He worked with the local government and made the land a preserve in 1994. We were are the North Station and there is also a South Station. This area is the number three most important nesting site for leatherback sea turtles in the world. Poaching has decreased from 98% to 2% for the leatherback eggs, since monitoring and guarding has been implemented. We grabbed our day packs and duffle bags and trekked into the jungle. We were immediately welcomed by a bright yellow eyelash viper, a venomous snake. We were able to get pictures from a respectable distance. We then made it to our dorm rooms and took a tour of the reserve. The capuchins and howler monkeys welcomed us to the reserve. We had no electricity and cold water. We finally had met it to the Caribbean Sea! I couldn’t help myself and ran through the dark sand to the sea. It felt so good on my tired hot feet! The beach was full of logs and fallen branches from trees. We had time on the beach to talk about leatherbacks. We made our own leatherback in the sand and practiced the different roles we would be taking during our nighttime turtle census patrols, such as egg counting, measuring and recording data. It was time for dinner, I really enjoyed the food we ate because it was vegetarian for the most part, and we ate a lot of rice and beans, a staple in Costa Rica. At dinner, I sat with three research assistants who live at the research station. Eva, Johanna, and Maria who were from Portugal and Spain.
We then found out which patrol we were going to go out on that night. There are three shifts: 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight. We went back to our room and packed our night packs and laid down for a nap. It was hot and hard to sleep but I managed to get some sleep before we woke up at 11:15 to dress in dark long pants, long sleeves, socks and hiking boots. We met Johanna and Stanley at the cafeteria building, went over the turtle census procedures one more time and took off the sea! We walked in lines two by two in the pitch dark. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. A lot of “I think I see a leatherback!” statements were returned with “Nope, that’s a log”. We came across the 10 p.m. patrol group who were working with a large female who was finishing the nesting process. She was missing large portions of her front and rear flippers, which made digging her nest very difficult, the group assisted her. The research assistant believed the sections of flippers missing were due to a shark bite. I had a very emotional reaction to this turtle, she was the first I had seen and to see that she was such a fighter and survivor was just incredible. After the females lay their nest and cover the eggs, they do something called camouflaging. This is where they take their large front flippers and fling sand everywhere to deter predators. After that, she started creating “false nests” as another deterrent to predators of the eggs. We left the group to finish observing their leatherback and then we finished the rest of the 2-mile hike down the beach and stopped to rest and hydrate. After our rest, we continued back towards the field station. We saw a track and a found a female starting the nesting process. We prepared our supplies. Methea and I laid in the sand and I held her left rear flipper after she had already dug her the nest cavity in the sand. I had to hold her flipper because naturally, the females will use one flipper to cover the nest. We hold the flipper so that we can count the number of fertilized and unfertilized eggs as they drop into the nest. The leatherbacks eggs are soft, so they do not break as they fall into the nest. Methea counted the fertilized eggs and I counted the much smaller unfertilized eggs. This particular female laid 58 fertilized eggs and 32 unfertilized eggs. She was breathing heavily and taking breaks in between the clutch of eggs falling into the nest. She also would occasionally grunt. She finished laying the eggs and I released her back flipper. She used the back two flippers to start burying the eggs in the nest. She then began the camouflaging process and the process of making false nests. The final step of the census process is to triangulate the nest. This was much different from how we monitor turtles nests in the US. In Florida, we stake around the nest, use caution tape and even place a sign on the stakes stating Florida law regarding disturbing a turtle nest. In Costa Rica, they do not do this because of the potential of poachers coming in and taking the eggs. By triangulating the nests, only the researchers and their assistants know where on the beach the nests are located when hatching season will start. We left our females as she was starting to take her giant, tired body back to the sea. Kenya, a dog who lives at the field station, was our companion and guided us back to the station. We did not see any other tracks or turtles that night. I showered by headlamp avoiding mosquitos and crawled into my top bunk. I was exhausted but very fulfilled and happy.
April 25, 2017...
Erin, Aubrey, Becky, Beverley, Stephanie and I signed up for the 8 p.m. patrol. It was again, very hot - sensing a common theme here? We did 3 turtles dances on the beach since it was our last night on patrol and we wanted to make sure we were able to see the majestic leatherbacks one more time. We came across a dark shadow moving up the beach. We all laid in the sand and watched her pull herself across the sand and up the beach. She started the nesting process and we noticed that she was very close to where the water can come up during high tide. Our research assistant informed us that we would have to relocate the nest. After making her bed, settling in the sand, the female started to dig her nest with her back flippers seventy centimeters down into the sand. Since we knew we would be moving the egg, Erin and Stephanie laid down by her tail and help a special bag underneath her. She laid her eggs and as she finished we removed the bag of eggs. She began the process of covering the nest. I took the measurements of her body as she started camouflaging the area. We moved up the beach and dug our own nest, triangulated it and carefully placed the eggs as we counted the fertilized and unfertilized eggs. We covered the nest and moved the sand around the help camouflage the nest. We continued our patrol down the beach, as usual, it was very dark and hot. At the end of the 2-mile stretch, we took a break, sitting on a log and drank water and had a snack. We made the long trek back and saw the midnight patrol working with a nesting female. We continued back to the field station without seeing any other turtles. We again showered in the deliciously cold water by headlamp, I crawled into my top bunk, exhausted and happy.
Working with the leatherbacks at the third most important nesting site in the world is an experience I will never forget. These majestic creatures are incredible and being able to help in the conservation of their future generations was truly life changing.