The Ups and Downs: Confessions of a Sea Turtle Conservation Biologist
Many children aspire to become marine biologists and work with charismatic animals such as sea turtles, dolphins, and whales. It is understandable why the work of marine biologists is envied. The job description includes: working and living on tropical beaches, uniforms of bathing suits, sunglasses, and baseball hats, an office consisting of the ocean and beach, and the professional responsibility of observing beautiful marine life daily, from the scattering crabs on the beach to breaching humpback whales, all while making a difference in environmental protection through education and conservation projects.
As amazing as all that sounds, there are downsides to this dream job that marine biologists, particularly sea turtle biologists on the Osa, face every day. As a marine biologist with six years of educational training and three years of field work, I have experienced conditions that have turned me into a tough cookie that can go with the flow, able to find the pura vida in most things that come along. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t come easy. Consider these the secret confessions of a sea turtle scientist and conservation volunteer.
First, you have to bear the elements of nature and the ocean when doing sea turtle patrols. These include beautiful sunrises, sounds of crashing waves, picturesque sunsets, swaying palm trees with swaying coconuts . . . but it also includes biting and stinging insects that particularly relish human flesh. They are called purrujas here, colloquially no-see-ums in English: the sand flea. They attack you all at once and without warning to leave you suddenly covered with maddeningly itching bites all over your body. Other Costa Rican insects include ants that predate turtle nests and are only too happy to latch onto your feet to sink their fangs between your toes and anywhere else you allow them to linger. Mosquitoes are also players in the insect kingdom’s war on humans. You have to douse yourself with bug spray and cover yourself with clothes and sustain a blissful attitude of patience and acceptance of these horrible insects, which are, after all, part of the Osa’s incredible biodiversity .
Secondly, sea turtles and marine mammals do not care about weather conditions. In fact, the stormier the weather, the happier the marine life is. During boat tours of Costa Rica, the most sightings of dolphins and whales occur when the dark clouds open in torrential rains and the participants, watching the marine mammals, shiver in soaking-wet clothes. In Jekyll, Island, Georgia, USA, many sea turtles emerged during Tropical Storm Matthew; sea turtle biologists had to endure the wind and rain to perform a night patrol, while everyone else stayed dry and hunkered down at home, dozing their way through the storm. Marine biologists get no breaks and must be brave and are advised to invest in a high quality rain coat.
Sea turtles turn out also to display a marked ambivalence about your sleep schedule and social life. Sea turtle patrols are scheduled subject to tide stage in the morning at sunrise and at night anywhere from nine p.m. to three in the morning. When all your town pals are logging beauty rest, we sea turtle biologists are out on the beach stumbling along half blind with turtle-friendly red lights that don’t illuminate hardly anything, trudging the beach, trying not to trip on rocks and driftwood, ever vigilant on population surveys for the tell-tale track of a sea turtle emergence Working hours of a turtle biologist are hard to schedule and keep, especially on small teams. In general, when the rest of society is sleeping, sea turtle biologists are working and when society is working the biologists are sleeping. This makes for deficient social lives and strange sleep schedules for marine biologists. Many sea turtle projects are small due to limited funding, so most of the work is done by volunteers, where even paying work is barely enough to get by on. Further, sea turtle season is only a few months a year, depending on species, meaning that half of the year, we have to find other work and often must move—even to other countries—to do so and then save our money to be able to return next season.
But the biggest draw-back of sea turtle work is the danger from poachers. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” aptly summarizes the uncertainty and peril that can be involved in our work. Still, after midnight is often when the turtles lay their eggs. The poachers that steal turtle eggs to illegally sell in bars and black markets arrive on the beach at night or early morning. As one might notice by now, to be a sea turtle biologist, one must be gallant and slightly crazy to sacrifice the comforts of a normal life for reptiles. Nonetheless, others make larger sacrifices. In 2013, environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval was murdered and four women were kidnapped while working on a sea turtle conservation project on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast (2, 4). During my time as a sea turtle biologist in Costa Rica, I have seen a poacher hiding with a machete to wait for my team to pass to continue his robbery of eggs. More problematic, some poachers tend to have large dogs to help sniff out nests and protect them from well-intentioned interlopers like myself. Poaching, hazardous people, and harmful animals on the beach can be alarming and dangerous for those involved with sea turtle work, particularly at night with poor lighting and limited personal security.
Even though laws for poaching are in place, it is difficult to enforce prevention of poaching. Poachers have years of experience and connections with people in the village and bars (5, 6, 7) . The politics of enacting these laws is discouraging. Some people pretend to be pro-conservation with sea turtles, yet are two faced and are poachers themselves. A 2010 Tico Times article stated that if you are caught with turtle eggs “your fine is to share those eggs with the policeman,” and that no jail time is imposed (7).
It is depressing and unfortunately common for sea turtle biologists to go on a morning patrol and find sea turtle nests on the beach, all of them poached. This shows the need for more government involvement in protecting sea turtles and preventing poaching. Sea turtle biologists face emotional stress dealing with depression and the concern that our efforts are undervalued when poaching is tacitly permitted by authorities despite its illegality and threat to the environment.
Given the challenges of weather, bugs, poachers, and strange work schedules, why do people devote time to sea turtle projects as volunteers and biologists? Sea turtles are worth the effort. The moment a sea turtle emerges from the ocean to lay eggs, the satisfaction for all of us is very great, and to watch a nest hatch and the baby turtles safely reach the surf’s spume makes the hardships all worthwhile.
Sea turtles and marine mammals do not have many players on their conservation team and need as much help as they can get. In the towering words of R. Buckminster Fuller (3):
“Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren’t any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.”
Everyone can help by reducing plastic use, keeping trash out of the ocean, never buying turtle eggs, supporting non-profit organizations that conserve sea turtles, and reporting any poaching to the authorities. Every little step helps save the sea turtles and supports the challenging lives of those who devote all aspects of their lives to the conservation of these special reptile species.
- Gulko DA & Eckert KL (2004) Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, HI. 128 pp.