Want a little Adventure in your life? Try COTERC during Sea Turtle Nesting Season

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Want a little Adventure in your life? Try  the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (COTERC) is a registered Canadian-based charity. COTERC was founded in 1991 and is based in Pickering, Ontario, Canada but also has operates in Costa Rica, with Caño Palma Biological Station

Hear first hand about the experience……

My short time at COTERC was both an exciting and memorable experience. I was provided with a great opportunity to try my hand at a wide variety of research projects while being completely immersed in the beautiful Costa Rican rainforest.

Within 10 minutes of stepping onto the COTERC dock I was greeted by a wide variety of flora and fauna, including a number of frogs, snakes, bats, tropical and migratory birds, and my personal favorite, two amazing camp perros. The station has a camp like environment with amenities similar to the ones found in the Ontario Park campgrounds. I have to say it was  one of more luxurious field stations I’ve seen with power outlets in the bedroom, solar showers, flush toilets, full kitchen and even laundry machines.

Every COTERC experience is unique as your involvement in projects depends on the time of year you visit and the type of researchers housed at the station. I was very lucky to have visited when there was a diverse group of naturalist and researchers including a few fish biologists, reptile enthusiasts, sharp eyed birders and mammal trackers.

Nicolas, a master student looking at the behaviour response of Costa Rican monkeys to human induced stress, lead me along narrow hunting tracks in search for White-headed Capuchins and Mantel Howlers and the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider monkeys. I was amazed at how dwarfed I felt walking between the trees in one of the last remaining primary forest of Costa Rica. Beautiful butterflies like the metallic Menelaus Blues and red banded Red Postmans would add a splash of color as they flutter in between the thick green foliage. I was even lucky enough to see a few monkeys, including a baby spider monkey, which I took as a symbol of hope for this endangered species.

I could have participated in a fish, bat and caiman study, but my true purpose for going to COTERC was to see sea turtles nesting! Every night for 4 nights I would walk 10 to 12 miles up and down the beach in search of the elusive leatherback sea turtle. It was the start of their nesting season for these giant creatures but the last sighting was over 20 days ago. Since then, many volunteers had come and gone without a hint of a sighting. Laura and Lois, expert trainers and the leads of the sea turtle project, kept my spirits high, but my short time at COTERC was running out.

We would walk sometimes in silence or in small voices, wearing black and without lights to deter poachers. Even without the moon, the sky was far from dark as the sea of stars shone bright to lead or way along the beach.  You could smell the days’ worth of rain in the air, it was still hot and the sky was clearing when we came across my first sighting of a dark streak in the sand. A turtle track, too small for a nesting leatherback, but still an exciting fine. We followed the tracks up from the surf. We were so quiet we could hear the breathing of the turtle as she gently rustled the sand with each scope of her flipper to dig her egg chamber deeper. A mother green turtle as long as I am tall.   Her shell was so smooth and undamaged where the male turtle mating hooks would have held her during courtship that the team estimated that it could have been her first nest of her adult life. We watched for over an hour as she dropped over 90 eggs into the nest.

I felt a maternal twinge in my heart. She would lay a few eggs at a time, and with each laborious push she would tensed her back flippers, squeezing the sand and exhaling air out of her lungs. When she started to cover her nest the researchers went to work, gently measuring her shell and tagging her flippers for future identification. No tags holes present, another sign that this may have been her first time nesting.

She disguised her nest messily. Throwing large sprays of sand into the air with her front flippers, hitting the researchers full on as they finished up their final notes. Her labour exhausted her, you could tell by the long breaks she took between sand sprays and by her slow shuffle as she turned back towards the sea.  We followed her at a distance, in silence, and watch as wave after wave unglued her body, as she vanished into the sea.

We continue on our way content that we finally saw what we were searching for. I could go back to Canada satisfied, but by night was far from over, and right on cue, another dark streak crossed our path. This time the track was big. It was like a dune buggy had come out of the ocean, bulldozing a trail over 6 feet wide up the beach. Laura our turtle research coordinator followed it up to check it out. It was what we had all hoped for, a leatherback sea turtle, a first for everyone on our team.

She was disguising her nest and turning to the sea. She was hard to see, clouds had rolled in and the sheer size of her body was masked by the darkness of her shell against the wet sand. Laura checked her for tags. Tag holes were found but there was no time to attached new ones as she motored back towards her ocean home. Laura’s red light would hit parts of the turtles shell, slowly illumining how big she was. The shell of these turtles can get as large single bed and Laura’s tiny light was no match to illuminate her whole body leaving me to wonder how large she really was. All I knew that after she was gone I laid down on her track and starching my arms as wide as I could, I couldn’t reach the edge of where her flippers sliced into the sand.

Once abundant in this area, the sea turtle populations are now in decline. Poaching, by-catch in commercial fishing, trash, and loss of nesting habitat are all major threats to these once numerous creatures. It is absolutely magical to think that I saw 2 adult sea turtles when only one out of 1000 eggs, without human impacts, would make it to an age where they could reproduce and continue their species lineage.

My luck with turtles was so unheard-of that individuals at the station started calling me the turtle whisperer. A name I gladly take back with me to my job at the Toronto Zoo where I raise and release Species at Risk turtles back into the wild.

I recommend COTERC to anyone interested in a biological or environmental career and PhD or MSc candidates looking for a central hub to do wildlife research. I also recommend COTERC to the  everyday volunteer that wants a little adventure in life.

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