Conservation volunteering - Gentle giants: Protecting leatherback sea turtles through direct conservation action on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
This wildlife volunteering project will take you to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, the Central American country best know for its beaches, volcanoes, biodiversity and inspired environmental policies. Working on a remote black sands beach, you will be involved in direct conservation actions to support the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, the world's largest living turtle. Venturing out from a research station by the beach, you will conduct beach patrols, guard and collect eggs, count and measure hatchlings and adult turtles, and assist with other direct conservation and research activities. All this to help create strategies to ensure the species' survival into the future.
“This has been the most wonderful period in my life and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to spend time here on this amazing volunteer project. Many, many wonderful memories. Thank you Biosphere for making it all possible. All in all a very, very memorable and life-changing experience.” >
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Expedition contribution: £1480 (ca. €1650 | US$1790 | AU$2380) excluding flights per dates as shown. A £300 deposit is required and the balance is due four weeks before the expeditions starts. Base currency British pound sterling, see XE currency converter for other currencies. More about this contribution and where the money goes.
Dates & meeting point: 8 - 15 May 2017 | 18 - 25 May 2017 (8 days). Other dates. Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is in San José, Costa Rica's capital, which is easily reached by aeroplane from all over the world. More details on this and how to get to the assembly point are in the .
Weather expected during expedition
Costa Rica has a tropical climate and the sun shines throughout the year. Day temperatures during the expedition are expected to be high between 24 and 30° C with slightly lower temperatures at night.
The expedition base is a remote and rustic research station with cabins for sleeping, shared bathroom and shower blocks, a kitchen, hatchery and various other utility buildings.
Up to 12 team members + 1 local scientist + 1 expedition leader.
Skills & prerequisites required
None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.
Fitness level required
Ability to walk about 5-15 km per day in soft, sometimes wet sand, and sometimes at high tide. Those of lower fitness level can be assigned shorter patrol walks or monitor nests in the hatchery close to the research station or concentrate on helping with community-based activities.
Team assembly point
Aims & objectives
Working from a remote research station on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, this project will protect and research critically endangered leatherback turtles along one of the world’s most beautiful and biodiverse coastlines. The project’s aims are to reduce poaching through patrols and relocating nests to a hatchery, and to determine population parameters of nesting leatherback turtles in order to improve the conservation status of the species. Leatherback turtles are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and the combination of direct conservation action paired with research of this programme will assist in the recuperation of this iconic species, ensuring its survival into the future. In doing so, the expedition will
(1) Conduct nocturnal monitoring patrols for nesting turtles.
(2) Relocate turtle eggs for safe hatching in a dedicated hatchery.
(3) Conduct species, population and clutch counts.
(4) Monitor nest predation, beach dynamics and hatchling success rates.
Humans have always used the products and sub-products of sea turtles as a source of nutrition and handicrafts. However, as the human population increases, the demand for these products also rises, creating a black market and huge pressure on the sea turtles – primarily for the consumption of the meat and eggs. Since the first studies on nesting sea turtles on the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica in the 1970s, it is clear that human demand is at unsustainable levels, threatening the survival of all seven species of sea turtles.
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth-heaviest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell. Instead, its carapace is covered by skin and oily flesh. The leatherback turtle is the sea turtle species with the widest global range, spanning all oceans as far as the arctic circles. Scientists have tracked a leatherback turtle that swam from Indonesia to the U.S. in a 20,000 km foraging journey over a period of 647 days. Leatherbacks follow their jellyfish prey throughout the day, resulting in turtles preferring deeper water in the daytime, and shallower water at night (when the jellyfish rise up in the water column). Leatherback turtles are known to pursue prey deeper than 1,000 m - beyond the physiological limits of all other diving animals except for beaked whales and sperm whales.
The three major, genetically distinct populations occur in the Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and western Pacific Oceans. Whilst the species as a whole is classed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List, the Atlantic subpopulation of this project is considered to be Critically Endangered. Recent estimates of global nesting populations are that 26,000 to 43,000 females nest annually, which is a dramatic decline from the 115,000 estimated in 1980. Direct utilisation of turtles or eggs for human use (consumption and commercial products) is one of the major threats and as such the focus for this project through direct conservation action such as nest and nesting ground protection and ensuring hatchling success.
The project involves community members alongside international citizen scientist in its conservation activities, recruiting local people as research and conservation assistants, and giving them an alternative income to poaching. This is urgently needed in what is a very isolated and vulnerable community, with very few educational and employment opportunities.
Through the construction of an uncontaminated hatchery, as a safe incubation zone for each nest laid on Pacuare beach, the project collects data from eggs and hatchlings and protects nests from predation and poachers. The leatherback turtle nesting season runs from February through until July, with peak nesting activity in April and May. The project is made possible by the cooperation of the local community – The Environmental Association of Nuevo Pacuare – and the local coastguards and meets the standards and protocols set by MINAET (Ministerio de Ambiente y Technologia) for handling turtles and their eggs.
Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
Other landmark species present: Green turtle, hawksbill turtle, caimans, white-faced, spider and howler monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, as well as a rich variety of birds.
Turtle monitoring takes place during the night and very rarely in the early mornings before the heat of the day increases. When not undertaking direct conservation or data collection activities, participants have the opportunity to relax on the beach and there will also be some turtle talks and presentations for you to attend in the afternoons. An opportunity to take a boat tour to spot wildlife along the canals also exists, if there is enough interest.
Beach patrols will be on foot and the 7 km of beach will be split into two sections. Under normal circumstances there will be six patrol teams each night to cover all sections of the beach in two patrols. Patrols will always leave with a qualified leader – either a research assistant or a local guide. You will be leaving from base and returning there afterwards to sleep. For late patrols leaving at midnight, we recommend you rest before your shift.
Breakfast, will normally be served at 08:00 and you will then have free time to rest and relax until lunch around noon, unless you are on hatchery monitoring duty, when you will protect, weigh and measure emerging hatchlings and guide them back to the ocean. After lunch there is more free time until the afternoon activity of beach survey or hatchery maintenance. Dinner will be served at 17:30 before dark, so that patrollers can rest.
Please note that every team member will be rotated through all activities. A cook will prepare our meals at the expedition base, where you will return to eat, rest and have a shower.
Costa Rica is a small country in Central America. The country has coastlines on both the Atlantic and the Pacific and is home to nearly 5% of the planets biodiversity. Despite its small size, it is considered one of the planet’s top 20 countries in terms of biodiversity. Indeed Costa Rica is known for its progressive (environmental) policies, having disbanded its army and being the only country in the world to meet all five criteria established to measure environmental sustainability. It was ranked fifth in the world, and first in the Americas, in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index. It was twice ranked the best-performing country in the New Economics Foundation's (NEF) Happy Planet Index, which measures environmental sustainability, and identified by the NEF as the greenest country in the world in 2009. In 2007, the Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021. In 2012, it became the first country in the Americas to ban recreational hunting.
When Colombus discovered Costa Rica in 1502, the first indigenous people he saw wore gold bands in their noses and ears – which later led to the name of the country – The Rich Coast – or Costa Rica. In those days, there were four main indigenous tribes, which after the arrival of the Spanish were decimated by small pox. Today a remarkable 98% of Costa Ricans are of Spanish descent.
The project’s study site, Pacuare beach, is located in the province of Limon, in the district of Matina. The project site is only accessible by boat, through the canals of Tortuguero. It is a very remote and isolated area – rich in wildlife and nature.
And finally (almost)
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
During its first expedition to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in 2016 Biosphere Expeditions team members patrolled the 7 km stretch of beach in front of the Pacuare research station each night and brought a total of 15 clutches of eggs to the hatchery. This amounted to 1057 eggs. Also during this time team members released 353 hatchlings into the sea and took biometric data on the first 15 hatchlings from each of the six nests that hatched. Overall, turtle poaching has been reduced from 100% before patrolling efforts started to between 60-30%, depending on the year. All this helps to give Caribbean turtle species a fighting chance to survive.
In addition, our partner on this citizen science conservation holiday is Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) who represent WIDECAST (the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network in Costa Rica). LAST has over 28 years of experience in sea turtle management and research and have attracted various strategic partners thanks to their contribution to this field (Whitley Award for Nature, The Nature Conservancy and WWF) LAST have initiated projects to monitor reefs, trained national park rangers in monitoring turtle nesting and educated hundreds of local students on the importance of marine and coastal conservation. They also act as environmental advisors to the government on marine environments, participate in several local, national and international networks and publish articles to improve the knowledge about the ocean and its life. In order to reduce threats to sea turtles, and to restore population levels, LAST has implemented a series of sea turtle management programmes on many of the Caribbean beaches in Costa Rica – including Pacuare beach. When the Pacuare project started in 2004, it was just for egg protection and no data were collected. WIDECAST took over the investigation in 2007 and LAST have become the sole researchers since 2012.
On another scale, all scientific reports and publications for Biosphere Expeditions are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
This expedition was honoured in National Geographic's "100 places that will change your life" edition. Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple National Geographic awards and accolades such as "Best New Trip" and "Tours of a Lifetime".
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple Travel+Leisure awards and accolades such as the "Conservation Award" category of Travel+Leisure's "Global Vision Awards" or "Best Adventure Outfitter" and "Best Save-the-Earth Trip" accolades.
> more awards & accolades
“Poaching is a very serious problem for sea turtles around the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Through direct conservation actions such as relocating nests into a safe hatchery and assisting turtles to nest and hatchlings to make it to the sea, we have been able to reduce losses from almost 100% a few years ago to around 60% today. This is a great success, which would not have been possible without volunteer help. Their assistance is essential for highly labour-intensive tasks such as patrolling the beach every night, collecting eggs and taking them to the hatchery, where nests have to be dug and guarded around the clock. Once the hatchlings emerge, they need to be weighed and measured and guided back into the ocean. Since we are only two permanent staff at the research station, there is no way we could manage all this by ourselves, so I am very grateful for having committed volunteers helping me with direct conservation actions as well as research as citizen scientists. I invite everyone to join me at Pacuare to experience turtle conservation in action on this beautiful stretch of the Caribbean coastline of Costa Rica.”
Magali Marion, local scientist, Costa Rica.
“Catherine and Ida were amazing leaders. They were never down, worked as hard as anyone and are truly inspiring. They are great role models. The scientist at this facility, Magali, is so professional and is such a hard worker!”
Brad Styner, 53, Canada.
“Scientist, excuse my French, but Magali is bloody brilliant! An all-rounder. Excellent role model in every way, particularly her relationship with local community-project. Well-focused project, excellent lecture input every day. Great expedition leader who really got involved with us and the project. What more can I say. You have a really good formula here!”
Sheila Tucker, 65, UK.
“This has been a surreal week of sweat, smiles, hard work, laughter and of course excitement and joy of seeing nature’s marvelous beast of this Caribbean beach. It’s been a dream come true and how lucky I was to share it with you! The team this week has been an absolute blast with a great dynamic. Dinner at home won’t be quite the same without all the faces of my Biosphere family, and it sure won’t be as funny without good ol’ Gordon. All the Biosphere staff were incredible and kind and I have to give Silvia’s cooking 5 stars! Thank you for this experience and opportunity to make a positive impact on a beautiful species. The expedition’s nearly done, but the memories are forever!"
Tyler Styner, 19, Canada.
Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“Expedition leaders were very professional, caring and supportive. They are incredibly patient and knowledgeable. The project partner is well-established and professional. Magali is the best biologist/expert you can find in the world. The food was more than very good, the staff were very friendly and always happy to help. Very good set-up. All activities were important for the project. I felt I was making a contribution.”
Keiner Jiminez Alvarado, 28, Costa Rica.
“Expedition leaders, Catherine and Ida, well prepared and knowledgeable, fully conversant with participants, nothing too much trouble. Magali, (scientist), excellent, knowledgeable and engaging. Silvia, (cook), excellent standard of food. Good mix of participants leading to good level of camaraderie within group – all willing to help each other”
Terry James, 65, UK.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page