It is midnight and pouring rain as we tread vigilantly down the desolate Caribbean shoreline. We are a mere handful of humans dressed in black. The faint glow of the moon behind the clouds is all the light we have to keep us from tripping over occasional half-buried driftwood, snarled vines, and steep sand banks. Remarkably, this dim light is just enough for us to catch a glimpse of what we have been looking for, what I have been waiting anxiously to see for the first time: a large sea turtle emerging from the darkness of the ocean to nest. Whatever tiredness I may have felt disappeared instantaneously, replaced with adrenaline, as I prepared myself to do what I came here to do.
A few years ago, if anyone had asked how I would like to spend the summer before my senior year of high school, I may have said, “walking on the beach in Costa Rica.” I definitely would not have said, “walking for miles on the beach in Costa Rica until four in the morning in a torrential downpour collecting data on nesting green sea turtles.” So what changed? Last year, I took a marine biology course from an exceptional teacher. She inspired in me an increased concern for the ocean and its mysterious creatures that are so distant from our own lives yet so interconnected. I was especially drawn to the issue of the endangerment of sea turtles, animals that have existed on this earth since the time of dinosaurs. I began searching for a way to help them. After thorough research, I chose a three-week academic sea turtle studies and conservation program for high school students in Costa Rica.
The academic component was actually very interesting. With each lesson, I learned something fascinating and unique about sea turtles. I enjoyed putting my knowledge to use while working alongside researchers at the renowned Caribbean Conservation Corporation in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, the number one green turtle nesting site in the world. One night I had the privilege of counting the soft, leathery turtle eggs as they were dropped by the 300-pound mother into my hand and then into the nest. One hundred and three! Lying there on the sand at that moment, witnessing a new beginning, feeling the hope and the promise of the future, was unforgettable.
Working together with the community on a common goal provided me with invaluable cultural insights. I had the opportunity to see the issues through the eyes of the locals of Tortuguero by talking with them about their lifestyles and how ecotourism has altered those lifestyles. It is inspiring that Tortuguero has changed from a town known for harvesting sea turtles to a town known for protecting them. As a result, the number of greens nesting here has increased five-fold since 1970. This experience has shown me that any successful preservation effort must include the local people; such involvement is their right.
The other students on the trip helped to make it truly great. It is amazing how quickly bonds are formed within a group when together you are traveling in a different country, having close encounters with scary spiders and scorpions (in my duffle bag, of course), and surviving intense white-water rafting trips. Together we planned community service activities such as volunteering at the local daycare center. As one of the few students who spoke Spanish, I took on a leadership role, which pushed me out of my comfort zone but in a positive way. We sang, danced, and played games with some of the sweetest, most good-natured girls and boys I have ever met. It is heartening to think how these children will grow up protecting the turtles.
Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, once wrote, “Turtles have taught me this: Do all you can and don’t worry about the odds against you. Wield the miracles of life’s energy, never worrying whether we may fail, concerned only that whether we fail or succeed we do so with all our might. That’s all we need to know to feel certain that all our force of diligent effort is worth our while on Earth.” I have seen this for myself. I now, more than ever, believe there is hope. We cannot give up on this issue or any issue that is important to us. It may take many years and many small steps, but with perseverance and determination, anything is possible.
Back home in Oregon, sixty-five days from the time it was set in Costa Rica, an alert popped up on my cell phone to remind me that over the next few days the baby sea turtles that I had held in my hand would be hatching and racing to the sea.