Summer Internship ’14, Part II: Becoming the Turtle Whisperer

Imagine a night’s sky shimmering with stars… the Milky Way,  Scorpio, Venus, Mars, shooting stars, a comet…an overwhelming amount of stars slowing fading out as the moon is beginning to peek through the clouds, carrying an orange glow. Despite the absence of artificial light, the beach remains illuminated as you spot dark lines or what you might think to be logs and debris, however, they soon to prove to be turtle tracks…

STC, Tour de Turtles, Hawksbill tracksIf you have read my post on How to Intern in Paradise, you’ll remember that I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to intern at COTERC (Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation) through York International’s Internship Program (YIIP). Besides the fact of being in Costa Rica (and Latin/South America) for the very first time, I would be a social science student entering the realm of hard sciences (so I thought).


Having finished the internship, I’ve had many questions surrounding what I exactly “experienced”/”did”/”saw”/”heard”/”learnt”/etc. Often times you’ll find after going through a life-changing experience that you never have a succinct or meaningful way to sum it up. At least I always find that my vocabulary remains limited to “good”, “great”, and/or “fantastic”. Here, I’ll be attempting to be in someway legible to express the “specs” of my summer adventure in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation

For thirteen weeks, I was stationed at Caño Palma Biological Station which is well situated from a ~30 min boat ride from the village of Tortuguero and a ~20 min walk from San Francisco. In other words, my time would be well spent in a simple-isolated-environmental-magical bubble of a station.

Boat Dock

Caño Palma caters to all types of research (mammal surveys, plant phenology, shorebirds, herpetology, caimans…), however, my focus was on the turtle monitoring project. There are 4 aims of the project:

  1. Collect data on nesting turtles within the 3 1/8 mile stretch of Playa Norte (on the Caribbean Sea)
  2. Monitor triangulated nests and the health of returning turtles
  3. Educate the community on the importance of conservation
  4. Deter poachers from harming the turtles

Playa Norte

There are the possibility of 4 species of turtle who nest on our beach:

  1. Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
  2. Green (Chelonia mydas)
  3. Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
  4. Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)

Leatherbacks being the vulnerable enormous (think 300-500kg) pre-historic beasts with a leathery carapace*; greens as the cute turtles from Finding Nemo; hawksbill being the critically-endangered turtles with the hawk-like bill (pointing out the obvious); and, the loggerheads that never “really” appear but were supposedly sighted…a few years ago.

(*for more info on the Leatherback, watch this interesting video from Exploring Nature’s Giants

Leatherback Example

The project is conducted in two daily surveys: night patrol and morning census. Both consist of a team made up of a patrol leader and volunteer(s)/intern(s) who spend from 4-6+ hours on the beach collecting data and deterring poachers. The main purpose of the morning census is to monitor triangulated (marked) nests and to execute excavations to collect data on nests such as hatchling success rates. On the other hand, night patrol focuses on patrolling the beach for nesting turtles to triangulate (mark) their nests, tagging turtles, collect data on the turtle, and deter poachers. It is important to minimize light usage as it distracts and disorients the turtles, so there is a no light policy unless necessary (and only with red lights). Despite having to wear all dark attire, we were definitely not in the least ninja-esque on the beach with no lights (but I must say, the human eye is indeed a magnificent organ, you’ll be amazed at how well it can adjust to the lack of light). Both surveys must occur every day in any weather condition…obviously, safety is the number one priority but a little rain and a little lightning/thunder (at a “safe” distance) never hurt anyone.


Unfortunately, summer ’14 decided not be a hot and poppin’ year during my time but fortunately, I never knew any better with no experience to compare it to (I particularly enjoy my long strolls on the beach, how romantic?!). During my time, I was able to work (or observe) over +/- 6 leatherbacks, +/- 5 hawksbill, 4 greens, tag 1 green (CP2900), participate in +/-7 excavations, see a hawksbill during the day, see 2 hatchlings, and walk ~800 miles. As my fellow intern would say: “being slapped in the face by a green turtle was the best thing that could have ever happened to me!”
HatchlingAlthough it seems to have solely a biological perspective, other issues from a humanities viewpoint are present. First of all, the concept of conservation can be controversial ethically and morally. During my stay, I had the chance to witness the capture and release of a hawksbill turtle for the annual Tour de Turtles held by STC (Sea Turtle Conservancy) in Tortuguero. This event creates amazing publicity for the conservation of turtles, however, one could argue against the stress placed on the turtle through using it as a spectacle.

Tour de Turtles

At Caño Palma it is understood that poaching of turtles is a complex topic since it became an illegal act during the current older generation of the communities. Not to say that it shouldn’t be illegal but to understand it within the cultural aspect of Costa Rica. Through acknowledging that, the target generation is the youth and so, Caño Palma works closely with the school of the neighbouring village of San Francisco through organizing a conservation club after-school program and having interns help out on a daily basis.
Conservation ClubThe Caño Palma-experience allowed me to explore and to understand issues at a practical level such as counting eggs while the turtle is laying them or attempting to do a beach debris clean (beach – 1, Caño Palma – 0). Not only was it life-changing, I also met and worked with passionate and brilliant individuals who have in some way or form seen the worst of me (hygienic-wise and/or emotionally, physically, and psychologically). All in all it was a ________ (insert either: “good”, “great”, “fantastic”) experience.

Next up: Part III – A Social Science Nerd in the “Real Science” World


3 thoughts on “Summer Internship ’14, Part II: Becoming the Turtle Whisperer

  1. Pingback: How to Intern in Paradise, Part I | Voyager pour gagner son pain

  2. Pingback: How to bake your way through a tough situation: a post on transferable skills | Voyager pour gagner son pain

  3. Pingback: International Studies Worst-Kept Secret: the Symposium | Voyager pour gagner son pain

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