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Mangrove Day: The Nitty-Gritty of Sea Turtle Rescue

If you missed part one of our 700-mile road trip in Costa Rica, click here. Click here for part two. By the way, this smiling iguana picture has nothing to do with this post’s two subjects, mangroves and sea turtles. But, we did take it in Costa Rica. And I love it so much that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it.

Mangrove Day, Playa Blanca, Costa Rica

After our first day of volunteering with the Osa In-Water project, I had high hopes about day two, which they called mangrove day. It started out pleasantly enough. Nora, Rita, and I ate rice and beans, toast with homemade marmalade in our hostess’s open-air living room. The living room held several family-size tables that stretched across concrete floors and a TV that took up half a wall. It played telenovelas in hi-definition from morning to night.

Mangrove day even started with a bonus. The day before we had spent six hours trying to catch sea turtles but didn’t catch any. After breakfast, the biologist called us to the beach. She had gone out early that morning and caught a green turtle. It was small and young compared to the ancient ones who can weigh up to 350 pounds.

Rita and I held the turtle’s hind flippers, while Nora logged measurements. We measured her shell and tail, took skin and blood samples, catalogued her tag number. Later, the biologist would enter it in a database they shared with organizations all over the world. With this shared data, they could track migratory patterns, growth rates, and general health information. Finally, after all the measurements were logged, we set her free.

Although that little lady hadn’t been outside the ocean for more than an hour, tears welled up in my eyes. I watched her slow and steady wake ripple along the surface long after her head disappeared. In the brief moments I had spent near her, I recognized her wisdom, the kind that makes her worth saving, the kind that makes people travel thousands of miles from home to see. I also realized that sea turtles are a lot like dogs. Both species have an inner peace that comes from knowing how to live in the moment. If they’ve already figured it out, why is it so hard for us?

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Releasing that sea turtle into the Gulfo Dulce was the last magical thing that happened on mangrove day. From that moment on, Nora, Rita, and I never stopped sweating. Occasionally, clouds provided shade, but for the most part we worked in 90- degree heat, humidity as thick as Tennessee’s, and didn’t stop working until late afternoon.

It’s not like we are strangers to hard work either. All three of us grow gardens, mow yards, rake leaves, and whack weeds. I currently live in the country with an acre of grass that needs to be maintained nine months a year. Rita and Nora had grown up on a farm. We all had experience at working outside in hot conditions, but gardening with rudimentary equipment in a tropical climate was tougher than the hottest day of weeding the yard.

Our first chore involved planting mangroves. With one veteran research assistant and two newly arrived assistants, we hiked to the nursery across terrain that alternated between sandy coastline and swampland. The nursery was a crude but functional structure. Long pieces of driftwood held up several triangular scrims that covered rows of potted mangroves. We loaded shovels and twenty-seven of the healthiest plants into a wheelbarrow and hiked for several more miles to the project’s reforestation zone.

Until Nora, Rita, and I planted mangroves in Costa’s Rica’s rocky shore, I didn’t realize why they are so fundamental for a healthy coastline. For one thing, they prevent erosion and store enormous amounts of carbon. But, they also provide nesting grounds and homes for sea turtles along with hundreds of other species. Some experts predict whole species would diminish and maybe disappear without them.

We spent a good hour on our plot, three trees per hole, three holes per row. The ground wasn’t only rocky but filled with roots, so we had to stand on the shovels and use our weight to break ground. The shovels had seen better days and often bent under our weight. When we finished planting, we spent the rest of the morning searching for older plots, so that we could count leaves and measure its growth.

Our hike back to the nursery took an extra hour, but that was the second best hour of the day. Because of high tide, we had to take a longer route through a banana plantation. The banana trees towered over our heads. Their lush spiked leaves created a canopy of fragmented light. Actually, the whole hike was surreal, complete with exotic bird sounds and palm oil seeds that crunched under our feet. At one point, Nora, Rita, and I had to cross a small estuary where crocodiles swim, and the water almost reached our knees. While I waded through the murky waters, the thought of bumping into one of those prehistoric meat-eaters did cross my mind. But, I crammed it into a corner. We were in a remote jungle in a foreign country, so what choice did I have?

After lunch, rice and beans with fruit slices, we worked just as hard if not harder than that morning. We carried buckets of water back and forth from the ocean to the nursery and doused every potted tree. Nora, Rita, and I probably carried twenty buckets each that day. Once, we tried cooling off in the Golfo Dulce, but the water was as warm as the air. Sweat dripped between every crevice of our bodies.

Finally, as the sun signaled late afternoon, we started our last chore. Nora, Rita, and I sank onto the ground next to a triangular box that looked like a sandbox, except it was filled with mud. A pile of mangrove seeds sat behind it. By that time, we weren’t thinking about the fact that we were sitting in dirt because it felt so good just to sit. With our hands, we shoveled mud into plastic bags six inches deep and stuck a mangrove seed in each. The dirt underneath my nails was so thick that I couldn’t get them completely clean for days. We hadn’t had warm water in our cabin since we arrived in Playa Blanca two days earlier. After we checked that last chore off our list, I found myself dreaming about one of our cabin’s signature cold showers.

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There is no denying that mangrove day was a hard, sweaty slog. Our first day of volunteering had been instantly gratifying. It took a lot longer to appreciate our second day. Mangrove day exposed the nitty-gritty of volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group in Costa Rica. It proved that rescuing sea turtles is romantic and rewarding, but it also involves hard manual labor.

Ironically, looking back, mangrove day means more to me than any other I spent in Costa Rica. I’m proud we planted twenty-seven mangroves and hiked seven miles through the jungle. All that hard work had given us a feeling of accomplishment, as though we earned something. And we earned it together. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Nora, Rita, and I became so close during our 700-mile road trip through Costa Rica. Whether we were crossing crocodile-infested estuaries or digging in the mud with our hands, we had each other’s back every step of the way.

Coming up next: One night in Quepos, Costa Rica and A Farewell to a Tree