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Sea Turtle Adventures, San Jose to Playa Blanca, 220 miles

If you missed part one our adventures in Costa Rica, click here.

My first day volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group in Costa Rica easily ranks as the most enjoyable day of volunteer work I’ve ever experienced. I’d make up for it the following afternoon, but I wasn’t thinking about manual labor on that morning. And I can guarantee you Nora and Rita weren’t either.

We were riding in a skiff across the calm waters of the Gulfo Dulce. The gulf is sandwiched between the Osa Peninsula and mainland Costa Rica. Besides a marine biologist, a research assistant, and four other volunteers, the boat was loaded with scientific equipment, such as scales, rulers, cameras, nets, log books, latex gloves, syringes, and disinfectant.

I inhaled the smell of salt water and felt the sunshine soaking into my skin, but they were the only two familiar sensations. Everything else was foreign. Mangroves and banana trees, tall and bare except for their umbrella-like tops, slid past each side of us. Somewhere in that lush jungle, monkeys, wild cats, and sloths were hanging out. And somewhere in the clear waters, dolphins, whales, sharks, and sea turtles were swimming. National Geographic called the Osa Peninsula one of the most biologically intense places on the earth. And we were right in the thick of it.

We were working for the Osa In-Water project, helping them on a “water day.” A water day meant spending six hours in the gulf trying to catch sea turtles. If we caught one, we would tag them. If they were already tagged, we’d collect tissue samples and biometric measurements so the biologists could study things like population structures, general health, and habitat changes. Once we collected all the necessary information, we’d release the turtles back into the ocean. The project is particularly interested in two endangered species, the green and hawksbill.

Nora, Rita, and I had learned about water day the night before when we arrived at Playa Blanca, 220 miles south of San Jose, Costa Rica. Playa Blanca isn’t a town. It’s a village, which we realized as soon as we turned down the one dirt road that runs through it. It’s a place so small nobody has an address, and there is no such thing as a postal worker. Instead, people give directions through landmarks. And public buses transport letters or packages to the only store in the village. The same man who ran the store was also the skiff’s captain.

After twenty minutes, the boat stopped next to a remote beach nestled inside a cove. The biology team laid out a net that was a couple thousand feet across. Nora, Rita, and I carried equipment to the beach. One hour passed, then another, and we still didn’t catch a turtle. We ate our packed lunches, which mainly consisted of rice and beans. That was our third meal in Playa Blanca, and it was the third time we’d had rice and beans. Each time our hostess had added a new twist, last night she mixed in peppers, eggs for breakfast, and now fruit.

The in-water project provides food and housing for a small fee. As soon as we had opened our cabin door, I realized people don’t volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group because of the accommodations. Our room’s whole décor gave off a jail-like vibe. It had concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a tin roof, bunk beds, no windows, and no air conditioning. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and emitted a feeble glow. Every bed had a pillow, a fitted, and flat sheet. We never had hot water, not even lukewarm, but we did have a cockroach or two that scattered whenever we turned on the bathroom light.

Three hours into water day and still no turtles, so Nora, Rita, and I wandered off to explore the mangroves. Mangrove trees only live in warm climates, and they are key to the coastline’s health. They are easy to recognize because of their exposed and tangled root systems, as though they are standing on mangled stilts. This tangled abundance stabilizes coastlines, but it also provides safe nesting grounds for hundreds of species, including sea turtles.

We were examining different kinds of hermit shells when I first noticed the tiny red dots around Rita’s ankles. Once I saw a few, more and more appeared, until it looked like she had suddenly broken out in a severe case of measles. Starting at her toes and running up her thighs, she had at least fifty sand flea bites on each leg.

The research assistant had told us to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, and not to wear any bug spray because it was bad for the turtles. Looking at Rita, I had no doubt she complied. Nora and I didn’t wear any either, and we had a few bites but nothing compared to Rita. I don’t know what sweetness she had in her blood, but the sand fleas loved it. And they ate her alive.

The biologist, a French woman in her mid-thirties, advised us to sit in the water because it was the only place to escape them. So, for the last three hours we spent on that remote beach, we soaked up to our chests in the Gulfo Dulce’s warm waters. The water must have been 80 degrees, like bathwater. The jungle surrounded us in all its exotic green glory. Sometimes, red macaws, traveling in pairs and trailing their long tail feathers, flew above us. Occasionally, we heard a toucan’s frog-like croak.

We never caught a sea turtle, but a few times one would peek its head above water. Somehow the biologist knew from one glimpse whether it was a green or hawksbill. Besides our group, we didn’t see any people. We saw another small skiff, but it was as far away as the horizon. At some point, I said, “This is got to be the best day of volunteering. Like ever.” Even Rita agreed.

We’d pay for every bit of ease the next day, on mangrove day. But, we didn’t know that then, so we soaked until we pruned, until schools of tiny darting fish started nibbling on our toes.

Four Ways to Help Cuban Dogs

Yesterday I posted a story about the dog overpopulation problem in Cuba. Click here to read it. It’s not easy to read about suffering dogs. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to write about them either. It took me over a month to finish that post, and there were times I almost gave up because I just wanted to forget about the Alamar dog and the Muraleando puppy. Yet, I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t see them. If we don’t see the problem, then who will? The good news is that there are practical ways we can all help Cuban dogs. I’ve listed four below.

1. Spread the Word

I normally spot one to two strays a month in Robertson County. I saw 40 dogs in one week in Havana. At some point during my trip, I asked our tour guide Norberto about all the strays. Without twitching an eyebrow, he told me that Cuba doesn’t have an animal overpopulation problem. At a different time, he also said there aren’t any slums in Cuba. I gathered that our definitions of animal overpopulation and slums are different, or he wasn’t allowed to tell me about his island’s problems. Knowledge is the only way to counter this type of propaganda. Words can be powerful tools. Dogs can’t tell their stories, so it’s up to us to spread the word.

2. Support Cuban animal welfare Organizations

Here are three boots-on-the-ground, reputable organizations:

All People for Animals in Cuba (APAC)

TAP Animal Project

Cubans in Defense of Animals (CEDA)

All of these organizations have wish lists, and if you can afford to donate money, then fantastic. But, you can also support them for free through social media. As we all know, social media has an incredible amount of influence these days, so follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and IG. It’s such a little thing, but it means so much.

3. Volunteer

Did I mention how good the mojitos are?

There are numerous restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, but volunteer work is one of the reasons we are allowed to go. So, if you are up for an adventure, desire a fantastic mojito, and want to make a difference in a place that desperately needs our help, then volunteer at an animal welfare organization in Cuba. I advise checking out Aniplant. Nora Garcia is a total badass who has been saving Cuban dogs for almost 30 years.

4. Bring Supplies

If you are going to Cuba, or know anyone who is traveling there, leave room in your suitcase for animal supplies. Cuban rescue organizations need everything from gauze to blankets, but they really need flea and tick preventative. Before I left, I had been advised that if immigration asks about the 30 doses of Frontline I stuffed in my suitcase, tell them they are gifts not donations. Luckily, I wasn’t even questioned. In fact, the process was so easy I regretted not bringing more. But, to be on the safe side, do your research before you leave, and remember it can all be confiscated.

Why Sea Turtles Need People Like Honora Gabriel

Mason and I swam with sea turtles three years ago. It was (by far) the closest I’d ever been to the reptiles, so I was unprepared for both their grace and their friendliness. The turtles glided through the clear blue Caribbean with an elegance that hinted at their longevity. Their family tree branches back to prehistoric times. It was an amazing experience, the rare kind where I entered a foreign land yet felt completely welcome.

This memory resurfaced a few months ago when Honora Gabriel told me she was spending two weeks saving sea turtles in Costa Rica. The turtles need help because six out of seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

Like every member in a well-run household, sea turtles have chores. In essence, they are the gardeners of the oceans because they mow the sea grass. Untended sea grass is like a weed. It kills everything. Turtles also keep the jellyfish population under control because they eat them. Plus, their hatched eggs leave nutrients in the sand that help combat erosion. Because of the turtle’s shrinking numbers, these chores aren’t getting done, and that affects the whole marine ecosystem. The Sea Turtle Conservancy put it like this, “All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.”

Honora is in her late thirties, petite with a mane of black curls. She’s a pharmaceutical consultant who designs programs that help patients get access to life-saving medications. She also blasts through every glass ceiling she encounters. The Charlotte Business Journal named her one of the “Top 25 Women in Business” in 2015. The following year the Mecklenburg Times gave her a “Woman of the Year” award. And in 2019, she’ll take over as Board President of Susan G. Komen Charlotte Chapter.

I’ve known Honora for over a decade, and I’d be proud to call her a friend even if she didn’t care about animals, but she does. And she does something about it. In December, Honora volunteered with Costa Rica Volunteer Now on the Playa Camaronal Wildlife Refuge. She slept under a mosquito net, chopped trails through the jungle, and lived on rice and beans for two weeks. And she did it so that we all get an opportunity to swim with sea turtles.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you know the Farnival likes to pay tribute to everyday badasses who help animals. People that prove anyone can make a difference. Recent additions to our list include Gus Sims and Barbara Jamison. Now it also includes Honora Gabriel. Two weeks ago, I caught up with Honora and asked her about her trip to Costa Rica.

So….why sea turtles? 

I’ve always felt a connection to the ocean. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then when I went to Ithaca College, I met [my husband] Jason and we would meet everyday at this sea turtle fountain. It’s the place where our relationship grew. It’s also the first place he told me he loved me, and Jason ended up getting that same turtle tattooed on his arm.

I can’t say why, but I feel like turtles are my spirit animals. So when I decided to leave corporate America, and I did leave corporate America, I wanted to mark it with something important to me. And I decided to save turtles.

Coolest thing you learned about sea turtles?

They return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtles can be thousands of miles away, but they still come back to the place where they hatched. This boggles my mind. For instance, say they are in Australia and they are coming to Costa Rica, how do they know when they have to leave? It really boggles my mind that they know when to leave, and that they make it back to where they were hatched. And turtles hatch from all over the globe. They are everywhere except the Polar Regions.

Can you describe where you stayed?

I’m going to liken it to a dorm at a scout camp because most people can relate to that. It’s a long building with concrete floors and walls. The ceiling is tin. You can hear the iguanas crawling on top of it at night. You can hear their tails. The windows are four-feet wide and kept open all the time because it’s hot, so we were totally exposed. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets. You are basically living out of your book bag.

I shared a bathroom with 15 other girls. There was another bathroom for the ten guys at our dorm. And because of the plumbing you couldn’t flush toilet paper. We had three toilets. Right across from the toilets are three showers. One didn’t work, water dribbled out of the other two, and it’s all cold water. Now, keep in mind, between the 25 people in our dormitory, we could only run water one at time. So sink, shower, toilet, one a time between 25 people. So, you had to warn people, “Hey, I’m showering,” or “I’m going to flush” or “I’m going to brush my teeth.” These are the conversations that occur.

What was a normal day of volunteering like? 

We had dayshifts from 9 -11 am and then between 3-5 pm. The night shifts were three hours sometime between 7:30 PM -1:30 am.

At night we patrolled the shoreline to find turtles heading to the beach or already laying their eggs. Raccoons are a natural predator, so we’d fend off the raccoons so the turtle could lay her eggs. Then, as she’s laying her eggs, we dug, stroke for stroke, behind her to make a parallel tunnel so that we could collect the eggs. Once we collected the eggs we took them back to the hatchery, dug a hole, and buried them. We also did hatchery patrol. If I was on this shift, I was chilling at the beach fort and every 30 minutes I checked the hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatched, we took them to the ocean.

The day shifts were manual, sweaty labor. We built trails at a nature preserve where people can pay to hike and see the hatcheries. If people come at night, they can see the hatchlings go into the water. It’s kind of like a National Park in the United States. The lead biologist was very focused on improving the trail system, and he wanted to make new trails. Well, talk about sweating your butt off. So, the people in the front go through with machetes, then we went through with shovels to dig the plants out or with rakes to rake the leaves, and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Ultimately, better trails mean more people will come to the sanctuary and that means more money for the turtles.

Another task was picking up trash and sticks off the beach. There was an amazing amount of driftwood on the beach, and that’s important to move because the baby turtles can’t crawl over it. We called that natural trash.

What made you angriest about the human trash?

The trash is so disappointing because it can get lodged anywhere in the sea turtle. It gets lodged in the their nose, in their throat. And there is so much of it.

There are so many straws on the beach. One day I was like I’m going to count how many straws I pick up in two hours because that will be impactful. I lost count after thirty minutes.

Number two is plastic bottle caps. I didn’t think about this before, but now I notice how many things have plastic caps. Think about it for a minute next time you’re in the grocery store. Everything we buy has a cap.

And number three is shoes.

Shoes?

 I’m not making this up.

Do you feel like you made a difference?

In my heart, I want to feel like I made a difference. But when I think about those two weeks in the grand scheme of things, I’ll say no. For example, one of my tour guides told me that he traveled from the Philippines to Costa Rica. He said what registered on his navigation system was an island and that was an island of plastic that resides in the Pacific. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That kills me.

What I can do is focus on spreading a message, a message that makes people change their ways because it’s the small things that help. You go to the grocery store and get plastic bags. Where do those bag go? It’s floating around in the ocean and it looks like a jellyfish. The turtle eats it. It ends up in his stomach, and then the turtle is dead. Everything in our life is plastic. I find myself refusing bags at the store or bringing my own bags. I refuse straws, which sounds like such a small thing but it’s important and anybody can do it. Just refuse a straw.

I bought every member of my family a book about turtles, so that they understand that everybody can help. For instance, something else people can easily do is shut off their lights. If you live on the coast, shut off the lights because all of those hatching turtles are going to gravitate towards the light instead of the ocean. And then they’ll die. So, my point is I hope I can make a difference by educating people about the simple ways everybody can help.