Based in the lush green forests of Cahuita National Park, the ANAI Conservation Program is focused on community driven conservation and development initiatives. Working closely with the locals of the Talamanca region, where the conservation site is located, ANAI has encouraged economically viable and environmentally sound activities. One of these is the turtle conservation program in Cahuita National Park. Volunteering in Cahuita National Park and watching turtles nesting was one of my favourite travel experiences – here’s what it was like.
Volunteering with turtles: Cahuita National Park
With black sand beaches, tropical forests, mangroves and an abundance of wildlife, Cahuita National Park is a diverse, colourful habitat. The park includes a 12 km long coastline, an important nesting area for endangered hawksbills, leatherbacks and green sea turtles.
The volunteer site is located in the middle of Cahuita National Park, sitting about 100m away from the warm blue green sea and the black sand beach that stretches for miles between Punta Vargas to Puerto Viejos. An 8.5km trail leads from the entrance of the National Park to Cahuita, the nearest town.
The main building houses the open sided communal, the research centre, radio, kitchen, showers and toilets. Dotted around it are the outdoor sheds where the quad bikes, machetes, hardware, 20 litre bottles of water, toilet tissue and other supplies are kept. There is also a bank of outdoor sinks and showers, and a wooden structure divided into 4 cramped rooms for the researchers. There is a generator which runs for about an hour every night – that’s the only window to recharge devices.
Volunteers are housed in bunks in an airy, concrete floored, tin roofed building, christened the Racoon Hut by my group of volunteers, as it was the first building to fall prey to pilfering racoons after we got there. At night, you can hear the sea as you fall asleep.
Volunteering with turtles: Duties
For two weeks, my volunteering duties included:
- Monitoring the beach during nesting season. This involved patrolling the beach at night for shifts of 4 hours, sometimes more if a nesting female was found
- Relocation of nests at high risk into safer areas or into the hatchery
- Guarding the hatchery at all hours, in shifts of 6 hours. This involved checking the nests every 20-30 minutes to note if hatchlings have emerged and keeping an eye out for predators such as crabs and racoons going after the eggs
- Collecting data. We were tasked with measuring and counting hatchlings as they emerged, and noting the nests temperatures every 6 hours, as well as recording the daily barometer readings.
- Assisting the international researchers with data collection such as tagging adult turtles
- General housekeeping duties e.g. sweeping out the Racoon Hut, assisting with food prep and washing dishes
There is plenty of down time to hike, snorkel, and swim in between volunteer duties. The volunteers bonded over long talks in the dark hours while watching the hatchery, card games and conversation. We hailed from all around – Spain, Australia, the USA.
A typical day usually involved an early morning wake up call from the resident howler monkeys, then breakfast, an early morning swim in the warm sea followed by a walk around the park to try and spot some sloths, lunch, a nap in the sun on the beach, another swim or snorkel, a shower, dinner, a game of cards, beach patrol, then to bed. Rinse and repeat.
There are cool mornings and warm swims in a tranquil sea; heat simmering off the black sands in the brightness of the afternoons; sunlight dappled across forest paths and the smell of rich earth on our daily walks; the silence of velvet night, when the world shrinks to a circle of light and all time seems to stop.
Volunteering with turtles: Around Cahuita
Boca Chica is a restaurant / bar located within a 20 minute walk from the volunteer site. There’s basic food options like burgers and pasta if you tire of the rice and beans on offer at the volunteer site, as well as a fully stocked bar and a pool. From here, you can catch a bus to nearby Puerto Viejo, the main town. There are grocery shops and banks and bars and other amenities. Here you can do laundry and kick back with a cerbeza on your off days. Walking back from Puerto Viejo will take about an hour – or you can wait for a bus.
Volunteering with turtles: What to pack
Aside from the usual items to pack when visiting the tropics, such as appropriate clothing, books, towel, swim wear, sunblock and personal items, you’ll need to bring a few specific things for volunteering with turtles.
1. Bug repellent
The site is minimal, with bare necessities provided, but if you’re planning on volunteering in the tropics you should bring a mosquito net to hang over your bed, as well as bug spray. Note that DEET insect repellent should not be worn when you are working with the turtles as the chemical can affect the eggs. While on duty during sunrise and sunset hours I wore dark coloured long sleeved shirts and used citronella essential oil to repel mosquitoes.
2. a Torch
One of the main duties when volunteering with turtles is to patrol the beach during nesting hours at night. You will need a good torch – preferably with a red light option so as to not blind any turtles making their way up the beach. If your torch doesn’t come with a red light option, a quick hack is some red translucent wrapping paper and a rubber band.
3. Appropriate shoes
The best shoes to bring are Tevas or amphibious shoes that will work as well on solid ground as well as on a wet beach and in the waves. Given that beach patrol is over a 12km stretch (24km on a round trip) comfortable shoes that enclose your toes are a must, for safety and comfort.
Volunteering at Cahuita National Park was a life-affirming experience, a welcome break from routine and a way of contributing a little to trying to slow the extinction of sea turtles. The volunteer program was well run and organised, with lots of opportunity to learn balanced with plenty of chances to relax on a beach, make friends and have some fun.