We stumble down the beach, eyes peeled, trying to make out any kind of silhouette in the crashing surf. The sky, the sea, the sand—all are nearly indiscernible in the inky black. Only piles of spent waves, frothing up in thin white pillows, break the ominous palette.
Suddenly someone whispers urgently: “There! Is that one?”
Our group of five immediately drops down on the wet sand. I’m looking, but just can’t see what’s crawling out of the ocean, even though I know what’s there: a hulking, incoming mass of ancient reptile. It is also the singular reason I’m in Costa Rica and tripping along the beach at three in the morning with a bunch of Missoula high school students. Endangered leatherback sea turtles have been crawling out of this ocean, onto this beach, at this time of year, for a very long time. But the journey is filled with peril, and we’re here hoping to help.
This 7-foot long female, a member of a species that evolved at the same time as dinosaurs, is used to floating along in an aquatic medium, and the friction that comes from dragging her impressive bulk through the sand has her struggling. Indeed, this may be the first time since her birth that she’s been on land. With a beaked mouth, beachball-sized head and massive flippers, she looks ancient. Slowly, methodically, drawing deep, raspy breaths, she heaves herself up a short steep pitch of beach and finally crawls onto the dry sand above the high tide line.
Our group learned earlier in the day that she’s familiar with this beach, or at least one near here. Her last visit here may have been when she was 500 pounds lighter—a palm-sized hatchling whose sole terrestrial memory could be nothing more than a mad dash to the sea. And not just any dash, but a race against gulls and crabs and poachers and jaguars while on land, followed by a long swim through a gauntlet of sea predators and pollution and fishing nets that won’t ever leave her alone.
She is the largest of all the world’s reptiles, and the best diver anywhere, more accomplished even than sperm whales. Before returning to this beach—all leatherbacks return to their birthplace to lay eggs—the 1 percent of turtles reaching adulthood will go for a two- or three-year swim-about, often to places as far away as Europe or Nova Scotia, at times diving more than 3,900 feet beneath the water’s surface. But after a few years of ocean exploration, the females come, as she has, full of eggs to this very beach. On this visit, we’re here to watch.
She makes a laborious, 10-minute and nearly complete circle in the sand and starts digging a hole, preparing for the heap of eggs soon to drop from her cloaca. The researcher in our group, Jose Ruiz Martin, asks us to wait and then walks right up behind the behemoth. Once he determines that she’s not on a “false crawl,” (a trip up the beach that, for whatever her reasons, doesn’t result in egg laying), Martin signals for us to join him at her business end.
The nest she’s excavating is the culmination of 110 million years of evolution, perfectly suited to incubate her offspring, of the right temperature and well hidden from predators. Soon she enters into a pseudo-trance deep enough to allow humans to approach without disturbing her motherly motions. When the egg laying is done—and that’s on her schedule, not ours—she’ll cover the nest with sand and slowly crawl back down the beach and into her home in the sea.
But for all her instinctual impressiveness, this great leatherback mother is not the only one on this beach exploring the unknown.
I’m here at the Pacuare Nature Reserve, a turtle-rich beach on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, to photograph a group of Hellgate High School students on a 10-day whirlwind tour of the country. Although the trip involves get-togethers with Costa Rican high school students and educational visits to banana plantations, organic coffee farms, and a remote jungle research facility, this stint on the beach is universally the students’ highpoint—and it’s not because of the tanning ops.
Established in 1989 by the conservation group Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Pacuare reserve is ground zero for an ongoing international effort to help save the leatherback sea turtle. While visitors come from all over the world, through many different organizations, the Hellgate students are here to participate in a program run by the Missoula-based non-profit Ecology Project International. EPI was formed in 2000 after co-founder Scott Pankratz, who was traveling alone in Costa Rica at the time, realized while volunteering on a remote turtle project that the poorly understood leatherbacks needed to see significantly improved protections if they were to survive.
Costa Rica was already becoming a mecca for eco-tourism, but a business model in which people walked through jungle canopies, whizzed overhead on zip lines, rafted down rivers and perhaps gaped at a few turtles was not going to cut it. Instead, Pankratz believed, culture-wide education was necessary. But he wasn’t sure how to get that done.
“I was just a big-ass gringo white guy,” he says today. “And my Spanish sucked. I wasn’t sure what I’d do, but I knew something had to be done to save these turtles.”
Before his trip to Costa Rica, Pankratz had worked with high school kids at the Wyoming-based Teton Science School and had led rafting trips and worked as a ski patroller. The experiences had him thinking about the potential for an environmental venture with a three-pronged mission: education, conservation and cultural exchange.
Pankratz—along with co-founder Julie Osborne (now his wife)—launched EPI in 2000 and, after a few early challenges, the business took off. Today, EPI operates in Costa Rica, Mexico and the Galapagos, and employs 28 people, nine of them in Missoula. In Costa Rica, EPI has carved a new niche out of the standard ecotourism/recreation circuit, one that focuses on giving students hands-on experiences while working side-by-side with researchers on actual conservation projects.
The group’s efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. This winter, the British Broadcasting Corporation awarded EPI a $40,000 grant for protecting habitat and turtles in the Galapagos and for its efforts to encourage students from Central America and beyond to explore fields in conservation.
In fact, in Pankratz’s view, the most important goal for EPI is to keep attracting Ticos—the word Costa Ricans use to refer to themselves.
“Our business is different than everything else out there,” says Pankratz, seated on a recent day in his office above the corner of Higgins and Broadway in downtown Missoula. “Sixty percent of our enrollment is students who come from in-country.”
Costa Ricans have long eaten turtle eggs, and egg poaching has posed grave threats to the leatherback’s survival, he notes, so winning local support for the reptile is critically important.
Securing other supports, of course, is necessary, too. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the leatherback is endangered throughout its range. Commercial fishing, pollution, and nesting habitat destruction have caused populations to drop precipitously low.
Being pelagic creatures—those that live in the open sea—leatherbacks aren’t easy to study; as a result, NOAA estimates that the population of breeding females worldwide is anywhere between 70,000 to 150,000. But the animal’s plight is painstakingly clear. According to the World Wildlife Fund, for example, the number of leatherbacks at a nesting colony in Malaysia plummeted from more than 3,000 females in 1968 to just two in 1993. Other research shows that populations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans have dropped nearly 80 percent in recent decades, and the species is faring only slightly better in the Atlantic.
EPI believes that giving local students the chance to witness firsthand the universally powerful experience of turtle nesting will help them see that the animals are far more valuable as a tourist draw than as a source of eggs to eat.
“Many of the Tico students will have seen turtle eggs, but few have seen [turtles] alive,” says Pankratz. Working personally with turtles tends to change that, and more. EPI’s program has proven highly effective, with nesting sites at Pacuare increasing from less than 400 in 2000 to just over 900 last year. Our group witnessed at least two poached nests—the signs of human digging are obvious—during our visit. But poaching is becoming increasingly uncommon.
It will be rarer still if local students continue to go through the program, Pankratz believes. “Really, we’d like to get [the number of Costa Rican students] closer to one hundred percent,” he says. But that will take time—and money. Currently, international student fees have covered the costs for local participants, allowing Ticos to attend for free. But a newly hired EPI fundraiser hopes to bring in addition funds, allowing a higher percentage of Costa Ricans to enroll.
In the meantime, EPI’s destinations have expanded to turtle nesting sites in the Galapagos Islands and Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. The company this year alone enrolled more than 60 groups of 15 to 20 high schoolers. In each location, students are treated not as tourists, but as research assistants, and as such they’re expected to work.
“Students quickly realize that they’re part of a research project and they’d better step it up and act like a grad student,” Pankratz says.
Almost all of the 17 high school students in our group are sophomores and juniors, aside from one senior (on his second EPI trip). Rounding out our group are two Hellgate High teachers-turned-chaperones, as well as two EPI teachers, Missoulian Nick Deyo and Andrea Monge of Mexico City. We’ve split into three teams, and every two hours, at 8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight, one of the groups leaves the oasis of humble plywood bunkhouses to patrol the critical two-mile stretch of nesting beach.
Our bunch, hunkered down amid the sand flies on this windless tropical night, responds immediately when Ruiz Martin, the researcher, signals us that it’s okay to move on in. The turtle finishes digging her nest and enters her trancelike state. Quickly the students jump into action, measuring, tagging, counting and otherwise learning as much as possible during their 40-minute interaction with the creature. She’s missing half a flipper, a loss that’s likely fed an orca or great white shark. Somehow though, she was still able to dig a near-perfect nest.
Bright lights, be they tourist headlamps or security lights on beach homes, regularly confuse or otherwise turn around nesting turtles, sending them back to the sea without laying their eggs. Martin wears a red light to help us see, but it hopefully won’t discourage this leatherback from getting her work done. The lights dart about her shell, further adding to the eerie sensation that goes with handling a massive, foreign reptile in the dark.
Twelve hours earlier, the kids had learned what to expect and what to do. But that was without a giant turtle present. Still, they work intently and quietly. They take out notebooks and tape measures and pull on latex gloves (which prevent bacterial transmission, both from turtle to handler and vice versa). They measure the shell and flippers, noting wounds or anything else of note, read off the measurements, and jot them down.
Since this stretch of beach is regularly eroded by tidal action, the sandy nests will occasionally wash away here. To prevent that loss, the students place a bag beneath the mother’s cloaca just in time to start catching eggs. The mother seems to hardly notice our presence, and in 10 minutes or so the bag holds 90 eggs.
Students will bury the eggs later tonight, just above the high water mark and directly in front of the reserve’s headquarters, where poachers and beach erosion will be far less likely to disturb them. In 65 days, hatchlings will emerge, digging through the sand and scampering into the water.
Taylor Lennox, 16, is blown away. “Look at this massive, prehistoric thing! She puts so much effort into getting these babies into this nest, but she’ll never even see them again,” he says.
After the turtle drops the final eggs, she makes an instinctual effort to bury them, not knowing they’re actually bagged up. She flips sand with both front and rear flippers until she’s satisfied they’re covered. Then, without turning around to see her handiwork, she turns toward the sea, slowly pulling herself towards the breaking waves until finally she’s buoyed by the water and floats out into the darkness.
An organization calling itself Ecology Project International should, by definition, be paying attention to its ecological footprint, and the act of jetting scores of people halfway across the world to tag and measure turtles on a regular basis could easily raise questions about the organization’s commitment to the environment, and to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“There’s no easy answer to the carbon footprint question,” Pankratz states. “That’s why we want to stick to our core goals, which is local students. It’s the most important part of what we do.”
Changing people’s attitudes, as the students themselves put it, is also important. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, and involving teenagers in new ways of seeing and caring about the environment can translate into earth-friendly behavior down the road.
The Hellgate kids are well aware of this, and conversations about being highly privileged, resource-using Americans come up more than once on the trip. Once back home, the awareness sticks. In a follow-up interview at Bernice’s Bakery with nine of the students, superlatives like “awesome,” “blown away” and “amazing” are continuously used to describe the experience of witnessing, from inches away, a veritable dinosaur laying her eggs.
The students also express the difficulty they have had describing their revelations to peers, family and friends. “We gave some presentations on the trip to classmates, and it’s been really difficult trying to convey the intensity of [witnessing] turtles nesting,” says Clare Chisolm, 17.
“We learned so much, and will definitely be spreading the word about turtles,” says Katherine Williams, 17. “That hopefully will make up for it; hopefully, we can now make that much more of a difference.”
A difference is what many of the students seem to be seeking—some kind of stimulus that moves them out of their day-to-day lives as adolescents, stuck in a schedule of school and family that’s at least partly outside their control.
“Going to Costa Rica allowed us to step back from this bizarre high school existence and all of its weirdness,” says Andy Vale, 16. “It really gave me a new perspective, one I hope to hang on to.”
“But when we came back, every day is the same thing now,” adds Ike Wallace, 17. “I mean I used to just go to Albertson’s parking lot and hang out, and that’s just lame! Now I just have to fill my weekends with stuff; I just can’t have a dull moment.”
Other students are dealing with the same kinds of issues, trying to make the transition back to life in Missoula. Lennox says he’ll do whatever it takes to return to Costa Rica to work with turtles. Wallace has new plans to spend a month or more in Montana’s wilderness in a minimalist fashion. And many of them say they’re taking cold showers in Tico solidarity, and to save energy. Vale takes it a step further. “I’m loving the cold showers!” he exclaims. “And if I could find a poisonous spider, I’d throw one of those in, too.”
The affect on students occurs without exception, says Rob Jensen, a science teacher and wildlife biologist who teaches at Hellgate. Jensen and Hellgate English teacher Carla Hinman volunteer as chaperones each year for the EPI Costa Rica trip. But despite the headaches and challenges that come with managing 17 teens as they tour a developing nation, he says every bit is worth the effort.
“Seeing an 8-foot, half-ton turtle lay eggs on a tropical beach is actually a very small part of it,” says Jensen. What affects students even more, he says, “is seeing the world through a different lens—one that appreciates other cultures and lifestyles, poverty, the environmental impacts of human activities, rain forest diversity, its conservation, and the challenge of conservation efforts and field research. That’s pretty powerful stuff for a 16-year-old kid.”