First Steps: A Pilgrimage across the Sand

Author: Kristen Sawyer National Geographic Student Expeditions Trip Leader, Costa Rica Community Service It all started with a baby turtle. I had never before held a baby turtle in my hands, its tiny fins pulling across my skin, as if it was churning up its own energy to embark on the longest journey of its short life thus far— surviving the sand, the threats of the water, and fighting for its right to live. I found myself here, on Playa Jobo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, through a perfectly timed connection, as so often happens when working on the ground in a location. My job as a trip leader with National Geographic Student Expeditions grants me the opportunity to plant new seeds in a location; in this case, the area in and around Cuajiniquil, Guanacaste. Nat Geo Student Expeditions is a branch of National Geographic that encourages students from all over the world to explore other cultures and engage with different communities. There are photography, writing, science, and community service expeditions in over thirty countries. I am one of the co-leaders for the Costa Rica community service expedition. Most of our work takes place in Cuajiniquil, a small fishing town close to the border of Nicaragua. There, we have painted the community center, created murals on the high school walls, taught English, assisted farmers clearing their land, and helped to increase tourism to this part of Guanacaste, but we have never before ventured onto the sands of Playa Jobo, even though it is just a mere thirty kilometers away from Cuajiniquil. My connection that brought me to this turtle release is in the form of a sinewy French woman named Mathilde; she is the Environmental Educator and volunteer coordinator of ETC, Equipo Tora Carey, or Team Black and Carey Turtle. Only a year older than me, Mathilde holds herself tall as a woman who has seen, and done, much more. She is the type of strong spirit you hope to win over as a friend, who you want supporting your arguments in a debate. Her values for conservation are strong, and extend into her everyday practices. A friend of a friend had connected us, encouraging me that the two of us should get together, and so, over coffee sips and talk of turtles, a new partnership was formed. That first meeting, Mathilde explained to me the work of ETC. ETC is a NGO based in the town El Jobo; it was started by Maike Heidemeyer, a marine biologist and conservationist,  almost two years ago. ETC has various branches, but its mission is based in conservation, research, and accumulation of resources for yellow neck parrots, sea turtles, and rays. It is an organization intricately woven into the fabric of the El Jobo community and the surrounding beaches. Maike knows that no change can be sustainable without the investment of the community members themselves. She and her team, including Mathilde, work with local fisherman to provide education about sustainable fishing practices, about turtle habits and nesting, and about recycling. The team also teaches kids in El Jobo about the same topics, as well as how to tag and collect tissue samples from rays and turtles. The data is used to prove migratory patterns, genetic of the species and to determine areas for protection. We planned that some of the students I was leading in Cuajinquil could come to help out at one of the kid camps on the upcoming Saturday; they’d clean the beach, tag rays, and snorkel to see the turtles. But before that day came to pass, Mathilde sent me a message early Thursday morning: ‘Baby turtle!’ Later that afternoon, I drove over. I had always loved turtles, but knew very little; in fact, turtles remain a mystery for many. Biologists know they eat jellyfish. They know there are eight species of sea turtle in the world (although this is arguable; some biologists say seven); five of them nest along the shore in Guanacaste. In this particular area of northern Guanacaste, around the peninsula known as Punta Descartes, there are three sea turtles that come to nest: Pacific Black, Olive Ridley, and Hawksbill. Pacific Green and Leatherback also frequent the coast further south. Playa Jobo, where ETC is based, has been said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, but it’s also one of the areas that has seen immense drops in the turtle population. Just off the shore of Playa Jobo, a little further south, a large alimentation site brings red snappers, manta rays, sting rays, sea turtles, lobster, octopus and more. It’s the secret feeding ground of marine creatures from here and from afar— sea turtles from the Galápagos Islands have been found at this site—but the secret is known by the large fishing companies as well. The majority of fishermen, who have fished their entire lives in these waters, utilize methods that optimize productuction, namely large nets with small holes. Even though the fishermen from El Jobo and the surrounding area operate on a smaller scale and don’t use such nets, larger companies from elsewhere in the country do. They drop their lattices to the ground and leave them there overnight, white-toothed jaws lying wide open; the jaws lazily close the following morning around baby fish not yet mature, and all colorful flaps and wriggles of bycatch– turtles, octopus, and even the occasional baby shark. What happens to these creatures when their existence is noted by the fishermen the next morning? Their corpses are left to float away on the waves, to sink or to be eaten; the fishermen shake their heads, counting what gives them profit, never noting the uncountable.    Along with the dangers in the water, the populated, touristic coasts of Costa Rica present their own challenges. The beaches, whether sand or rock, are often peppered with trash: plastic bottles, miscellaneous plastic, bottle caps, beer cans. Our Nat Geo group had worked with the Leatherback Turtle Trust in Playa Grande

Tiempo de limpieza de Playa Manzanillo!

Una vez por semana vamos a limpiar Playa Manzanillo o Playa el Jobo y sus arrecifes. Esta accion consiste en recoger todos los desechos grandes o pequeños. Es difícil imaginar la diversidad de desechos que se encuentran en las playas o sus aguas. En ocaciones nos encontramos refrigeradoras o partes de ellas como puertas que los niños usan como tabla de boogy y dejan botadas en las playas. El día de hoy limpiamos Playa Manzanillo con los Protectores del Ambiente; grupo de niños y niñas 2.5 años a 15 años. Empezamos por el mar. Armados de equipo de esnorkel y bolsas de malla, exploramos las aguas azules de playa Manzanillo. Los niños ayudan bastante y llaman a Mathilde cada vez que descubren desecho bajo del agua que no pueden recoger ellos mismos en razón de la profundidad. Así, entre ella y ellos recogimos bolsa de chips, fibra de vidrio, latas, bombillo, bolsa en  cartón…en resumen un poco de todo. En la playa muchas latas, filtros de cigarrillos, botellas plásticas y vidrio, bolsas, papel de confites, miles de tapas y pajillas…Resulto que en 3 horas recogimos 10 kg de basura. Súper orgullosos, los niños me enseñan cada uno de los desecho recogidos. Además recogieron un esqueleto de raya látigo para Sebastián (el profe de la rayas). Es increíble observar como estos niños se implican y toman en serio esta acción. Nadie se escapa o anda de vago, todos están súper motivados. Yo creo que acciones así les sensibilizan y les educan. Ellos dicen que siempre les cuentan todo a los padres así que tengo el sentido que ellos mismos van a sensibilizar y educar a sus padres. Estos niños saben diferenciar los desechos reciclables o de aquellos que no lo son, saben que una tortuga puede morir por haber confundido una medusa con una bolsa plástica. Mathilde hizo un gran trabajo con este grupo de niños gracias a sus clases de educación ambiental. Todos parecen consientes de la importancia y del impacto de sus acciones y del desastre que pueden generar los humanos. Limpieza de playa.  02/06/17