Turtle conservation in Costa Rica. Yes, I have saved leatherback turtles. Now this is the kind of week I had in mind when My Year In Flux began and I took the decision to undertake a new challenge every seven days, journeying to a remote, electricity-free (sounds as good as fat-free, doesn’t it?!) corner of the caribbean coast for a week of total immersion in nature and front-line turtle conservation in Costa Rica. Escapism at its best. Space to think. Space not to think. Space. Time. Simple existence.

turtle conservation in Costa Rica, look at the babies!

Journey to the corner of civilisation

The journey itself was thrilling enough, leaving noisy stinky San José (I can neither recommend this dangerous city nor the prison-like fortress of a hostel we stayed in) behind bright and early and journeying by bus along bumpy roads before transferring to taxi along dirt track, then finally a boat along a steamy crocodile-laden canal, to the idyllic Pacquarie beach (it isn’t on the map), where the turtle conservation teams from La Tortuga Feliz and Widecast reside. On this 7km stretch of sand, each night during turtle nesting season, craggy, endangered dinosaurs from the deep emerge to dig nests and deposit their eggs. Here endeth the romance of turtle conservation in Costa Rica, for what happens next is one of three things: very occasionally, the turtle digs, lays and covers their nest unobstructed, but more often than not (I was told 99% of the time) a poacher or a conservationist arrives as the turtle emerges, and then her eggs are either destined for the black market, or a carefully guarded hatchery located in the middle of the beach. When we were there, only half of all the eggs being laid nightly were being saved from poachers. On this particular beach, it seemed, volunteers are desperately needed to patrol for turtles and dissuade poachers.

My ego flinched instinctively as the realisation came that, by dismissing career and home life two months previously, I’d actually departed one social set and joined another.

turtle conservation in Costa Rica, a must for all fluxers

Turtle consvervation in Costa Rica: a haven for fluxers

When mentioning My Year In Flux in informal conversation, I’ve become used to the different sparks of interest it illicits. People are by turns stupefied, jealous or concerned for my wellbeing. Not here, not in this paradise which attracts a continual stream of volunteers, all with their own reasons for putting distance between themselves and the real world. Explaining to people at La Tortuga Feliz that I was at a crossroads and I was working through my life change one week at a time merely garnered a diffident nod. “You’re one of those are you?” acknowledged one of the project organisers. My ego flinched instinctively as the realisation came that, by dismissing career and home life two months previously, I’d actually departed one social set and joined another. But this was a momentary relapse, after all, I am writing about his journey publicly precisely because I feel there are others of you out there, like me, who need the courage to step back from your existence, dismiss unhappy routines and relearn how to embrace a vibrant life, rich with new experiences.

So yes, if you were thinking of trying to find something new, this certainly wasn’t the worst place in the world to do it, for during the day, hammocks swung, humidity-dampened book pages flicked and delicious rice-based meals were eaten.

by day, hammocks swung, humidity-dampened book pages flicked and delicious rice-based meals were eaten, but by night, two tribes go to war

I never thought I'd manage turtle conservation in Costa Rica

Darkness, egg theft and suspicion

The days of this week of turtle conservation in Costa Rica, then, were spent relaxing and sometimes keeping an eye on the turtle egg hatchery, where occasionally, to the delight of the conservation end of the island, baby turtles would begin emerging from the sand. But there are two ends to this place and two opposing philosophies and at night, in the words of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, two tribes go to war.

Between short naps, our night times were spent patrolling the beach, trying (often in vain) to reach emerging turtles and laying claim (honour dictates here that when a turtle is ‘claimed’ by either side the other shall not interfere) to them before the poachers arrived. On those dark nights, every shady character on the beach is under suspicion. And throughout my nightly four hour shifts, I saw dozens of poachers, some caught in the act, others skulking hopefully in the shadows.

Volunteering on this particular beach for this particular cause is not do-gooding, it does not appease middle class guilt, it cannot be classed as charitable. In this place, there is a passive-aggressive nightly war taking place, with an endangered animal the prize at stake. People regularly swap sides – poacher-turned-gamekeeper-turned-poacher is a familiar story in these parts – it is attritional, unglamorous, entirely necessary front-line conservationism.

tension from body and mind were released, and both fell into bed at sunrise feeling exercised and nourished.

Zen conservationism

At the heart of this nightly maelstrom, though, for the novice volunteer (our single week was the minimum stay permitted) there is an irresistibly peaceful force. Walking along a beautiful beach in the dark, exchanging few words with my groggy-cohorts as I stamped out a sandy 4 miles, pushed me into a deeply rhythmic, almost-meditative state. Thoughts drifted away with the waves, tension from body and mind were released, and both fell into bed at sunrise feeling exercised and nourished.

And just occasionally (only four times in our entire week), my zen spell would be broken as a great hulking mass would be seen emerging from the sea. Excitement piqued suddenly, and smiles abounded. We had a turtle! But before measurements could be taken, eggs saved and turtle tagged, the old girl must first climb sluggishly up the beach, dig a body pit, then begin the business of carefully digging her nest. In this 20-30 minute hiatus, there was nothing to do but crouch in the sand, breath, smile and marvel at nature.

So many more things could be said about this week of turtle conservation in Costa Rica, the sparkling hospitality from La Tortuga Feliz (it isn’t glamorous but it is homely and caring), or the ‘No Man’s Land’ game of football we played where the opposition were all poachers, the myriad iguanas, tropical birds and butterflies we lived amongst, these were all highlights; but the deep happiness I felt at sunset on my last day, as I watched 70 baby turtles crawling down the beach and making their way into the ocean, sealed for me a sense that, in this week of turtle conservation in Costa Rics, My Year In Flux had reached its first soaring peak.