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What I Learned From Volunteering in Costa Rica

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Cal Poly chapter.

When my roommate, Meghan, and I signed up for three weeks of volunteering in Costa Rica, we really had no idea what we were signing up for. We knew we wanted to travel, but we wanted to travel with a purpose. We went through an international volunteer group called IVHQ. Through them, we paid for our three weeks, received our safety information, and were given our general rundown of what staying in Costa Rica would be like. Once in CR, we worked with Maximo Nivel, a nonprofit located in CR itself. Maximo then sent us to a small Pacific-coast town named Ostional. Meghan and I were stationed at the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, living in volunteer dorms off of the Ranger Station. Ostional is famous for the Olive Ridley turtle and their nesting on this beach, in solitary and in mass. Solitary Olive Ridley turtles nest here year round. As well, Olive Ridley turtles nest here in mass once a month. Called an arribada, thousands of turtles storm this beach through day and night for up to a week, leaving behind tens of thousands of turtle eggs beneath the sand.

Living and working in Ostional was the hardest adjustment of my life. The dorms were 6 to a room, with 2 connected bathrooms and showers. Oriental cockroaches were common fixtures in the bathrooms and ants were common in the bedroom. There was no hot water or washing machine. You took cold showers and washed your clothes in an outdoor sink, hanging them to dry. It was roughly 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity while we were there, and rained every day. This time of year is the wet season, so the rains were heavy with spectacular lightning and thunderstorms.  

Day work varied throughout our trip. During the first week, we did hatchery work. Only Green Sea turtle and Leatherback turtle eggs are placed in the hatchery, due to them being critically endangered. At the beginning of these turtles nesting period, the hatchery needs a bit of cleaning out. The sand in the hatchery is considered dirty as it’s been used for hatching during the last nesting period. All this sand is removed to about 2 feet down. Any holes in the green net are then covered, to keep animals out. Clean sand is then brought from the shoreline. To be considered clean the sand is sifted and then carried to the hatchery in bags. By doing this, the sand is aerated, giving the eggs a higher chance of hatching, and obstructions are removed so the turtles can easily crawl to the surface once they hatch. 

Once hatchery work was done we did excavations. These were not for the faint of heart or stomach. We dug around 50, meter-by-meter holes in the beach at varying locations to determine the nest density on the beach. While doing this we came across old nests with just bits of shells, rotting nests, and developing nests. Nests can rot for many reasons, including being below high-tide line, being in a location with not enough oxygen, or being by other rotting nests. When these nests were found we had to open every dead egg to determine what stage the embryos stopped developing. The smell could more than ruin an appetite. If we came across a developing nest we had to be careful not to crush an egg, but when you’re digging blindly into the sand, accidents happen. One day while doing excavations, we came across a nest where not all of the eggs had been contaminated. 25 baby turtles had hatched from the roughly 100 egg nest. Because so few had hatched, these turtles weren’t able to reach the surface of the sand. Luckily we had been digging there and found them. It was nice to release some live baby turtles after seeing so many nests that didn’t make it. As the time for another arribada came closer our day work changed again. We took part in beach clean-ups and obstacle removal. That meant removing sticks and logs from the beach to give the nesting turtles a clear shot up the beach. The arribada started on a Friday night. To mark the beginning of an arribada 100 turtles have to be seen in a 50-meter span of beach. These pictures are from Saturday late afternoon. Olive Ridley turtles don’t naturally beach during the day, but during an arribada, nesting instincts usurp survival instincts. Though day work changed, night work was constant, we did 4-hour shifts from either 8-12, 10-2, or 12-4. During night patrols we would walk on the beach with no flashlights (as not to stress the turtles), looking for nesting turtles. When we found one we would use red lights, as turtles don’t see as much on that side of the light spectrum. We would collect data on the length and width of the turtle, the size of her flippers, the depth of her nest hole, the number of eggs she dropped and how long it took her. After she was finished nesting we would then tag her. All this information is extremely important as it is given to the state to maintain turtle conservation efforts.

 This day and night schedule was physically taxing. During the day, work included shoveling and lifting heavy objects and during the night we were walking on average 4 miles a night. AC was only on during the night so naps were not a very viable option. During the first week of arriving at Ostional, I did not think I could handle it. I was constantly sweating due to the humidity, I was so stressed I didn’t have an appetite, and I was unsure of my mental fortitude. It took me the entire week to finally feel safe in my surroundings and have a full night sleep. The second week I was still unsure of myself but had begun to acclimate to the weather. The work did not get easier, but I began to get used to the pace of things. I grew closer to the other volunteers and things almost took on a camp atmosphere. By the beginning of the third week, and the arribada, I was sure of my ability to work with turtles. I took the job of egg counting and was sure of my ability to tell if a turtle dropped 1, 2 or 3 eggs at once. 

Looking back now, the positive moments outshine the hard work and uncomfortable living situation. No other time in my life will I be working so hands-on with nesting turtles. No other time will I be releasing baby turtles into the ocean. No other time will I be learning so much about conservation efforts. I cherish the little moments that Ostional gave me. When else will I be singing “Party in the USA” while riding in the bed of a pick-up truck at 2 am with volunteers from China, England, Canada and the US? I made friendships with people all over the world and had horizon-expanding conversations with them. I better now appreciate what I have on a daily basis, such as consistent WiFi and a dryer, but, I also respect how those living in Ostional appreciate and are happy with what they have. The locals had less than me but were not of want. I feel that culturally we in the US are to a fault, taught to want more. In Ostional, less was needed to elicit more joy. It was a comforting level of contentedness in the community that I enjoyed most.

If anyone is thinking about volunteering in other countries, the best advice I can give is to research, arrive, and immerse yourself. Research what companies and projects you are giving your money and time to make sure they’re legitimate. Arrive with an open mind and immerse yourself in the experience. I would have done myself a lot of favors if I would have stopped thinking about what I didn’t have in Ostional and focused instead of what new things I did. 

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Ashlyn Donnahoe

Cal Poly '18

Ashlyn Donnahoe is a senior at Cal Poly SLO majoring in English with a minor in Child Development. After college, she hopes to teach kindergarteners how to be super adorable and read Dr. Seuss for a living. Ashlyn has loved writing since she was young, debuting her talents as a second grader with her first book The Very Fat Cat (trademark pending). These days Ashlyn spends most her time watching Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and adding to her ever-growing indoor plant collection.