Sea turtle conservation is a serious matter worldwide. Our volunteer vacation in Costa Rica included rainforest reforestation, cultural activities and service work in a small rural village, and fun hikes and zip lining — but the single volunteer vacation service activity in Costa Rica that resonated with my kids the most was the night shift at ASVO, a sea turtle hatchery and conservation project at Playa Matapalo.
Picture this: A remote stretch of Playa Matapalo in Costa Rica, far from popular tourist beach areas like Guanacaste and Manuel Antonio. There’s a small shift in the sand, almost as if its been kicked up by the wind… and there it is. A baby sea turtle, the first of its clutch, pops its head up, shovels more sand away with its tiny flippers, and starts to make its way to the waterline. Its brothers and sisters will follow. This is a scene repeated through the millennia; sea turtles are ancient members of the animal world, and this impulse to dig up, then crawl to the ocean is testament to the power of instinct. In twenty years or so, this sea turtle will attempt to return to the same stretch of beach to lay her own eggs.
My children were with me, and their dad, and their grandparents during the early night shift volunteering to watch over the eggs in the ASVO sea turtle hatchery project. Every fifteen minutes, we’d take a red light and carefully check each nest for babies. Bright lights disorient any hatching baby turtles, so red light is used when necessary.
My younger daughter was bouncing up and down with excitement, the way she would at an Easter egg hunt – to her, this night did indeed resemble a scavenger hunt. My older daughter was quieter. At first I chalked this up to usual pre-teen moodiness, but after a couple of rounds of checking the nests, I realized she was almost holding her breath with the fervent hope of being able to witness a baby sea turtle emerging from the sand. And then, at 8:30PM, she found one.
Another sea turtle conservation volunteer gave her a glove so she could hold the baby, and focused the red light on her hand. We all followed my daughter as she brought Sarah the Sea Turtle to the beach. The baby sea turtle headed the wrong way a couple of times, and my pre-teen patiently set her towards the ocean each time. After around 15 minutes, the baby sea turtle reached the shoreline. My daughter crouched a few paces behind her, a wave approached, and with its retreat, the baby sea turtle was swept away into the next stage of her journey.
My pre-teen was silhouetted, still, watching the waves. Standing behind her with the rest of our volunteer group, I could see my daughter sit back on her heels. She was utterly still and alone in her thoughts. I thought, my baby is getting older, more mature, preparing for her next stage in life as well. Where would her life take her? Only time will tell. As her parent, all I can do is wish her safety and security on her own journey, much like what she wished for the baby sea turtle.