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Baby Leatherback Sea Turtle

My First Trip to Parismina Island, Costa Rica

by Cathleen Burnham
author of Tortuga Squad: Kids Saving Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

My family hired a small motor boat from the tiny port at Siquirres to a tinier landing at Parismina Island. We arrived at night and immediately heard music blaring from somewhere within the island’s interior. It had recently rained, so although we had rolling luggage, we had to tote large suitcases along winding, muddy lanes.

We passed the source of the music: a concrete block bar with men and women hanging out in the doorway drinking. I wasn’t sure I should have brought my children here.

We came to a concrete block motel. The rooms were bare except for a bed and we were warned we might get shocked when we used the shower. There was no air conditioning, but there was a tiny, barred window through which a slight breeze wafted. The music continued to pound through the walls until late into the night. I remember the hotel cost $12 per night.

Local Villagers on Parismina Island, Costa Rica

The residents looked friendlier in the light of day as opposed to my weary eyes just arriving late at night. We spent the following day learning about sea turtles, the turtle conservation program, met the kids involved in patrolling the beaches, and other island inhabitants.

That first night, we donned dark clothing and mosquito spray and headed to the beach.

After a couple hours, a giant leatherback turtle came lumbering ashore.

The photographer in me warred with the conservationist in me. I couldn’t use lights to photograph at night so my images of the moving turtle were all blurry.

Leatherback sea turtle at night

We tried using special red lights, but it just made the images red and blurry.

Still, I got nice photos of the eggs laid in the nest the leatherback mother had dug, the patrollers counting and collecting the eggs. I was a little disappointed because I had to photograph the happening, which meant I was one layer removed from watching it actually unfold. I was seeing it through a viewfinder, and this is one spectacle you want to watch directly.

Digging for sea turtle eggs

Sea turtle nest in sand

Sea turtle eggs

For the next few nights we walked the black beach, marveling at the silent giants dragging ashore and performing the ritual their species had performed since dinosaurs roamed this beach. I found it difficult to stay up late at night to catch the mother turtles coming ashore, but I loved waking at dawn to catch the babies emerging from their nests.

We also documented the investigation of turtle nests that didn’t hatch. Watching the necropsy of a turtle was both gross and engrossing. The smell was abominable, but I wanted to know why the little tortuga (Spanish for “turtle”) didn’t make it. I learned there are many, many reasons a turtle nest might not hatch: sometimes the surf comes too high and “drowns” the eggs. Sometimes flies infest the nest. They couldn’t tell me why the turtle under examination this time didn’t live, but planned to investigate further.

Parismina girl

The kids of Parismina were inspiring. They knew so much about turtles and really cared that sea turtles were endangered. Most said sea turtles were their favorite animals and none of them ate turtle meat or turtle eggs. They were so friendly and loving!

They were completely comfortable allowing K.J., Bay, and I to follow them all day while they shoo’d away dogs digging at nests, chased away birds trying to eat little turtles, and checked on the hatcher.

Two Parisminia girls

They also went to school full time and spent a good amount of their leisure time ate the community center learning about turtles.

The most beautiful part in all this for me was knowing their future children would never be taught to look at sea turtles as a form of sustenance.

My favorite part of the trip was my daughter and co-photographer, Bay and I, alone at the shore, releasing baby turtles. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be just the two of us experiencing this: helping this species both ancient and rare at their first moments of life and at their inaugural ocean swim. Words can’t express.

Bay and baby sea turtle

Author Cathleen Burnham is a documentary photography and writer. Her most recent book is Tortuga Squad: Kids Saving Sea Turtles in Costa Rica. Book 2 in her WAKA series of books featuring kids involved in wild animal rescue and conservation projects around the world, Tortuga Squad introduces us to a group of village kids on Parismina Island in Costa Rica who work together to help protect endangered sea turtles and their eggs. Available Jan. 1, 2016.

Tortuga Squad - Kids Saving Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

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