When Ashlyn Henri read online about an effort in Costa Rica to save turtles from poachers, she knew she had found a way to turn her passion for wildlife conservation into action.
For a week, the 27-year-old lifelong Ansonia resident walked each night along the beach in oppressive heat and almost complete darkness searching for turtles to come on shore and lay their eggs in the sand.
Henri was among volunteers from around the world who came to participate recently in the ongoing program, offered through the organization “La Tortuga Feliz,” or Spanish for “The Happy Turtle.”
“I have always been passionate about wildlife, and I wanted to volunteer to help out,” Henri said. “I found this program online, and it was affordable. This was my first time leaving the country alone, but when I got there, it was like a big family.”
Volunteers from Canada, Switzerland, France, and Australia were there joining in the effort at the same time.
“When you walk the beach, you can see the direct impact you are having,” Henri said. “You can see the poachers there too, and you have to get to the eggs first.”
Poachers typically are after the eggs to sell them to make money, as they are valuable as a food source. According to the World Wildlife Fund, sea turtles are endangered, and they are slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells.
During her trip, Henri, who works as a pharmacy technician, said she was “dirtier and sweatier” than she has ever been in her life. She joined groups of volunteers who patrolled the beach hourly starting at 7 p.m., with each group walking for four hours at a stretch.
She recalled being awake at 3 a.m., feeling exhausted and sweating, with her feet hurting from the lengthy patrols.
“You start asking yourself why you’re here, and how can I possibly see a turtle in this darkness?” she said. “But then you see it, and then you realize there’s no way you could not see it — the massive track leading from the sea up the beach of a 6-foot-long, 1000+ pound turtle.”
Henri carefully approached the turtles from behind, then caught the eggs as the turtles laid them. The volunteers brought the eggs to a hatchery, where they would be protected from poachers until they are ready to hatch.
“Seeing a poacher reminds you of the purpose you serve just by simply being there and that alone helps to keep you going,” Henri said.
Toward the end of her stay, the hatchery had about 90 nests because of the volunteers’ efforts patrolling the beach. In addition to patrolling and doing shifts at the hatchery, the group worked to clean up the beach and participated in a study on how plastic in the sand impacts the turtles.
“I met the friendliest, most welcoming people from all over the world, all of whom I will miss very much,” Henri said. “They are kindhearted people that care about animals and the Earth, and the destruction humans are causing to it.”
While the trip had its challenges, such as mosquitoes, heat, and the lack of electricity, Henri said she will always remember learning about the other volunteers’ countries, the constant soothing sound of the ocean, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and most of all, seeing the hatchlings. Just as she was about to accept the fact that the eggs wouldn’t hatch until after she left, on her last day at the project, the volunteers were able to witness hatchlings make their way into the sea.
“I will miss the turtles,” she said. “This trip has taught me a lot about them. It’s also taught me a lot about other cultures, the planet, and myself. While I wish that I could stay longer, knowing how much more work there is to be done, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity of a lifetime and know that the turtles are in good hands as long as people continue to volunteer.”
Henri noted that people don’t have to fly to another country to make a difference for the planet.
“Everything you do has an impact on the Earth, and we have to decide what kind of impact we want to make,” she said. “Even recycling and turning the water off when you are brushing your teeth makes a difference.”
According to the “La Tortuga Feliz” website, the nonprofit organization’s goal is to protect sea turtles with the help of volunteers, while also improving the living conditions and education of local inhabitants. Local residents guard and patrol the beach and lead volunteers in the collection of eggs. Through their involvement in the organization, the local residents are able to generate an income. The organization hopes this helps take away any necessity for them to poach the turtles or their eggs.
Robert Adeva, president of Fundación La Tortuga Feliz, said via email that it is tremendously rewarding to get to meet the many enthusiastic volunteers who participate.
“It never fails to inspire us when week after week, volunteers arrive at the dock, often in the sweltering heat and sometimes tropical downpours, after journeying to us from the comfort of their faraway homes,” he said.
At the last count, the organization has had around 6,000 volunteers participate from a total of 47 countries, according to Adeva.
“Common sense tells us that the more volunteers that participate, the more patrols we could have covering the beach, the more local guides we could employ, and the end result would be more turtles rescued,” Adeva said. “La Tortuga Feliz depends both on the physical and financial contribution of volunteers and credits its success entirely to the support of their volunteers.
For more information on the program, visit www.latortugafeliz.com.
Michelle Tuccitto Sullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.