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On a perfect day under a gorgeous sky, I’m swimming in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been: the Golfo Dulce in the South Pacific region of Costa Rica, adjacent to the Osa Peninsula. A huge net has been stretched from one boat to another, and I’m swimming along the net, arranging the knots so they’re evenly spaced—with no gaps large enough to allow a sea turtle to swim through. As I work on the top knots, Brad Nahill, cofounder and director of the nonprofit conservation group SEE Turtles, swims down below with biologists from a nearby research station, making sure there are no twists or tangles in the net. Our guide Ignacio (nicknamed Nacho), from the conservation-focused tour company EcoTeach, and seven volunteers wait for us in two boats.

SEE Turtles

Up Close with Nature SEE Turtles, an environmental group funded by Nature’s Path, a conservation-minded organic-food company, is helping to save sea turtles in Costa Rica and around the world. Photography by Hal Brindley

We’re all here thanks to Nature’s Path, an organic-food company based in Canada, that has made environmental conservation a major part of its mission, donating 1 percent of sales of its EnviroKidz line of children’s cereals to organizations that support endangered species, habitat conservation, and environmental education for kids—a total of $2.3 million so far. To further strengthen the connection between children and the environment, each year Nature’s Path sponsors a trip that brings families into nature to work on conservation projects. This year the focus is on sea turtles in Costa Rica. SEE Turtles, which receives funds from Nature’s Path, in turn helps to fund the research station where we’re volunteering.

After the net is set and we’re all back in the boats, we head to shore, hoping a turtle will swim into the net so we can study it alongside the biologists. While we’re waiting, I take a walk with Brad and talk to him about his work.

AB: Tell me about the situation faced by the sea turtles.
BN: As is the case with many other wild animals, there’s a lot of bad news. Six out of seven species of sea turtles are endangered or threatened with extinction. They face numerous threats in the ocean, such as getting caught in fishing gear, having people eat their eggs and meat and use their shells to make tortoise-shell jewelry, and losing their nesting and feeding sites to coastal development. Only one in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive to adulthood, even under natural conditions.

At the same time, there’s good news. Organizations around the world are working to protect the turtles, and the situation is improving in many places. The hawksbills were believed to be nearly extinct in the Pacific, for example, but now we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of nests and the number of hatchlings surviving. This is due to the discovery of previously unknown nesting areas and new conservation efforts in the breeding and nesting locations that are resulting in a decrease in poaching.

SEE Turtles

Searching for Turtles Amid breathtaking scenery in Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce, volunteers assist researchers in studying the green and hawksbill turtles that forage there. Photography by Oscar Protti

AB: What does your organization hope to accomplish and how?
BN: Our primary purpose is to help the amazing organizations working on the ground better fulfill their mission. These small, community-based organizations don’t have much access to funds and the tourism market, so we connect them to travelers and donors. And by doing this, we strengthen the organizations and allow them to expand the work they do at these important sites.

AB: What’s the focus of this particular research station in Costa Rica?
BN: The nonprofit organization Latin American Sea Turtles, one of SEE Turtles’ partners, works in Costa Rica to help protect the turtles. Here in the Golfo Dulce the researchers are studying the green and hawksbill turtles that forage in this area. They catch the turtles, tag them, and study them because the more we understand about the turtles and how they breed, feed, and migrate, the more we can protect them. The researchers are also helping to bring back the mangrove trees, which grow along the shore and provide food for the turtles as well as a protective area for eggs and hatchlings but have been disappearing in recent years because of coastal development. Another focus is the education of local schoolchildren. The students come here to help plant mangroves, learn how to protect the turtles, and also learn to reduce the amount of trash on the beaches. Turtles eat plastic bags, thinking they’re jellyfish, and die. So the kids learn to keep plastic out of the water.

SEE Turtles

Here It Is! A junior hawksbill is lifted out of the water. Photo courtesy of Andrea Barbalich

AB: What is the role of volunteers?
BN: They’re crucial for sea turtle conservation around the world. Every project depends on them because the organizations have very small budgets and few paid staff members. In order to prevent poaching, they have to patrol nesting beaches that can be miles long. There’s also a lot of physical work involved in planting the mangroves, getting the nets into and out of the water, studying the turtles, and doing the educational work. Without volunteers, the researchers wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much done. I don’t know of any other animal whose conservation depends more on volunteers than sea turtles.

AB: Why is it so important to the organizations to involve families?
BN: Most wildlife conservation work is technical and takes place in remote, dangerous areas. Many of the animals studied are large and aggressive. But sea turtles are a perfect fit with families. Once you have them on the beach and under controlled circumstances, there’s no real danger to worry about. They’re very calm and relaxed animals. And you don’t have to be a biologist to be able to use a tape measure or write down information about the turtles. It’s hands-on work that can be done by children ages 8 and up. You can also stand back and see what you just did—you planted 15 trees that are helping the turtles, fish, and other animals that live here. The immediate impact is very clear. Plus it’s fun—digging holes and playing in the mud. It’s a made-for-kids activity.

And that’s crucial. Childhood today is more and more removed from being outside in nature and having real experiences. But when kids work with the sea turtles, they have a direct connection with the animal—they look it in the eye, touch the shell, and have a full sensory experience. The more they fall in love with the animals and the water they live in, the more they will, over the long term, want to change how humans interact with wildlife and nature.

AB: How do kids typically react when they see the turtles?
BN: The initial reaction is usually “Wow!” They’re used to seeing small turtles and are shocked at how big the sea turtles are. And if, like most kids, they’ve had very little direct interaction with wildlife, they’re amazed at having the turtle there, living and breathing, and seeing it swim, observing the scales and the flippers. Kids will often get very quiet and concentrate. You can see the brain working as they try to incorporate this information that’s such a new experience for them.

SEE Turtles

A junior hawksbill is measured on the beach. Photo courtesy of Andrea Barbalich

Just then we get word that a turtle has swum into the net we set. I jump into one boat with Brad and we head toward the other boat. Brad gets into that one, and I watch as he and a researcher carefully hold the turtle by its fins and lift it out of the water. What a magnificent sight! We all head back to shore, where we team up to accomplish the tasks we had volunteered for earlier that morning: Some of us hold down the fins while others measure and record the information. It turns out that we have a healthy, 60-inch-long junior hawksbill. After 15 minutes of examination and note-taking, the turtle is ready to be returned to the water. I hold one fin while another volunteer holds another, and we release the turtle into the gulf.

We stay on the beach for the next six hours, learning about the mangrove trees and enjoying the most delicious tangerines I’ve ever eaten. We hope for another turtle sighting, but one is all we’ll see that day. It doesn’t matter, though: Our unforgettable experience has taught us about these amazing creatures and kindled our desire to protect them.

HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

  • Take a trip. SEE Turtles hosts tours throughout Central America that allow individuals, school groups, and families to participate in research projects aimed at protecting sea turtles and other endangered animals. Find more information at seeturtles.org.
  • Save a hatchling. Through its Billion Baby Turtles project, SEE Turtles is helping to protect turtle hatchlings so they can reach adulthood. Every dollar donated saves one hatchling.
  • Use less plastic. Brad Nahill of SEE Turtles stresses the importance of keeping plastic out of our water as well as reducing the amount of plastic we use in the first place. A few things every family can do: Use reusable bags and water bottles, and pick up the trash when you see it on the beach. “Set an example as a family and hope that others follow,” he says. “If everyone did, there would be a whole lot less plastic in the ocean.”
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