Costa Rica’s Turtle Project for Vet, Pre-Vet and Biology Students!

by isvolunteers on Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Our team (c) Samantha Donnellan

Our team (c) Samantha Donnellan

ISV University Leader, Samantha Donnellan from Edinburgh in the UK, blogs about her experiences leading ISV student volunteer teams to Costa Rica in 2013 and 2014 as part of ISV’s special interest program for veterinary and biology students (students can join one of many projects that run between May and August and November and February each year). Samantha is a current PhD student at  Moredun Research Institute.  (You can read more about Samantha at the bottom of this blog).

Pura Vida!  Making up only 0.03% of the worlds land mass it is remarkable that this tiny country (Costa Rica) holds 5% of the planet’s biodiversity. With its national saying ‘Pura Vida’ meaning ‘pure life’, sprawling beaches, 800miles of coasts, and tropical rainforests, it is little wonder that this little stretch of Central America is described as a paradise. As a University Leader (UL) for an International Student Volunteers (ISV) student volunteer group, I spent two weeks this summer (July 2014) in the beautiful Osa Peninsula volunteering on sea turtle conservation efforts.

Boat work (c) Samantha Donnellan

Boat work (c) Samantha Donnellan

I first heard about ISV at Heriot Watt University where I studied over two years ago and saw this as an incredible opportunity to travel to a new place and take part in something so worthwhile, and applied for the UL position immediately. Recruiting students for my volunteer team was both fun and challenging, but promoting an experience such as this was never going to be too hard! With mainly veterinary and marine biology students attending, this hands-on project working directly with the animals in their natural environment was such a humbling experience for all involved. Based on the incredible experience that our group had last year, I decided to join ISV and bring along another student volunteer team again this summer (2014).

Mangrove planting (c) Samantha Donnellan

Mangrove planting (c) Samantha Donnellan

The students learnt so much about the different species of turtles, how the handle them correctly and why they are critically endangered. Daily tasks mainly involved travelling out in small boats, manually laying 200m nets (by snorkelling in the ocean and untangling any knots/straightening out the line) and capturing the beautiful Green (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) turtles. The turtles were then gently taken onto the boats from the nets, where we returned to shore with them and data was collected. As research volunteers, the students’ jobs were to help carry the turtles from the boat and place them into rubber tyres. The turtles were carefully held in place whilst the students took it in turns to take measurements (length, width, tail length etc). If any turtles had and injuries/parasites, we returned with them to the rehabilitation centre for treatment.

Parasite removal (c) ISV

Parasite removal (c) ISV

As-well as working directly with the sea turtles, the not so glamorous task of beach cleans was vitally important. We spent some afternoons combing the beautiful tropical beaches for rubbish. Sadly many turtles (mainly the Greens) swallow plastic bags as they mistake them for jellyfish, thus causing them to die.

Another important job was mangrove plantation along the beaches. Mangrove seedlings are being cultivated in a nursery by the turtle sanctuary, and from here we collected and planted the baby trees with the hope of replenishing the deserted areas of beach where mangroves once grew. This was very hard work in the heat but incredibly rewarding and was one of the students’ favourite tasks!

Other tasks included maintaining the turtle sanctuary, digging new pits (please see picture below) where water tanks could go for injured sea turtles to be housed temporarily. The monitoring of sea grasses in specific areas of the beaches was important for future studies, and the marine biology students thrived at these task! Thanks to our excellent ISV project leader Esteban, our group also met and spoke with the local children about the importance of conservation and in return they taught us their national dance!

Maintenance work around the research facility (c) Samantha Donnellan

Maintenance work around the research facility (c) Samantha Donnellan

The trip to Costa Rica was truly life changing, seeing the turtles and all the other wildlife the country had to offer was like a dream come true for all the students and myself, even the second time around. For all animal lovers, there won’t be many experiences which could beat this! ISV have truly put together the ultimate conservation trip, with the best people leading it. Personally, the most memorable moment was when we saw humpback whales. We quietly followed them across the gulf for several minutes when eventually they stopped and swam under our boat. Soon after came the sound of their deep, melancholy, spine tingling, yet incredible song which went on for over 20 minutes. I do not think many people can say they have heard whales sing, and it is a moment I know will stay with the whole ISV group forever.

Most memorable moment in paradise (c) Samantha Donnellan

Most memorable moment in paradise (c) Samantha Donnellan

To enquire about ISV’s Special Interest Volunteer Programs for vet, pre-vet or biology students, contact the ISV office for more information:  info@isvolunteers.org (May to September programs), or au-rdinfo@isvolunteers.org (November to February programs).  There are also a number of other blogs (search the category for ‘special interest‘).

About Samantha Donnellan:

ISV project leader Esteban (centre) had a positive impact on the whole experience (c) Samantha Donnellan

ISV project leader Esteban (centre) had a positive impact on the whole experience (c) Samantha Donnellan

I did my undergraduate degree in Medical Biochemistry and hold an MSc in Forensic Medicine. Currently I live in Edinburgh where I am a PhD student developing a novel anti-tuberculosis treatment having been awarded a fully funded student scholarship. This work is both immensely important but also very interesting and has been well accepted into the world of academia. I sincerely hope my research will contribute to improving the life of TB sufferers and help reduce the burden of this terrible disease. Before University I took a 2 year gap ‘year’ travelling around Europe and Australia, which has given me some of my best memories and experiences. Seeing new parts of the world is very important to me and I love meeting new, interesting people! I am also a keen horserider, compete in athletics, a member of the British Military Fitness and an avid reader. I spent this past summer between medical conferences in France, Switzerland and Austria presenting my current PhD data to medics and researchers before finally heading to Costa Rica on a summer holiday. This August I travelled out with my group of biology and veterinary students from Scottish Universities to work with the turtles and embrace the culture of a new country. I thoroughly enjoy travelling, and ISV has given me the opportunity to reach far away places which otherwise would be impossible for me as a student. Next year I hope to lead my student group to the plains for South Africa for another awesome adventure!

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