The green sea turtle's metre-long body heaved with exhaustion as she paused on the beach. She had just finished the laborious process of laying her eggs and was on her way back to the ocean to recover. Her breath – harsh, wheezing – was loud in the air of the otherwise silent beach; her wrinkled beauty, mesmerising. With two more rasping breaths, she began scraping her way down the sand once more.
The tiny village of Parismina on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast receives hundreds of these visitors from April until September. The beaches play host to four species; the leatherback, the hawksbill, the green sea turtle and the loggerhead as well as volunteers working with ASTOP (or Asociacion Salvemos Las Tortugas de Parismina), a group formed 10 years ago to work against the poaching of sea turtles and their eggs.
Volunteers can work for any time period at a cost of $12 (£8) a day, with all money going towards running the programme. Last year, 170 arrived from around the world – mostly Europe – but you can also visit as a tourist, taking part in the muggy beach walks by moonlight in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a nesting female or hatchlings journeying to the ocean.
Parismina is situated at the end of a canal system, accessible by slim speedboats from the bus stop in Caño Blanco. It has few vehicles, dirt paths and lots of mud when it rains. I discovered it by chance, when I stumbled upon Parismina and ASTOP in my Lonely Planet guide.
My home for my eight-day stay was a room in a compact, bright-blue wooden house owned by Isolina, a host-mother who takes in volunteers. For $15 a day, I got a mosquito-net-covered bed, three huge meals and plenty of odd looks when my intermediate Spanish had me saying the wrong thing.
Each day I worked with other volunteers building a community garden and cleaning the beach of the piles of plastic washing up from the polluted ocean – a small effort that made the beach safer for sea turtles coming ashore. At night I slogged along the soft sand with volunteers and visitors, on the lookout for poachers, armed with only our senses, as torches are a distraction to both nesting turtles and their babies. At first, wandering a dark beach seemed nerve-wracking, but I soon found myself distracted by the intense calf-workout provided by the five-mile trek.
One day, I got chatting with dreadlocked Jerry Cruz – one of ASTOP's founders – about how it started. He explained that the remote location meant minimal work for locals. So people killed turtles to sell their meat and eggs. The government cracked down on this and in 2001 a group of young men decided they would work with the coastguard to patrol beaches, hoping to alter the village's course of income. It wasn't easy.
"We didn't want the poachers to recognise us but in a few days everyone knew because Parismina is a small village. Sometimes they threw turtle heads on to our doorsteps to scare us," said Cruz. But they persevered, bringing the poachers around when they began offering them jobs as guides. This year the association hopes to build a museum and start a recycling centre to create more work.
"Before this started, there was no income in the village," said Vicky Taylor, the Association's president, who has lived in Parismina for more than 30 years. Now, everything from wall paintings to locally made jewellery is branded with turtles, but nothing made from them.
On the hot days it was hard to not be swept away by the relaxing remoteness. One night, as the crickets reached their crescendo, I joined volunteers at the local bar to learn to dance from the women swaying their hips to Reggaeton – until the manager changed the music to Country, thinking we gringos would approve. I soon found myself teaching dreadlocked men how to line-dance.
Over the rest of my nights, I only spotted one more sea turtle – a hatchling, no more than three inches long, making its first, painstakingly slow tracks to the ocean. It was one of just 10,000 the village saves annually. It may sound a lot, but only one in 1,000 will survive to adulthood. Being eaten by natural predators, along with swallowing ocean pollution and becoming trapped in commercial fishing-boat nets all aid to making these creatures teeter on the edge of extinction after thousands of years.
This was all new to me. I knew almost nothing about sea turtles when I arrived, but left feeling equipped with knowledge – everything from the fact a female lays around 100 eggs in a nest or that a baby's sex is determined by the heat of the sand.
I was also taught to be a good tourist – understanding that nesting turtles should be left alone and not photographed or handled, or that staying in beachside resorts near nesting grounds is a big faux pas, because bright lights cause hatchlings to get confused and walk towards them rather than the ocean.
I wanted to stay longer, but I dutifully packed my bag. The next morning, a huge thunderstorm hit, so strong I thought there was an earthquake. All boats were cancelled. But by noon, the sun was shining. As I joined the other volunteers for a final day, I looked back on a trip that had been as rewarding as it had been unexpected.
Where you can volunteer
Sea turtles nest globally, from Asia to Central America and Africa. A recent Conservation International report has identified India as the place where they are most endangered, but volunteer projects exist in many countries. Below are three focusing on conservation.
Perhentian Turtle Project, Malaysia: Based in the Perhentian Islands off the north-east of Malaysia, this project works with a local village to cut back on egg poaching. It focuses on increasing hatchling survival through its incubation programme and aims to double the nesting population by 2060. Run by Hope – a Malaysian government partnered charity – the project costs £150 per week. helpourpenyu.com
La Barrona, Guatemala: The Akazul Project is based on the Guatemala/El Salvador border and was developed in part with Ambios, a UK based non-profit group. Volunteers collect scientific data, relocate eggs and work in the hatchery. akazul.org
Goa, India: Frontier volunteers monitor sea turtles, clean up the beaches and do turtle releases. Accommodation and food are included for a cost of £699 for two weeks. frontier.ac.uk
Getting there: Flights from London to San José cost from around £600. From San José, visitors can travel 90 minutes by bus to Siquirres, before catching a second bus to Caño Blanco to transfer to Parismina, which runs thrice daily in the week.
Staying there: Volunteers and visitors can stay with a host family for $15 a night, which includes meals. There are also a handful of guest houses such as the pleasant Iguana Verde, offering doubles with air-con and bathrooms for $25, or the Parismina Gamefish Lodge ($14 per person, with air-con). For a higher-end experience, choose the Rio Parismina Lodge (riop.com) which includes a swimming pool, jacuzzi and meals. firstname.lastname@example.org
Volunteering there: Working with ASTOP is best between April and September, when you're more likely to see the turtles. A fee of $30, plus $12 daily, is applicable, with all money going directly to running the programme. For more information, visit: parisminaturtles.org