Union Students Study Leatherback Turtles, Rainforest Ecology in Costa Rica

Imagine you’re an Iowa teenager, spending a week 3,500 miles from home in a tropical rainforest environment, where the temperature regularly tops 90 degrees and the humidity level is not far behind. Your meals consist of a steady diet of beans and rice and the open-air bathrooms require all used toilet paper to be placed in the trash because the septic system cannot handle it. On top of all of that, your cell phone, the one link you have to the outside world, is confiscated. What would you do?

Most teenagers would describe such an environment as intolerable, an absolute deal breaker. For six Union High School teens, though, such living conditions were nothing of the sort. In fact, given the chance to return to similar circumstances, they’d gladly go again. What could motivate area teens to give up a comfortable, spacious home in favor of much more primitive living conditions?

Spend time listening to Jacob Bechthold, Brock Hadachek, Abby Johnson, Reagan Purdy, Cade Rahlf and Emily Wilson talk about their experience in Costa Rica last month and you begin to understand. The six students were accompanied by their science instructor, Craig Hemsath, as part of Ecology Project International’s (EPI) Sea Turtle Ecology Program.

On March 11, the group departed for Costa Rica for an educational experience unlike any other. Over the course of eight days, they learned about sea turtle biology, rainforest ecology and related conservation issues. Paired with another small group from Wisconsin, the students worked together, rotating through different groupings throughout the week.

While the focus of the Costa Rica experience was on the study of leatherback turtles, the group began preparation for the three nights of work they would do on the shore of a Caribbean beach with a visit to a local school whom has already participated in EPI’s conservation work, or something similar, as every effort is made to group students who have had the same course experience together. Despite the Union students’ limited ability to speak the native language of Spanish, communication was not too much of a struggle, as the school was a bilingual one. The time spent with the Costa Rican teens definitely made an impression on the visitors from Iowa, expressing lofty career aspirations and demonstrating a passionate desire to learn. Jacob Bechthold best summarized the group’s overall impression of the school when he said, “That was awesome, just being able to see the different cultures.”

Across all of the world, the leatherback turtle is an endangered species. That is what makes the work being done in places like Costa Rica so important. For many years, scientists have been tagging, monitoring and tracking the population of these turtles, who feed primarily on jellyfish and can grow in size to weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Sadly, one of the greatest threats to these turtles, whose ancestry on the planet dates back 110 million years, are the humans who poach them, primarily for their eggs. Another very real threat are plastic bags found in polluted waters, which mimic the look and motion of the jellyfish on which the turtles feed.

Following work in the classroom devoted to turtle biology, the students were ready for three nights of work collecting data to be used by researchers studying the turtles’ movements. Working in small groups during the overnight hours in four hour shifts, the students patrolled more than a two-mile stretch of beach in search of leatherback turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Cade Rahlf described the process the teens followed once a turtle was spotted:
“If the turtle is too close to the ocean then we collect the eggs with a plastic bag. The eggs are counted. After the nest is covered up [by the turtle] that’s when we measure it,” he said.

The students learned that measuring the turtle is an important part of the process, as many of them return to the same beach over the course of their 45 year average life span. If the eggs that are laid are too close to the water, the students would help relocate them. Over three nights of work, some groups of students saw as many as five turtles.

As part of their duties, the students were responsible for accurately recording data, including the total number of eggs, which in some cases, totaled more than one hundred. Students also had to differentiate between fertilized and unfertilized eggs, with the difference in size, a cue ball-sized egg versus a ping-pong ball-sized one, being the primary distinction. Unfortunately, the combination of working overnight and the sheer size of the adult turtles made photographing them difficult, if not impossible.

Following their work on the beach with the leatherback turtles, there were more adventures to be had. One of those included a hike through the rainforest, led by their instructor and another guide with a machete. Fortunately for the students, the machete was only needed for tasks like cutting fresh samples of sugar cane that were enjoyed by the group as they progressed along the tour learning about the rainforest ecosystem. Fresh pineapple and coconut water also earned rave reviews from the Iowa students.

Unfortunately, not all of the food sampled by the students agreed with their tastebuds. One particular variety of fruit known for its health benefits left a lasting impression best described by Brock Hadachek.

“It’s called Noni and it tasted like… death. It’s supposed to be really good for you. It was terrible.”

Considering the distance the students traveled and the much more primitive environment, the relative ease they exhibited throughout the week was nothing short of remarkable. Some of the credit can be attributed to their science teacher, Craig Hemsath, who enjoyed a similar experience with EPI in Costa Rica last year. His curious, but calm demeanor, encourages students to view the world around them not as something to fear, but rather an opportunity to learn something new. The rainforest is a place filled with all kinds of insects and animal life many Iowans might find a little too creepy to enjoy. Yet, laying in his hammock, looking up at the thatched roof and discovering a group of bats peering down at him, Mr. Hemsath’s first words to the students were, “Hey, check this out,” before reaching for a camera to capture the moment.

Throughout their week in Costa Rica, the Union students rolled with whatever challenges were put before them, often reacting to new situations as if they had already been there (and done that). Jacob Bechthold recalled one such moment, as the group walked along the beach and their guide made the observation that a jaguar had recently been at their location. She knew this because the smell of its urine was still pungent in the air.
“She told us not to worry. They don’t normally attack people,” he deadpanned.

Another adventure during the week was an opportunity to go snorkeling in a shallow reef. After the initial mouthful of saltwater, it didn’t take long for those new to the activity to master the breathing apparatus and enjoy the underwater views made possible by the clear ocean water. Prior to literally getting their feet wet, the students were cautioned that touching the delicate coral below the surface of the water could kill it.

While the Do Not Touch Rule was generally good advice to follow during their time in Costa Rica, the Iowa students noticed an interesting cultural difference between themselves and their Costa Rican counterparts. In Iowa, a common reaction to seeing a spider in one’s path is to step on it. Not so in Costa Rica, as the Union students watched in amazement when their hosts would reach down and scoop up the spider to move it out of harm’s way.

On their final day in Costa Rica, the group enjoyed one last adventure, a four hour whitewater rafting trip through the rainforest, which gave students postcard-quality views of the surrounding landscape.

Perhaps the most surprising lesson learned after eight days in Costa Rica was the fact that, for much of the time, the students really did not miss their cell phones. Really. The combination of a busy schedule and the genuine desire to focus on the activities of the trip’s itinerary made the absence of their phones mostly irrelevant. From a practical standpoint, though, not having a phone to look at did have an effect on the perception of time.
“It was kind of hard keeping track of the days, though,” Reagan Purdy commented.
Her teacher agreed, adding, “We didn’t realize that we just went right through St. Patrick’s Day.”

Since their return home, the students have had an opportunity to reflect on the tremendous learning experience they enjoyed in Costa Rica. It has left them with a deep appreciation for the quality of life they are privileged to lead and a greater understanding of the impact, for better and worse, that humans have on the planet.

Though it is difficult to summarize in one sentence the amazing experiences Costa Rica offered, Brock Hadachek’s words certainly affirmed the goals of the Sea Turtle Ecology Program and what any teacher would want for their students:
“It was cool to be able to apply what you’ve learned throughout the years in science class.”