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Rocío Valentín-Gamazo: Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica

Rocio Valenting is a young conservationist from Spain, currently leading a sea turtle conservation project in the Pacuare Nature Reserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It took a while to get this interview, because the solar panels broke(!) – but it’s definitely worth the wait. Here she tells us about prehistoric Leatherbacks, poachers and life at a field station.

Name: Rocío Valentín-Gamazo

Habitat: Caribbean Coast

Habitat: Caribbean Coast

Twitter: @

Bio: I’m a biologist from Valladolid in Spain (about 2 hours North of Madrid), I started to work with sea turtles by coincidence 4 years ago and never stopped since then, working in different projects but always returning to work with leatherbacks, currently coordinating a sea turtle conservation project in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

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Tell us about your project site in Costa Rica?

The main area of the project spans over 800 hectares of the reserve, flanked by a 7km volcanic sand beach , and very strong sea currents, making it difficult to access by boat, but perfect for leatherback turtles nesting! We see lots of different animals and plants each day, not to mention sea turtles. It’s surrounded by secondary wet forest with an island morphology which is limited by channels of fresh water.

We focus our efforts in the nesting season, from February to September, to check abundance, population status – by tagging them – and nesting behaviour. Then we monitor hatching success, opening nests and taking care of the hatchlings on their way to the open sea. We also work with students and volunteers that come from all over the world as a part of our environmental education program.

This year I’m coming back to my first project as coordinator. Even if I have seen the laying process hundreds of times, I’ll never get tired of it! The amazing effort made by the turtles to lay their eggs and the worryingly fast rate at which they are disappearing, is why I’ve decided to come back again.

Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is famous among conservationists for nesting sea turtles, can you tell us more about your research?

The main species that we work with is the Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), it’s the biggest reptile on earth. It’s like a dinosaur; you really can feel the incredible effort they are making each time they come to the beach to lay their eggs.

We also work with green turtle, Chelonia mydas, that lay from June to September, and with Hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata, but they’re less abundant on these kind of beaches. Since people kill them to eat or to sell the eggs and meat, all of them are currently listed by the IUCN as endangered species.

However,  we do not only work with turtles; there are more than 200 species of birds, among them one uncommon heron, Agamia agami, which nests only in a few places in Costa Rica, and we are lucky to have the biggest population on the reserve with more than 70 couples nesting. There are also more than 40 species of other reptiles and amphibians, mammals such as jaguar and monkeys, and thousands of invertebrates and plants.

ABOVE: Rocio with an enormous nesting Leatherback turtle. Most of her work occurs at night, so she has relatively few photographs.
"There are still a lot of people who eat turtle eggs, even if they know that they’re endangered."
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It must be a fantastic project to work on, but can you pick out a few of the best parts?

The best thing of working so close to nature is that you not only learn from the species that you are working with, but you are continuously watching and listening hundreds of different animals, from the moment you wake up, so if you are willing to, you can learn a lot about the surrounding environment and how everything interacts with each other.

It’s very rewarding to see the hatchlings of a turtle that you saw two months ago, and you take care of them whilst they’re going to the sea. That’s when you feel that your work is really worth it.

On the other hand, are there any challenges or downsides to working on this project?

Weather conditions and humidity: Maybe one of the worst moments is when you are sleeping, when you have the last patrol of the night and waking up to horribly heavy rain and, you know that in two seconds, you have to be outside … and when you find a turtle you know that you’ll finish completely covered in sand! The humidity is so high that you’re going to have fungus in all the stuff that you don’t use very commonly, and you have to very careful with your electronic stuff!

The mosquitoes and “purrujas”: Little sandflies that are on the beach and are always waiting for new blood to feed on. You can get crazy of constant scratching  – or waiting enough time (months) until your skin gets used to them!

Electrical supplies: you have to be very careful with the energy if you depend on solar panels, you need to save energy because you never know when it’s going to start to rain for weeks.

Trying to convince local people: of the importance of conserving sea turtles, there are a lot of people who still eat turtle eggs, even if they know that they’re endangered.

TOP: Volcanic beaches on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. MIDDLE LEFT: Rainforests in the nearby Tortuguero National Park. (photo: Jessica Plumb). MIDDLE RIGHT: Track marks from a nesting sea turtle. (photo: Jessica Plumb). BOTTOM: A Leatherback returning to the sea after nesting.
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And lastly, do you have any advice for anyone hoping to visit conservation projects such as this one in Costa Rica?

1) Be willing to work under difficult conditions, most of the people will tell you that your job is like being on holiday on the beach, but most of the time you’ll have to walk for hours, under heavy rain, without lights and with thousands of mosquitoes biting you. Since you don’t have electricity, you have to learn to live without all the commodities that you have at home, like a fridge, washing machine or TV.

2) Be open minded and respectful, you will meet people from different countries, with very different traditions, and you’ll have to live and work for months with the same people.

3) Don’t carry a lot of things, anything that you do not use on a regular basis will become damaged with mould in a few days, even your electronic devices if they are not stored correctly!

4) Make the most of your time there and try to learn as much as possible, not only from the turtles, but also from the thousands of different species that you’ll surely find on tropical environments, and of course from the local people, whom have lived there since childhood.

5) Enjoy every day, and remember that you are working and living in a place where most people would pay to go to for a vacation!

Thanks Rocio!

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