A secluded island deep in the jungle of Costa Rica with howling monkeys and wildlife not seen outside of a zoo in Minnesota has been the perfect vacation getaway for years for Daniel Dix.
But for Dix, this 10-day spring excursion yielded more than just the sights and sounds of a tropical paradise. It brought a once-in-a-lifetime helping experience.
Dix, of Backus, led a group of five that also included Peter Hanson of Cross Lake Bruce and Donna Windor of Pine River and Robert and Patricia Braun of Albertville on a Costa Rican adventure with a common goal in mind — to help save the leatherback turtles, presently teetering on the verge of extinction.
“On a visit (to Costa Rica) two years ago, I met two Americans who have been volunteering at Estacion Las Tortugas (‘the turtle station’), a totally privately funded scientific group dedicated to saving the amazing leatherback turtles,” said Dix, who has traveled to Costa Rica numerous times over the last six years for vacation and landscaping work. “When I found out about their work, I was determined to go and partake in this opportunity to help save this incredible reptile.
“So this year I found five like-minded people from the Brainerd area who also have the spirit of adventure and want to participate in this activity as unpaid interns on a tour designed to be a ‘working’ vacation.’”
The group departed for greener pastures on March 25, arriving in Costa Rica and enjoying a night at a bed and breakfast before making the hour-and-a-half trek to the Estacion Las Tortugas, joining 20 other volunteers from all over the world to help save the dying species.
“The leatherback turtles are the largest turtles on earth, prevalent in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic,” Dix said. “Their population is rapidly declining in many parts of the world and they’ve lost 90 percent of their census in just the last 20 years.
“With poachers taking the eggs and with the turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish (one source of food for the turtles) and getting caught up in nets, we were there to ensure the eggs were protected.”
Because leatherback turtles only come ashore to lay eggs during the evenings, each group member was required to take a four-hour shift, either from 8 p.m. to midnight or midnight to 4 a.m. A time that proved too exciting for many to sleep, even if they had the chance.
“It was absolutely amazing to witness,” said Donna Windor, who said she missed seeing the leatherbacks the first night due to the pouring rain but saw up to 23 during one shift. “It (the turtle) was enormous and really very peaceful during the whole process.
“Not being able to use flashlights or any bright light (the group was required to use red light to not scare the turtles and send them back to the sea to lay their eggs, where they can’t hatch) made things like seeing and working somewhat difficult, that’s for sure. But it still made for just a great opportunity to be there and to see this happening and help make sure these turtles and their eggs survive.”
Once the mother turtle — who weighs upwards of 2,000 pounds — laid its 70-90 eggs — both fertile and infertile ones — in a three-foot-deep hole, Dix said the group gathered the eggs and moved them to a secure area to be incubated.
Volunteering and exploring until Tuesday, Dix said he’d jump at the opportunity to be there once the eggs hatched.
“Starting in early May to late June, the baby turtles start hatching,” he said. “The little fellas somehow manage to dig up some three feet and then head for the ocean. The turtle station needs volunteers to guard the babies as they emerge from the sand and escort them to the sea. There are lots of birds, crabs and others that like them for snacks. Every single one we get to the water increases the odds that these gentle giants will be here for generations to come.
“If there is a group of people who would want to, I would be happy and excited to lead another tour there. It will be an amazing experience to see and help in the hatch. Plus, some of the mothers may still be coming to lay still more eggs so it would be a double blessing.”
And an adventure Windor said she won’t soon forget.
“I look back on it and we did a lot in 10 days,” Windor said. “It was life-changing for me.”