Leatherback Turtle Ecotourism Adventure in Costa Rica

Volunteer to help leatherback turtles on your next Costa Rican vacation with EcoTeach.


There was movement in the distance. The guide put his arm up as if he was driving without taillights. He turned slowly around on the wet sand and faced us while pointing to the dark, slow moving mass reflecting in the moonlight. It was what we sought; a female leatherback turtle prepared to lay her 100 or so eggs.

We approached the 1,200-pound reptile with trepidation. Our guide assured us the turtle was in a trance-like state. Unaware of our presence, she dug her hole diligently. Each swipe of her flipper had purpose.

It was just a shame we were there to undo her work.

I crawled into the nest she created and watched as she produced what was probably her last clutch of eggs for that season. One by one, I gathered the eggs,which resembled softened ping-pong balls, and placed them in a plastic bag.

The State of the Leatherback

We were forced to relocate her nest for one reason: poachers. In Costa Rica, turtle eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and are sold mainly in bars for less than one dollar each. And while most of her hatchlings will likely not survive to adulthood because of more natural predators, the human predator does not allow them the opportunity to even try. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), in just one generation the leatherback turtle population has declined more than 70 percent, to the point that it made the 2006 IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species. 

Ecotourism in Costa Rica has brought both funding and attention to the effort to save these amazing creatures. It has been estimated by the EcoTeach Foundation that 50,000 turtle eggs will be saved from poachers through beach patrols made by their volunteers. It’s also a great way to learn and incorporate a worthy cause into a memorable vacation.

How to Help

EcoTeach is a nonprofit organization created with a mission of conservation through education. There are many organizations in Costa Rica with similar goals and ways to help. I happened to have participated in the protection of the leatherback turtles on two separate trips, both with EcoTeach.

EcoTeach allows you the freedom to choose between customizing your own trip and joining a preplanned group. A customized trip runs about the same price as a preplanned trip, while giving you the opportunity to keep the group small and familiar; the minimum being around seven to eight people. The preplanned groups generally host between 10 and 20 visitors.  

As a student, I had multiple trips from which to choose, especially around Spring Break. As a family, you are limited mainly to the summer months. While EcoTeach suggests you bring children over the age of 8 years, you might want to consider how well you expect your young child might handle the rugged experience. 

For both students and families, it’s recommended that you sign up for any trip between three and six months before your expected arrival, to secure a spot. 

What to Expect

In order to provide a well-rounded Costa Rican experience, most ecotourism companies offer supplemental activities such as whitewater rafting down the Sarapiqui river, horseback riding up the Arenal volcano or ziplining through the Monteverde cloudforest. On a more cultural, less active level, EcoTeach also provides the opportunity to participate in homestays and local school visits.

Generally, all of your activities are included in the price. Make sure you pick a trip with activities in addition to turtle patrolling that you enjoy. And make sure you pack for those activities.

What To Pack 

Costa Rica has a tropical climate, meaning it is both hot and wet. Bring not only secure sandals but also hiking boots. In addition to a swimsuit, bring a light-weight nylon windbreaker. For turtle patrolling, wear dark clothes and lots of bug spray. Most importantly, pack plastic bags for all of this wet clothing. And put all of it in a soft duffle bag. Hard-shelled bags do not roll well through sand or mud.

When turtle patrolling at night, you will stay in a hut without electricity and shower without hot water. It is not for everyone. But for the right family, this ecotourism turtle adventure is a great way to bond. 

Destinations: Costa Rica

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Experiential Travel

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