Lessons Learned from a Discouraged Mother Turtle

Lessons Learned from a Discouraged Mother Turtle

Sage Kehr

Turtle Conservation Project, Costa Rica 2022

Images have been provided by Sage and the program leaders. Read Sage’s story below!

Sage Kehr saw a lot of strange and unwelcome debris on the beach when she was in Costa Rica saving baby turtles. She came across lighters, an unopened container of liquid, styrofoam and even tiny cowboy boots.

The beach where students in the Turtle Conservation Project stay has rivers on each side that feed into the ocean. Trash and debris in those rivers go out to sea and then come back in on the waves. That creates problems that were evident from the first night of the program.

“Because of wood collecting on the beach a mother turtle couldn’t dig her hole, so she had to go back to the ocean. It was kind of sad because she may never come back to that beach to lay her eggs. It was a traumatic experience for the mother turtle,” Sage said. “I had no idea that wood would be such a big problem… and seeing it firsthand motivated me and our whole group to clear wood off the beach.”

That lesson may not have happened without the help of Sage’s mother. She secretly signed Sage up for the program and pushed her to do it. Sage says she was grateful her mom did that since she was having trouble committing to a travel program. The main barrier to making a decision was her uneasiness about going on her first international journey without her parents.

Rustic Pathways students did their service work at a wildlife refuge in Costa Rica.

Sage and her fellow students did their service work at a wildlife refuge in Costa Rica.

“I’m a very big homebody person, so I was proud of myself that I was able to do this. I didn’t even get homesick, which was very surprising,” Sage said. “There was a lot of personal growth. I went solo and really pushed myself to be extroverted to meet people and make friends.”

That worked out well in the end. Not only did Sage make several friends that she still keeps in touch with, but she also learned a lot about environmental issues she is passionate about.

An Inside Look at the Life of a Sea Turtle

Program leaders in Costa Rica teach students about the threatened and endangered sea turtles that live in the region and how to help them avoid man-made threats. Aside from trash, challenges include poachers who take turtle eggs and artificial light from nearby buildings.

Sage says the first night the students released four baby turtles. That experience, along with the mother turtle having trouble with the wood, set the tone for the rest of the program. It helped the students to see the ultimate goal – saving baby sea turtles by gathering eggs, building hatcheries for them, releasing the baby hatchlings, and clearing trash.

When the students released the turtles they used red lights to help guide the animals. Other lights can confuse baby turtles that use moonlight to lead them to the ocean and discourage mother turtles from nesting.

Red lights are used to guide turtles in Costa Rica.

Red lights are used to guide turtles in Costa Rica.

“I learned that turtles are really sensitive to white light… and if something traumatic happens or white light shines in their eyes there’s a lower possibility they’ll come back to that beach to lay eggs again,” Sage said.

Sea turtles often return to the same beach to create their nests. However, if a female turtle fails to nest after multiple “false crawls,” which are attempts to nest, she may deposit eggs in the ocean or a less than optimal spot. This makes it nearly impossible for the hatchlings to survive.

A Rustic Pathways student holds a baby turtle.

Sage holds a baby turtle.

For this reason, the students worked rain and shine to assist as many turtles as they could.

“The first night we were collecting eggs it started downpouring and we were all soaking wet. But we didn’t stop because of the rain. We saw a turtle and collected her eggs, and we released four baby turtles and saw another turtle,” Sage said. “We were really into it. We were out until at least 11 pm. Everyone said it was the best night ever. And being in the rain made it even better because we were all uncomfortable at the same time. It brought us together.”

That hard work yielded great results. By the end of the program, the students had collected about 500 eggs and released about 35 baby turtles.

Other Moments with Nature

The sea turtles were not the only animals the students learned about during the program. They also had a chance to see many other aspects of local nature during a hike. They spotted lots of plants, crabs, toads, howler monkeys and lizards, which were the mascot of the refuge.

“One of our leaders was very knowledgeable about animals and plants, and he was always telling us what we were seeing,” Sage said.

The students also saw more sea animals during their weekend adventure activities, particularly during a boat ride out into the ocean.

Rustic Pathways students set out to find dolphins.

Sage and her fellow students set out to find dolphins.

“We saw a pod of like 200 dolphins, and it was the most insane experience,” Sage said. “They were all around us. If you got up to the front of the boat, you could see the dolphins swimming with the boat, and you could get really close to them. It was really cool.”

The students also spent time interacting with local residents while making jewelry. That gave the teens a chance to practice some Spanish and take home a tangible memory of the program. Weeks later Sage was wearing the necklace she made at home.

In addition to these experiences, the students also went surfing and hung out at a pool. In the end though, it was moments with nature that impacted Sage the most.

“This program aligned with what I want to do in my life. I’m very much into helping nature and animals, and to actually be doing that during the program was impactful for me,” Sage said.

As a rising senior Sage is now considering a gap year and possibly pursuing environmental studies. She also wants to travel more, likely to somewhere by the water again – maybe Fiji or the Galapagos Islands or somewhere else that’s far away.

In the meantime, she is enjoying the new friends she’s made. Sage says in the future she wouldn’t be worried again about traveling alone on a Rustic Pathways program since getting immersed in the travel experience with other teens isn’t hard.

“Making friends is easier than you think it’s going to be, and the program leaders do a really good job of making you feel safe and ensuring you’re having a good time,” Sage said.

In addition, the program made it easier to take a break from the phone. Sage’s mother requested that her daughter avoid using data on her phone while traveling. And that made things even better.

“It helped me to be more integrated into what I was doing and be more present. I was watching things with just my eyes and taking mental pictures… being in the moment,” Sage said. “It was one of the most amazing trips for me.”

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