An endangered sea turtle walked onto the beach the first night Candace Leovao and her fellow students arrived at the Camaronal Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica. The park ranger said it was the first time in three years he’d seen an East Pacific green sea turtle. Candace said they had to remain completely silent while the mother turtle got busy laying eggs.
“We had to stay really still so we didn’t scare it away… and it was coming directly at me. So I was really nervous,” Candace said. “There was a log there so the turtle went to the side of it and was like two or three feet from me. It then made its nest right beside me, so it was crazy!”
This once-in-a-lifetime encounter was possible for Candace because she was awarded a Rustic Pathways service scholarship, along with her younger brother Frank. They live in Charlotte, North Carolina but grew up in a smaller town. Neither of them had ever been on a plane or traveled outside the country.
Candace wanted to travel to Costa Rica while she had time. She was going into her senior year of high school and then afterwards was planning to enter a pre-med program in college. She hopes to be a surgeon and figures she won’t have much time or money to travel once college begins. So she was nervous when their decision emails were received.
“I was freaking out,” Candace said. “The subject of the email was such that you weren’t sure if you had gotten it.”
After she saw her acceptance, Frank wanted to immediately grab the phone to check his email. They were thrilled when he also received a financial aid offer for travel. That set the siblings up to experience turtle conservation from every angle while they were on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
Seeing Turtle Conservation in Action
Everywhere the students turned they got to see how difficult it can be to save threatened and endangered sea turtles. Even when the students went on a dolphin viewing boat ride, they encountered a sea turtle in distress. It had a life vest wrapped around one of its flippers.
Candace said one of the boat guides jumped into the water to cut the vest off the sea turtle. Pollution like this is just one of many hazards sea turtles face.
Candace said they also saw how difficult it is to stop poachers from taking turtle eggs. She says one night on the beach a poacher came in the dark and grabbed eggs.
“It was like a span of two minutes,” Candace said. “I couldn’t believe that they had gone in and out like that so quickly.”
Candace said they could see the footprints and signs of digging where a nest once was. Because of this problem with poachers, the students gather eggs and put them in a hatchery. The students in this session helped build a new hatchery for this purpose. They also removed a lot of wood on the beach to give the turtles places to lay their eggs.
“We had just cleaned up wood and the twigs, and then a turtle laid their eggs there that night. So I could see that we were making a difference,” Candace said.
Like so many other students, Candace’s favorite part of the program were the night walks when they searched for turtles and eggs. She took every opportunity to stay out later if possible.
One night they stayed out two extra hours when there was a full moon and turtle after turtle kept coming out on the beach. Candace and her newfound friend Charlotte also remained on the beach one evening when it started to rain.
“We were the only two out because it was kind of stormy,” Candace said. “I got to measure a turtle and got super close to it… I think that’ll stick with me just because I got to be more hands-on. That was probably the most memorable part.”
This kind of experience was the main reason Candace picked this program. It offers a unique opportunity to work directly with park rangers to save sea turtle species.
“It’s a very specific animal that you get to work with… you’re getting the eggs and learning how everything works during the turtles’ lifetime. So I thought it was really cool,” Candace said. “I don’t even know when you would see a sea turtle in your lifetime. So it’s great to get this opportunity.”
Candace also learned a lot about travel. She says they discussed the difference between being a traveler versus a tourist and how to embrace the culture.
“We were getting to see how other people live and how things are different from our life in the United States or literally anywhere in the world,” Candace said. “It’s not only beneficial to get to see what’s out there, but it’s also kind of like a refresh for my mind – a self-awakening.”
When it was over, Candace and her brother both admitted they had been bitten by the travel bug. The last night in Costa Rica Candace reflected on her journey while trying to get to sleep.
“I was laying in bed. I was just thinking I didn’t want to leave,” Candace said.
Now they are back in the states and watching the Rustic Pathways website for new student travel programs for 2023. In the meantime, the scholarship application has now been opened for new travelers who want a similar experience as Candace and her brother Frank. More details can be viewed here.
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.