When Environmental Science teacher Jordana Churchill’s eight day trip to study leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica was winding down, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed: she had yet to see one of the turtles. Her first night’s attempt was thwarted by sickness, and another by rain that was so torrential she couldn’t see the person walking directly in front of her.
“I was definitely hoping for a sighting on the last night,” said Churchill of the optional late night patrol to the beach before an early morning rising to get to the airport. “It was a beautiful and clear night and you could see all the stars. Then on the way back, we could see in the distance a lump coming out of the water! It was a turtle heading for the beach.”
The sighting of the turtle moved Churchill. “Sea turtles are magnificent,” she said. “The moment I first saw it and realized how big they are, I was struck by how beautiful and yet how clumsy they are when they are not in the water.”
That clumsiness comes partly from the size of the turtles - some as long as seven feet end-to-end with weight as heavy as 2000 pounds. But most of their on-land lumbering comes from their rear flippers, which are great for swimming but awkward for traversing across beach sand, especially when searching to build a nest - just what this turtle was planning to do.
“When you find a mother turtle, you can collect their eggs while they are in the process of laying them because at that moment they are not paying attention,” Churchill said. “You can’t lift the turtles up because they’re so heavy, but you can put your head under them from the side of their nest. With a big plastic bag, you try to collect their eggs as they lay them, then count them and move them to a safer area for hatching. We also tag the turtles if needed.” This turtle, she said, laid 92 fertile and 20 infertile eggs.
Churchill and her group’s project is crucial. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the turtles are a “Vulnerable” species on the international level, Churchill noted. That rating means they are “facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.” Under U.S. ratings from the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act, their status is even more precarious: as an “Endangered” species they are “in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future.” Besides the threat from humans, which eat their eggs, Costa Rica and other prime nesting areas are facing large-scale development from beach resorts which have eliminated miles of habitat.
“The turtles have evolved to swim towards noise and light, which before humans, was the ocean,” Churchill said. “But with resorts, they get confused. The people who frequent resorts are another problem when they tamper with nests. And when in the water, the turtles usually eat jellyfish, but with so much plastic in the ocean, they ingest that too, which can kill them.” To protect the turtles, they are monitored, tagged, and when necessary, their nests are moved to safer locations, she said.
In addition to studying the turtles, Churchill’s group learned about native tree frogs, bats, caiman (similar to alligators and crocodiles), and monkeys.
“At one point, we were surrounded by a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys,” Churchill said with a laugh. “I saw a little baby monkey holding on to its mother’s back. It was just so cute.”
Churchill’s trip and fellowship were sponsored by Ecology Project International (EPI). After, a highly selective application process, EPI teamed Churchill and 13 other Environmental Science teachers, professors and outdoor educators with two Costa Rican professors and two EPI assistants to study the turtles and the ecology of the country. The team included a Russian, an American who teaches in China, and other Americans from throughout the United States. Churchill especially enjoyed bonding with her group on a white-water rafting trip.
An attractive part of the program, Churchill said, is its goal to engage participants with Costa Ricans.
“From a moral perspective, I feel confident supporting and being a part of this program,” Churchill said. “They hire local vendors and local educators. They help connect scientists from all over the world to the people whose resources they are using. They help scientists, students, and community members communicate their needs with each other. They actively engage foreign participants in the local culture, and they are dedicated to their vision of empowering youth and increasing environmental literacy. I met the founder of the program, and this program's genesis comes from a good heart and a real need.”
A highlight of the trip was a visit to a local high school. “They don't just do US student trips and teacher professional development - they actively work with local school programs. While we were at the high school, they were celebrating International Book Day. The event included an assembly, cultural dances, and a question and answer session.”
Churchill was particularly impressed with the students’ approach to conservation. “They are very environmentally conscious,” she said. “All of the students washed their plates after eating. Nothing is thrown away, nothing is wasted.”
The lessons learned from her high school visit were just part of what she wants to bring back to her classes at Archbishop Williams.
“All of us as participants were taught Environmental Science in some way, shape or form, whether we were taught in the classroom or in the field,” she said. “One of the biggest lessons for me is that I want to take my kids outside more. For instance, if I wanted to teach Environmental Science students about dams, water flow, watersheds, etc., I could do it while kayaking and canoeing and stop along the way. That makes it fun too. The lesson I learned in Costa Rica is to let nature teach itself.”
Although Churchill would love to return to Costa Rica when the turtle’s eggs are hatching, the program is restricted to one-time participation. But the connection and shared experiences within the group will continue. “We’re trying to create a community of alumni to stay in touch with each other through a Facebook page,” Churchill said.
And she’ll never forget the opportunity to finally see and study a leatherback. “I am so happy I was able to have this wonderful experience!,” Churchill said.