I want my leatherback: retired Poulsbo teacher on quest to save rare turtle

EcoTeach students measure a mother leatherback turtle laying eggs on Parisima Beach in Costa Rica.  - Courtesy Photos
EcoTeach students measure a mother leatherback turtle laying eggs on Parisima Beach in Costa Rica.
— image credit: Courtesy Photos

POULSBO — Even though leatherback sea turtles outlasted dinosaurs, they now struggle to survive us.

In 2004, at the 24th annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology, scientists predicted these turtles would be extinct in 10 years — six years from now.

Greg Enright, a retired Pearson Elementary and Poulsbo Middle School teacher, and his Internet tourism company EcoTeach is trying to change that.

The company, which has its service arm based in Costa Rica, appeals to students and teachers interested in saving the 8-foot long, 5-foot wide giants and their hatchlings from extinction.

Enright said from the time eggs are laid, they are the target of crabs and human poachers.

“In Costa Rica many people eat the eggs as a delicacy. It is believed to be an aphrodisiac,” he said.

In the Costa Rican market, eggs go for $1 each, which amounts to quite a bit considering each female turtle can lay up to 120 eggs five times each year, Enright said.

If the eggs survive to hatchlings, their scramble to the beach is encumbered by obstacles. Many are picked off by birds and even those that make it to the ocean face drowning or a painful death, crunched by the jaws of sharks.

The odds of survival: one in 1,000, Enright said.

The goal of EcoTeach is to take student groups out each night to walk Costa Rica’s Parismina beach east of San Jose, to look for female turtles laying eggs February through July.

Students rest during the day because turtles only come onto the beach at night.

“The female turtles won’t come onto shores when there is any light,” Enright said, adding that beach developments such as well-lit resorts and hotels are a contributing factor of their declining survival.

When students come upon a female turtle on the beach they first measure, tag and record her. Then they replicate the nest, which is normally a hole dug about three feet deep in a restricted nursery.

Youngest students are in charge of whacking away crabs from feeding on the turtles’ soft-shelled eggs.

Enright explained the eggs are soft so they won’t break when the mother lays them in the sand.

Because of the company’s 14 years of continued beach walks, poachers no longer gather eggs on Parismina.

“By being on the beach we are getting to the eggs before the poachers do,” he said, adding that EcoTeach created another job market for the poachers by hiring them as beach guides.

“It’s really neat,” he said. “They know what to look for and who.”

Enright said due to the success, he is looking into purchasing the rights to an additional three kilometers of beach.

Those who go on trips with EcoTeach stay in exclusive Costa Rican owned lodges, reserves or community-based homesteads.

Some get to see first-hand another reason for the decline of the leatherback sea turtles.

Blue plastic bags filled with insecticides are wrapped around banana bunches exported from Costa Rica.

During heavy rain, the bags are pulled off the bunches and are carried to the ocean via connecting rivers and tributaries.

The plastic bags float in the ocean and are often confused for jellyfish, a staple to the turtles’ diet.

“Many of the turtles gag on the plastic,” Enright said. “Now that I know that, I do my part and buy organic bananas as much as possible.”

Each year, an average of 900 students from the United States and Europe travel to Costa Rica with EcoTeach.

“If it wasn’t for the Internet, it would be so much harder to do this,” he said, adding that all communication is based online via e-mail or instant messaging. Phone calls are made internationally through the Internet-based call system, Skype.

Even applications are made online or on one piece of paper.

“We are almost green,” he said.

EcoTeach started in 1994 by another retired Suquamish Elementary teacher, Ralph Carlson, whose goal was to have as much of the locals influence as possible.

“So often in the tour business you hear about people’s travels but they don’t get to know the local people,” he said.

As Enright found out knowing Spanish is helpful but not necessary to participate in the travels.

“I have really bad Spanish,” he said.

Five years ago, before Enright purchased the company, he said he was smoking Cuban cigars and drinking coffee with the locals, gearing up for the nightly beach walk.

“Viva la tortilla!” he shouted, raising his fist in the air — ready to storm the beaches and save the eggs.

Everyone burst into laughter, as “tortuga” is the Spanish word for turtle.

“Now I’m known as the tortilla man,” he said. “It’s a terrible joke.”

He said the experience embarrassed him into taking Spanish courses but the courses haven’t helped him much.

“It all brings back terrible experiences. It’s like a flashback from the 60s, taking Spanish in my high school days,” he said laughing. “Fortunately the local people are so friendly there and they really appreciate it when you attempt to speak their language.”

For now, the race against the clock continues for the leatherback sea turtles but the more awareness spreads about their plight, people are doing more to aid in their survival, Enright said.

“By using ecotourism as a real simple model we have found our niche,” he said. “With our 900 students and teachers each year we’ve already changed so many lives.”

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