By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Students led by a research assistant patrol a remote Costa Rican beach in the dark as the world’s largest sea turtles push their way onshore with their powerful front flippers to nest.

The group’s eyes adjust to the night, and the assistant uses a red light to document data as students measure the turtles, count the eggs and note the behavior.

Leatherback Sea Turtles, so-called because they lack a hard shell, can grow up to 7 feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Once in abundance, they were found in every ocean except the Artic and Antarctic, but today they face extinction.

Ecology Project International is trying to save the reptile with roots dating back to the dinosaurs, and 14-year-old Gabby Gatej wants to help.

But first, the freshman at Highland High School in Gilbert must raise the $3,295 to pay for her hands-on, nine-day trip to the Central American country.

“I love wildlife so much, and I love helping wildlife in general,” said Gabby. “I can help the turtles and other animals prosper by monitoring the turtles and also by learning what the community can do to save all wildlife.”

Leatherbacks are listed as endangered under the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act, and internationally they are listed as vulnerable, meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.

The mission of Montana-based Ecology Project International is to improve and inspire science education and conservation efforts worldwide through field-based, student-scientist partnerships.

“Our program partners students with researchers collecting data that is ongoing,” said Kyle Watson, field experience coordinator for the nonprofit educational organization . “Their work on the project is actually contributing to the conservation working that is going on.”

Scientists will use the students’ data to help improve leatherback conservation efforts around the world and increase understanding of these creatures.

Since 2000, the organization has worked with about 32,000 students from the United States, Belize, Costa Rica and other Latin American countries on conservation projects in five countries.

About 75 percent of the participants are under-served local youth living in communities adjacent to the project site. The organization’s co-founders recognized early on that unless locals valued and protected wildlife and the critical habitats in their own backyards, conservation efforts would ultimately fail.

This is the first year Highland High School has participated, according to Watson. Bioscience High School is the only Arizona school so far to have gone through the program.

Highland High School science teacher Katie Rizzo was involved in the organization’s fellowship in Costa Rica and brought the student program back to her campus, Watson said. So far, 20 students from the high school have signed up to go to Costa Rica in March, she added.

“A big piece of what we are doing is promoting inquire-based science,” Watson said. “Our two instructors lead students through that process, engaging in the scientific process and sort of inspiring students to come up with their own questions.”

Pre- and post-course programming will provide students with additional leadership skills, build critical thinking and teach an awareness of environmental issues facing Costa Rica.

They also will have the opportunity to explore a tropical rainforest ecosystem and meet with their Costa Rican counterparts.

Students will fly out of Phoenix International Airport and land in San Jose International Airport, some 2,300 miles away.

From there, it’s a 3.5-hour drive from the Central Valley and then a 30-minute boat ride down canals because there are no roads to reach the 2,000-acre Pacuare Nature Reserve along the Caribbean coast.

The rainforest reserve is so remote there is no cell phone reception or electricity, but there is running cold water, Watson said.

Students will stay in dorm-like cabins on Pacuare Beach, surrounded by a lush forest and tons of wildlife such as white-faced capuchin monkeys and tree sloths.

The students are allowed to sleep in during the day, as they will do the bulk of their work at night when the turtles nest. They man rotating four-hour shifts, patrolling the beach for turtles and egg poachers.

“Having us out there on the beach collecting data dissuades poachers coming into the area,” Watson said. “There has been a 98 percent reduction of nest poaching on that section of beach. It’s really just a matter of our students being there and being present and working with the local community.”

Overall, volunteers provide critical manpower during the nesting season of March to July for a number of conservation groups collecting data and safeguarding nesting turtles at the reserve.

The female turtles can lay up to 100 eggs, the size and shape of a tennis ball.

“The rate for hatchings is very low, it’s like 1 percent,” Watson said.

For the hatchlings who do make it back to the ocean, the males will spend the rest of their lives at sea while the females after reaching sexual maturity in 15 to 25 years, return to the same nesting areas to produce their own offspring.

Besides collecting research data, students also will relocate a clutch of eggs if laid too close to the high-tide line, Watson said.

Other threats for leatherbacks include plastic pollution, watercraft strikes and loss of nesting habitat from coastal development, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“These guys are highly susceptible to plastics in the ocean,” Watson said. “They feed primarily on jelly fish, and something that looks a lot like a jelly fish is a plastic bag.”

Some leatherbacks have been found with 11 pounds of plastic in their stomachs, according to savetheseaturtle.org.

Watson said there are about 35,000 nesting females left in the wild compared with 120,000 from 40 years ago.

Gabby said she wants to become a marine biologist, but her dad told her there aren’t many job opportunities in that field, so she is considering a career as an anesthesiologist.

“If I get to be an anesthesiologist, I can (fund) trips like that and help other people,” she said. “There are scholarships for people who can’t afford it.”

Watson said the hope is to empower students to get involved in conservation and make lasting impacts in their own communities.

How to help
What: Gilbert resident and Highland High School freshman Gabby Gatej is trying to raise $3,295 to go on an educational, hands-on trip in March to help save the Leatherback Sea Turtle, which faces extinction.
How to help: ecologyproject.org/support/a0E1W00001oSTOQUA4.
Residents also can use their tax credit ($200/individual or $400/couple) to Highland High School made out to “Gilbert Public Schools” with “Hawks Leaders in Science-Costa Rica” in the memo line, along with Gabrielle Gatej’s name. The entirety of the tax credit amount would be applied towards the fees for her trip, and donors will receive the credit back on their 2018 tax returns.
For more information about THE Ecology International Project: ecologyproject.org