One place left us feeling warm and welcomed. The other offered more in the way of science and academic discipline. We spent nights patrolling beaches with turtle-conservation projects...

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One place left us feeling warm and welcomed. The other offered more in the way of science and academic discipline.


We spent nights patrolling beaches with turtle-conservation projects at two locations, about 15 miles apart on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. They were different experiences, each worth considering.


How the programs are organized, who runs them, whom you patrol with, and where volunteers stay are factors that might vary in appeal to different travelers. Choose your own style:


Parismina program


Our first experience was as volunteers in Parismina, a village of 450 on a roadless island surrounded by rivers and a canal. The village has its own fledgling turtle association, led by village residents, who work under authority of the Costa Rican Coast Guard’s environmental unit.


Parismina attracts American visitors in part with the help of Debbie Sherman, a California resident who visited Parismina about 10 years ago during a Costa Rica vacation, fell in love with the village and eventually bought a house there.


A part-time instructional assistant at Santa Rosa Junior College, Sherman got students from the college’s Web design program to create a Web site, www.costaricaturtles.com, for college credit.


Volunteers may travel to Parismina independently and arrange to stay in villagers’ homes at a modest cost. Nightly patrols are led by trained members of the turtle association, accompanied by other villagers (who are paid the equivalent of $7 U.S. for a four-hour shift, considered a decent wage in the village). On a typical night, only a few other American travelers will join the patrols; some nights, we were the only out-of-towners walking the beach with the locals, many of whom spoke little English.


EcoTeach and Estación Las Tortugas


Our other experience was with EcoTeach (www.ecoteach.com), a nonprofit Seattle-based educational organization that leads groups — often middle- and high-school students — on eco-tours of Costa Rica, led by Costa Rican guides.


Turtle projects are a big part of EcoTeach’s program, though it typically also takes visitors across Costa Rica to learn about cloud forests, volcanoes, a macaw conservation project and more, with homestays at some sites.


EcoTeach visits various locations for turtle patrols — including, in recent months, Parismina — but perhaps its closest affiliation is a longstanding partnership with Estación Las Tortugas, a private beachfront reserve devoted to sea-turtle conservation and study (including a new education center, opening this month, backed in part by auctions that raised money from eco-conscious Seattleites).


At Estación Las Tortugas, EcoTeach visitors stay in no-frills barracks in a remote and exotic jungle setting. Turtle patrols, with your own group of American visitors, are led by bilingual EcoTeach guides as well as Spanish-speaking employees of the station.


The station is generally better equipped than the village — its handheld radios have batteries that work, for example — and more sophisticated in its science.


Key differences:


Culture of the country: The homestay in Parismina and being part of the village scene was a wonderful way to get to know the local people. We formed warm friendships with villagers and had a chance to stretch our Spanish skills. Similar opportunities existed at the turtle station, though we were grouped more with other visiting Americans and with conservation workers from England and elsewhere.


Culture of the workplace: Owner Stanley Rodriguez Mendez exercised a tight rein at Estación Las Tortugas, while the Parismina program has all the pluses and minuses that come with management by an energetic committee of people in a very small town (earnest enthusiasm, with not infrequent questions about who’s in charge).


In our very brief experience, the turtle station demanded more rigor. Those who grew weary during late-night patrols, which can be physically demanding, were reminded of their commitment and goaded to stay on duty — including children. There was a pressing sense of doing important work.


In Parismina, visitors who pled exhaustion were escorted back to their host home — no problem — while paid villagers continued patrols. If the ordinary stresses of travel or Costa Rica’s heat and humidity slow you down, you might value that flexibility.


Science: The turtle station, with wildlife biologists, offered the best nitty-gritty lesson in the science of saving sea turtles. For example, it collects sand samples from natural turtle nests to test in a lab for moisture content, a way of analyzing whether man-made turtle hatcheries should be irrigated during dry weather. The turtle station is also experimenting with temperature sensors in its hatchery. Parismina’s program is primarily run by lay people, with guidance by the Coast Guard. The villagers are serious in their dedication but not as sophisticated with their science.


Safety: Because of the presence of poachers, EcoTeach struggles with the issue of safety of visitors who walk turtle patrols at either location, says founder Ralph Carlson, a retired school teacher. But the mere presence of the patrols is usually enough to discourage poachers, and visitors are coached against confronting poachers if they meet up with any. The Costa Rican Coast Guard has officers posted at Parismina to help with enforcement.


“The poachers don’t have guns. They’re just 19-year-olds out there trying to make a buck” by selling turtle eggs in local bars, Carlson said.


Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com