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Small Planes and Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

During LightHawk’s spring 2011 Mesoamerica flight season, donated missions over Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast carried on a tradition going back 60 years. The flights to protect important sea turtle habitat were just the latest instance of small aircraft being instrumental for research and conservation which goes back to the 1950s and the early days of Dr. Archie Carr.

Volunteer pilots Andy Young (CO) and Denise Corcora n (CO) traveled to Costa Rica to fly donated missions in L ightHawk's owned Cessna 206 for Area de Conservación Tortuguer o. photo: Elena Vargas/ACTo

“When I think about sea turtle conservation, I think about Dr. Archie Carr, the father of sea turtle research and conservation,” remarks Armando Ubeda, LightHawk’s program manager for Mesoamerica missions. “He dedicated his life to study these magnificent creatures and most of what is known today about the biology and life cycles of sea turtles is because of him. It is a great honor for LightHawk to protect an area that he loved, and that is extremely important for the conservation of sea turtles as well as many other species.” 

 A-ha! Moment

Dr. Carr began his research on green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Costa Rica in 1955. While flying in a small plane to Tortuguero, a small fishing community reachable only by boat or plane, he leaned closer to the window to get a better view of what he thought he saw below: numerous turtle tracks on the beach and dunes below. As it was not the season for green turtles to emerge from the sea to lay their eggs, Dr. Carr suspected the tracks were probably made by leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea).

In 1955, the view from a small plane over Costa Ric a's north Caribbean coast revealed nesting leatherback turtle tracks - a watershed moment for Dr. Archie Carr's sea turtle r esearch. photo: Andy Young with aerial support from LightHaw k

He wouldn’t get the chance to confirm his suspicions until May 1957 when, in another flight to Tortuguero, he once again spotted turtle tracks. This time he was ready. With binoculars in hand, he asked the pilot to circle the area and saw the tracks were too broad for green turtles. Dr. Carr concluded that the tracks had to be from leatherbacks. Furthermore, the density of tracks suggested the leatherback was migratory, that it was utilizing this area as a nesting site, and that it was not a casual wanderer as had been suspected previously. It was this view from the cabin of a small plane that provided Dr. Carr with baseline information for his research on the ecology of leatherbacks in Tortuguero.

A Continuing Tradition

This past February, LightHawk flew over the Tortuguero area continuing the tradition of Dr. Carr who relied on small aircraft to make his remarkable discovery.

Many species of sea turtle, including leatherbacks like this one, use the beaches of the Tortuguero Conservation Area for nesting. Aerial surveys monitor onshore activities to minimi ze harmful effects on turtles. photo Steve Garvie courtesy of Wiki Commons

LightHawk volunteer pilots Denise Corcoran (CO) and Andy Young (CO) flew missions for Tortuguero Conservation Area (ACTo), Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas(SINAC) and the Ministry of the Environment (MINAET). These flights assessed connectivity inside the park and surveyed park boundaries that in recent years have been heavily affected by the advancement of the agricultural frontier. Flights also located instances of illegal deforestation and illegal crops which led to increased ground patrols in those areas to curb that activity.

11 Habitats, 1 Reserve

Tortuguero National Park, which lies within the 1,300-square-mile Tortuguero Conservation Area (ACTo), is the most important breeding grounds for green turtles in the western Caribbean. It is also utilized by other endangered species like leatherback and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), jaguar (Panthera orca) and manatees (Trichechus manatus). ACTo itself boasts 11 distinct habitats including rainforest, swamps, beaches, and lagoons.

The remote Tortuguero region is only accessible by boat or small plane. Photo: Andy Young with aerial support from LightHaw k

A biodiversity hotspot, ACTo is home of about 160 species of mammals, 405 species of birds, 400 species of trees and more than 2,200 species of other plants. Many of these species are at risk of extinction, and despite its protected status, ACTo faces many threats from deforestation, hunting, sea turtle poaching and expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Maintaining connectivity and healthy habitats, from swamp forests near the coast to tropical wetlands and rainforest, is extremely important for wide-ranging species like jaguars. Deforestation causes fragmentation of forest canopy, reduces wildlife populations, accelerates soil erosion and stream sedimentation, and increases the risk of wildfires. Logs and branches from illegal logging can drift toward beaches used by sea turtles disrupting nesting attempts and increasing the mortality of hatchlings trying to get to the open ocean.

Tortuguero Conservation Area authorities rely on ae rial surveys to spot illegal activities and follow up with targe ted ground patrols. photo courtesy of Area de Conservación Tortuguero

LightHawk aerial surveys are critical to maintaining the Tortuguero Conservation Area because it is difficult to access many locations, especially the numerous important wetlands and coastal lagoons. Visiting these locations by boat, the only other workable mode of transport, would take many days to cover the same area flown by a small plane in just a few hours.

After the flight biologist Elena Vargas reflected, “The flight was very productive... LightHawk’s donation was a great support for us. We were able to learn a lot and get a different perspective of the area that we manage and that we are trying to protect.” LightHawk donated flights empower local groups with the aerial perspective that is vital to protecting this rugged and often impenetrable coastal wild land. Walking in the footsteps of Dr. Archie Carr, these flights further local efforts to monitor and identify threats jeopardizing this region, which is so important to sea turtles.

Volunteer pilot Andy Young often spends winters "su mmering" in Antarctica as a carpenter to support scientific research activity. self-portrait by Andy Young