Counting Turtles

Counting Turtles
Counting Turtles

A group of Sidwell Friends students spent an educational week in Costa Rica.

It wasn’t the usual holiday excursion for one group of Sidwell Friends students. Due to the early start of this year’s break and thanks to the creativity of the Auxiliary Programs team, 14 Sidwell 10th graders traveled to Costa Rica in December as part of an unusual service trip that had them monitoring the local turtle population, cleaning a beach of harmful plastics, and helping paint a local school.

“On the first full day of our trip, we went to Marino Las Baulas National Park,” says Sadie Johnson ’26. “We watched a presentation to learn about the turtle population, and then went to find turtles that had not yet hatched.” Costa Rica’s Marino Las Baulas National Park is a protected reserve on the Pacific as well as a nesting site for endangered leatherback sea turtles, the largest of the turtle species, tipping the scales at more than 1,000 pounds each. The objective of the trip was to learn and volunteer. So, students joined the research team at the Goldring-Gund Station, a turtle restoration center in the park, and patrolled the beach during nesting season, looking in on turtles and monitoring nests.

The park endeavors to provide a place for these massive creatures to lay their eggs and keep them safe from thieves. Costa Rican researchers at the park say egg poachers, who sell the turtle eggs on the black market (operating under the false belief that the eggs are aphrodisiacs), have decimated a generation of the turtle population. (Just this month armed poachers stole 1,520 eggs from a different protected area.) Add severe climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and coastal development to the mix, and the leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific has decreased by over 90 percent since 1980.

That’s why, the park says, volunteers like the Sidwell Friends students are so critical to their efforts to count, measure, track, and study these ancient animals, which are important to maintaining the health of the planet’s marine ecosystems. It is also why the kids scoured the beach looking for microplastics, which harm wildlife and can take hundreds of years to break down naturally. “We cleaned up the beach for the rest of the wildlife,” says Johnson. “Afterward, we reflected on our experience and sorted the plastics we found.”

The trip was the idea of Karen McCann McClelland and Cate Woodward, director and assistant director of Auxiliary Programs at Sidwell. When the two saw that the timing of the holiday break created an opportunity for a trip, they jumped at the opportunity. They partnered up with Nations Classroom to create an appropriate service program and the next thing they knew, they were heading up a trip to Central America with the 14 students. It was the first international trip put on by Auxiliary Programs since COVID. Financial aid was available that helped make the trip available to all.

In addition to working with the giant leatherback turtles, the students also spent a day at a rural Costa Rican school. They cleaned the facility, painted a wall and a stadium-like stairway, and planted trees. Service, says Woodward, was the top priority of the trip, as was ensuring the Upper School administration would approve of the program as a credible way for student travelers to earn some of their mandatory service hours. “We wanted to make sure the kids would have 20 hours of service,” says Woodward. (The School requires 60 hours of service work to graduate.) Working with Nations Classroom, which provides educational student tours and class trips as part of a mission to get kids out into the world, they connected with the service opportunities and guides at Las Baulas and the local school.

Dylan Verma ’26 enjoyed experiencing the different climates of Costa Rica, from 30-degree rainforests to 80-degree beaches. But his favorite part of the trip was less exotic. “There were so many amazing parts about this trip, including the service,” he says, “but my favorite was getting closer to the people on the trip. Everyone became closely bonded, and it’s really nice to see everyone back at Sidwell now.” Of course, he adds, “the beach was also pretty awesome.”

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