Each year, we offer hands-on learning experiences as volunteer field research assistants (RAs) for people interested in a career in marine conservation. This year we have four spots per team available during the 2022 nesting season of our sea turtle conservation and research project in Gandoca, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Team 1 (four positions): March 15th – May 31th (leatherback season)
Team 2 (four positions): May 25th – August 10th (leatherback season and hawksbill season)
Team 3 (four positions): August 1st – October 15th (hawksbill season)
Our study site is the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge (REGAMA) in the very South of Costa Rica. The sea turtle nesting habitat within REGAMA encompasses 9.8 km of beach adjacent to the small village of Gandoca and several smaller playitas between Gandoca and the community of Manzanillo. REGAMA also harbours coral reefs and seagrass beds, which are popular feeding sites for hawksbills and greens of different life stages. Our project is protecting and studying the three resident sea turtle species that are using REGAMA for nesting: hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), and less frequently green turtles (Chelonia mydas).
Once an important leatherback turtle nesting habitat, REGAMA's leatherback nesting population has decreased substantially in size in the past ten years (from former 300-800 nests per year to now 40-150 nests). However, it has only recently been discovered that REGAMA also hosts one of the largest nesting aggregations of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle in Costa Rica with 100 to 160 nests per year.
From March until October each year, our project is conducting nightly patrols (rain or shine) to encounter nesting females (primarily leatherbacks and hawksbills) and study the nesting populations and to protect the females and their eggs from illegal harvesting.
Our work is a mix of conservation measures and scientific data collection. We mark all individuals to estimate population size, we collect different types of data on the morphology and growth rate of individuals, we record the reproductive output of females, and we estimate the hatching success of nests and the numbers of hatchlings produced. We further collect samples to conduct diet studies using stable isotope analysis, and we attach a small number of satellite transmitters each year to study the habitat use of our turtles.
Research Assistant positions:
Our RAs have the opportunity to help with any of the accruing tasks throughout the field season. The work schedule will be very dynamic and will be structured as demanded by the workload, but usually includes nightly patrols of 5-8 hours six nights out of the week with one day off per week. This means long hours, little sleep, no weekends, no holidays, no fixed finishing times, and no predictable days off.
Each successful applicant will receive a training on-site on the incurring tasks. Some work will be during the day (e.g. preparing and cleaning equipment, transferring data, beach cleanups, and surveys). Major parts will be at night, searching for nesting females. Ultimately, we are expecting our RAs to be dependable assistants that help with any of our daily tasks and the ongoing research and being able to solve problems independently and proactively.
Our RAs will live in a locally run cabina in Gandoca in shared quarters, and the local host will prepare three daily meals. Successful applicants are part of a small research team, and will spend much time with the other team members, due to long working hours, and shared quarters. Our local field staff only speaks Spanish (including the beach coordinator), and the research team will be a mix of different nationalities and cultures.
We are based in the tropics, so temperatures are hot (32 °C/ 89 °F) and humid year-round and it rains almost every day for a few hours. We also have many bugs that range from flies and beetles to more annoying ants and the stinging blood-sucking variants (e.g. mosquitoes, sand flies, chiggers, etc.), which are our close companions.
The nature of our work, conserving endangered species, means that we are working with animals that have decreased in numbers and are just not very abundant anymore. We cover a large area in shifts and hence, you should not expect to see hundreds of adult turtles during your time in the project but rather a single nesting female every once in a while (average about one or less a week). On the contrary, you should be prepared to walk many nights without seeing a single nesting female, being miserable from sleep deprivation, too much rain, and overall rustic conditions. On the bright sight, you will get a realistic view into the life of a marine conservationists and you should see a fair amount of baby turtles during your time in the project as we produce between 12 and 20K babies each season. And keep in mind, our work is essential for the survival of these populations and your support as RA is invaluable.
A dedication to a positive and respectful working environment is crucial. We like our RAs to be highly enthusiastic individuals that understand the importance of our work, and that are willing to complete the job meticulously and with dedication. We need our assistants to pull their weight and be ready to pitch in and carry more if another team member is unable to. Successful applicants will be flexible individuals that can focus on a variety of tasks (nightly patrols, in-water water work, data collection, handling animals, handling equipment, data entry, equipment maintenance, helping clean our workspace, etc.).
Large parts of our work encompass walking for long distances in soft sand at night without light and climbing steep and muddy trails. The climate is very warm and humid with frequent rain at any hour of the day. Thus, for the work as RA, adequate physical fitness is a requirement, as well as being comfortable on a beach at night without light and in potentially harsh weather.
Precautions should be taken to avoid diseases by consulting an MD specialized in travel to tropical countries and following his instructions before arriving in the project: e.g. ensure that you have the proper vaccinations, mosquito repellent, field first aid kit, which are the responsibility of the successful applicant.
18+ years old
Student or a recent graduate in biology, wildlife management, ecology, marine biology, or similar or have relevant field experience etc.
Willingness to sign an indemnification/waiver (!)
Travel Health Insurance that covers Covid-19 related expenses
Fully vaccinated with mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 (e.g. MODERNA, Pfizer/BioNTech)
Excellent physical fitness and ability to walk long distances in soft sand and steep terrain
Being comfortable living in remote, shared, and rustic conditions (no AC, no internet, only cold showers, shared rooms, next major hospital several hours away)
Positive and upbeat personality, even in the face of severe sleep deprivation
Ability to carry 50 pounds, and restrain a 90-pound animal for several hours
Proficiency in Spanish highly desired, but not a requirement
Previous experience conducting fieldwork desirable
Experience working abroad, under harsh weather conditions, especially in a tropical country desirable
Flexible, patient, and able to follow instructions
Cost of the Program/ Contribution:
The position is voluntary, and no salaries or stipends are paid. Because of limited available funds, RAs will be expected to pay a contribution of US$ 460/month for their room and board in a locally run cabina. This fee covers the cost of three daily meals, water, internet, and electricity for the duration of their stay.
Each RA will be responsible for their own travel expenses to and from the project site in Costa Rica, and taxis and public buses, including flights into the country and any international travel costs. The RA is also expected to cover any other expenses outside of the project like extra food and transportation not pertinent to the project work.
For successful Costa Rican applicants (and potentially other Latin americans), we will cover room and board. We will also cover the transportation costs to the project site within Costa Rica.
Benefits of working with us:
Working as an RA for us is a unique opportunity to gain valuable field experience and knowledge relevant to the conservation, research, and management of endangered marine species (or expand on existing experience):
Learn and practice sea turtle research and conservation methodologies and general field biology skills with our experienced team;
Practical training in data collection and handling of endangered wildlife;
Access to staff and biologists for gaining insight into professional conservation work;
Opportunity to learn or improve your Spanish language or your English skills with the local staff and international RAs.
How to Apply:
Interested applicants should send a letter of interest stating which team they apply for, a two-page resume, and contact information for two relevant references to
Dr. Christine Figgener (email@example.com). Subject line: RA Costa Rica
December 15th, 2021 (Team 1)
January 15th, 2022 (Team 2)
March 15th, 2022 (Team 3)