Biology student completes summer internship with green sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica

| More

Biology student completes summer internship with green sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica

September 22, 2016 

Willow GahrAfter spending two weeks volunteering for a summer internship in the tropical paradise of Costa Rica to observe the nesting habits of Green Sea Turtles, Willow Gahr returned to Northwestern Oklahoma State University this semester with a new-found respect for those who work with conservation projects.

The senior biology major from Carmen spent two weeks in Tortuguero at the Sea Turtle Conservancy Tortuguero which was virtually in the middle of the jungle – complete with its humid environment and variety of wildlife – a far cry from the flatlands of northwest Oklahoma.

“The jungle was gorgeous,” she said. “On the conservancy we were in the middle of it. We were on a strip of land, not quite an island but more of a peninsula. The river ran on one side, and the ocean was on the other, but it was 10 miles long. It was maybe a quarter mile in width, but it was really long.

“There are 14 [known] jaguars in that area. There are all kinds of lizards from iguanas to the ‘Jesus’ lizards that run on their back feet. They had these bright blue butterflies, and when you first saw them they looked like a blue-glowing light. When they would flap up you would see the underside of their wings, and you could tell it was a butterfly.”

Within a 10-mile radius on the beaches where volunteers from all over the world were working, Gahr’s job included spending her days and nights helping to check for turtle nesting sites, documenting new nesting sites, helping make sure the turtles reached the ocean, and collecting various data.

“If you walk in front of them or if they see you, it’s over,” Gahr said about the turtles. “They’ll turn around and go.”

It wasn’t long before she dove right into the data-collecting process, crediting her wildlife conservation classes with Dr. Aaron Place, professor of biology at Northwestern, for preparing her for putting that knowledge into action.

She explained that the turtles would come in at all hours of the day and night, dig their nests with their back flippers and take their time laying their eggs. The process from digging the nest to laying eggs could take hours or not happen at all, and the sea turtle comes back another day to try again.

Gahr was tasked with counting the eggs as they fell, marking the longitude and latitude of the nest and staying with that turtle until it finished, then staying afterwards for additional monitoring of the nest. Since she conducted most of the data-collecting on the particular nest, she described it as having her own nest on the beach.

“When you look at them on TV you think ‘oh sea turtles are so pretty,’ but you don’t really take into account how big they are and how strong they are,” she said.

Some of the workers had been there for months while others came in after Gahr’s arrival. They all found that they faced more challenges than keeping up with the turtles. The language barriers eventually created an unspoken understanding between fellow researchers and Gahr because of the common need to help the turtles.

Gahr may have only spent two weeks working on the conservancy, but in that amount of time, she found a new respect for the lifestyles that come with conservation projects.

Conservancy where gahr stayed“The passion people have for these animals is incredible,” she said. “I see why it’s working; I see why it takes a special person to want to go out there, months on end…I have a whole lot of respect for these people. It’s a lot of hard work.”

She has also gained a new perspective on the value of conservation projects.

“I understand more the importance of conservation,” she said. “I know they say to conserve water, watch out for animals, conserve nature, but it’s more than just that. We say it all the time, but until you see the need for it and actually have to work out there and put effort into it, you don’t really understand it. It’s brought to life really what it means to work out there…and try to save a species that’s dying.”

The conservancy asked Gahr to come back to be a research assistant next summer. Her duties would change slightly with more responsibilities being added, but she is still considering it.

“It’s total exposure,” she said about her internship. “It’s best to be exposed to the different cultures, people and things like that. It keeps you well-rounded, and humble. I think if you have the opportunity or can go on an internship [you should].”

For more information on Northwestern’s biology program or the Natural Science Department contact Dr. Steven Maier, department chair and associate professor of physics, at (580) 327-8562 or