Volunteer Field Research Assistant
About the organisation
We are a grassroots non-profit organization working on the frontlines studying and protecting nesting and feeding sea turtles in Costa Rica.
Each year, we offer hands-on learning experiences in our Caribbean nesting beach project, where people interested in the area of marine conservation can volunteer as field research assistants (RAs). This upcoming 2024 nesting season, we will have five spots per team available in our sea turtle conservation and research project in Gandoca, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Our study site is the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge (RNVSGM) in the very South of Costa Rica. The sea turtle nesting habitat within RNVSGM encompasses 9.8 km of beach adjacent to the small village of Gandoca and several smaller playitas between Gandoca and the community of Manzanillo. RNVSGM 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 RNVSGM for nesting: hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), and less frequently green turtles (Chelonia mydas).
Once an important leatherback turtle nesting habitat, RNVSGM’s leatherback nesting population has decreased substantially in size in the past ten years (from 300-800 nests per year to now 40-100 nests). However, it has only recently been discovered that RNVSGM also hosts one of the largest nesting aggregations of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle in Costa Rica, with 100 to 160 nests per year.
About the role
From March until October each year, our project conducts nightly patrols (rain or shine) to encounter nesting females (primarily leatherbacks and hawksbills) to monitor the nesting populations and to protect the females and their eggs from illegal harvest.
Our work is a mix of conservation measures and scientific data collection. We mark 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 number of hatchlings produced. We further collect samples to conduct diet studies using stable isotope analysis, and we attach a few satellite transmitters each year to study the habitat use of our turtles.
Our RAs have the opportunity to help with any of the accruing tasks throughout the field season. The work schedule is very dynamic and will be structured as demanded by the workload, but the core work will encompass nightly patrols (rain or shine) of 5-8 hours six nights out of the week with one night/day off per week. In general, fieldwork means long hours, little sleep, no weekends, no holidays, no fixed finishing times, and no predictable days off.
Each successful applicant will receive training on-site on the incurring tasks. Some work will be done during the day (e.g. preparing and cleaning equipment, transferring data, beach clean-ups, and surveys). Major parts will be at night, searching for nesting females. Ultimately, we expect our RAs to be dependable assistants who help with any of our daily tasks and ongoing research and can 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 because of long working hours, and shared quarters. Our local field staff only speaks Spanish, 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 frequently (depending on the month of the year, sometimes 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 not very abundant any more. We cover large areas in our surveys and hence, you should not expect to see hundreds of adult turtles during your time on the project but rather a single nesting female every once in a while (an average of about one or less a week). Therefore, 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 conservationist, 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. What you should also 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 who understand the importance of our work, and who are willing to complete the job meticulously and with dedication. We need our assistants to pull their own weight and be ready to pitch in and carry more if another team member is unable to. Successful applicants will be flexible individuals who can focus on various tasks (nightly patrols, 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 hot 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, and field first aid kit, which are the responsibility of the successful applicant.
- 18+ years old
- Future student, student or recent graduate in biology, wildlife management, ecology, marine biology (or similar), or a strong interest in the field of marine and wildlife conservation.
- Able to commit for the entire period.
- Previous sea turtle experience is an advantage, but not a requirement.
- 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)
- Professional demeanour.
- Upbeat personality, even in the face of severe sleep deprivation.
- Ability to lift 50 pounds, and restrain a 90-pound animal for several hours.
- Proficiency in Spanish is highly desired, but not a requirement.
- Experience working abroad, under harsh weather conditions, especially in a tropical country desirable
- Flexible, patient, and able to follow instructions
Salary and benefits
Because of limited available funds and a preference for paying our local research assistants fair wages, the position is voluntary, and no salaries or stipends are paid. RAs will be expected to contribute US$ 460/month (~US$ 15/day) for their room and board in a locally run cabina. This fee covers the cost of adding RAs to our research permits, entrance fee to the protected area, renting rooms, paying a cook, three daily vegetarian 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 (taxis and public buses), including any international travel costs. The RA is also expected to cover any other expenses outside the project, like extra food and transportation that are not pertinent to the project work.
Due to last-minute cancellations in previous years, the RAs are expected to pay the first month of their stay upon acceptance of the position.
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.
Team 1 (five positions): April 12th (preferably) – July 15th (leatherback and hawksbill season)
Team 2 (five positions): July 12th (preferably) – October 15th (hawksbill season)
How to apply
Applications will be processed on a rolling basis.
- March 7th, 2024 (Team 1)
- May 31st, 2024 (Team 2)
Interested applicants should send a letter of interest stating which team they are applying for, a two-page resume, and contact information for two relevant references to
Dr. Christine Figgener (firstname.lastname@example.org). Subject line: RA Costa Rica