Wind back two weeks and I would have gladly told you that “volunteering to protect turtles on the beaches of Costa Rica is an incredible way to ensure the future of our planet’s most ancient and mysterious endangered species, whilst experiencing stunning beaches, world-renowned surf (not to mention surfers!) and, of course, topping up that all-important tan”. Of course I would have been right on the mark…but what I didn’t appreciate two weeks ago was that the pay-off for all this is enduring near-nocturnal sleeping patterns, mile after sweaty mile of pounding soft sand in the nightly search for elusive nests and the now obligatory 321 mosquito bites that come from the project’s ban on insect repellent – sensitive creatures that turtles are.

Smiling through the pain, I visit a monkey sanctuary project in between turtle conservation

To get you up to speed, I’ve just stepped off the plane following an exceedingly itchy, 17 hour return flight home from San Jose. Incidentally this included a highly entertaining four hour stopover in Newark throughout which I was ogled by confused, wary co-travellers due (I hope!) to my dazed, barefoot wandering about duty free trying to take my mind off the jetlag and three agonising blisters, otherwise known as proudly worn ‘foot-trophies’ earned through hours of hard labour saving turtles. If only they’d known, it might have saved airport security the trouble.

I am not complaining. For those of you that have read my stuff on GoGirl before you will no doubt be aware that part of my wonderful job description (working for one of the UK’s leading gap year companies) is to visit and experience first-hand our volunteer projects in some of the most exotic and extraordinary travel destinations. I am aware of how freaking awesome this is, worry not. The main purpose of this particular trip was to pave the way for Leap volunteers coming to Costa Rica in 2011, ironing out potential issues before they rear their ugly heads and road testing everything from the accommodation and first aid to, erm…roads. So when offered the chance to actually take part in conservation work at the turtle stations, of course I leapt at the opportunity — it’s what I do!

With this in mind it is with embarrassment that I admit how woefully under-prepared I was for what was to come. The route from the road to the first turtle station involved a (faintly perilous) four kilometer hike along a plastic waste-strewn beach at high tide, wearing disintegrating Birkenstocks* and holding my laughably unsuitable suitcase aloft. I had also negated to bring any dark clothing for the night-time beach patrol and left my head torch in the car. Oh, and the station’s generator was broken, Doh! Then, at the second turtle project I discovered that a 13km walk in the dark along a beach at high tide was possibly not the best time to break-in expensive new walking boots.

Tagging a female turtle on the beach

However, having survived these experiences relatively unscathed and for enduring less than luxurious living conditions, I was handsomely rewarded. On my very first beach patrol our volunteer team discovered a fresh turtle nest moments before the local poachers, saving 90 eggs from certain death at the hands of the illegal egg trade (a highly prized delicacy in these parts) and relocating them to the safety of the project’s hatchery. A day later I was treated to a truly seminal moment, watching three newly hatched baby turtles emerge from the sand, which we released into the sea at dusk and watched struggle across the damp sand and finally disappear into dark, foreboding waters. With luck those 3 lucky ducks will be back on these very same shores in years to come, laying eggs themselves. Add to this the fascinating experience of assisting an ‘exhumation’ – the practice of examining old nests, helping struggling babies out of their shells and analysing unsuccessful eggs. Whilst this may sound grizzly, how many people can say they’ve held a rare turtle embryo in their palm and helped to collect scientific data that will ensure the survival of a species?

Time to get up!

So you ask, was it worth the blisters? Yes, a thousand times over. Will ‘Leapers’ flock to the beaches of Costa Rica to volunteer in my size 11 footsteps? I sincerely hope so. And finally, in the future will I be telling anyone that saving a species is an easy ride and a great route to the perfect tan? Umm…..non!

*RIP dear Birkenstocks. You served me well old friends.

How many people can say they've held an unborn turtle embryo in their palm?