Allow me to paint a picture of the happiest night of my life. I was covered in sand, drenched in sweat, and burned from sand fly bites. Not to mention exhausted. It was 2 AM, and I was starting to feel grateful that my shift at the sea turtle hatchery was almost over.

I was on Playa Carate in Costa Rica working on a sea turtle conservation project. Sea turtle nests on this beach face numerous threats, including predation, poaching and tide inundation. To protect vulnerable nests, we relocated freshly laid eggs to a safe, enclosed area called a hatchery.

The hatchery was simple, not much more than a bamboo fence and a colorfully painted sign. Yet to me, this structure represented everything I loved about my life in Costa Rica. It reflected a journey of self-discovery featuring every scale of emotion, from self-doubt and humility to the pure joy of accomplishing one’s dreams.

And it all started with a cigarette and an awkward conversation.

Three months earlier I was sitting on our project’s base camp when a member of the community entered and started smoking a cigarette. I approached him and explained that this was a private campsite and a non-smoking area.

Following this confrontation, he began spouting a slew of insults about our project. If we could walk along his beach and stop him from poaching turtle eggs, then he should be allowed on our campsite to smoke a cigarette.

My initial reaction was that of anger and indignation. The beach was public, while our land was private. We were doing good by protecting nests from illegal poaching.

However, I quickly realized that vilifying this person would solve nothing, and in fact may be the problem to begin with. To gain some perspective, I spoke with our research partners from a community-led sea turtle organization.

Through these conversations I grew to understand how there are always two sides to a story. From this man’s perspective, we were the disrespectful ones. His main source of income came through gold mining. When the government imposed restrictions on mining due to its negative environmental impacts, he and his family resorted to poaching turtle eggs to compensate for severe financial hardships.

And now, conservation groups were coming to his town and antagonizing poachers, portraying them as bad and shameful people. These negative stereotypes made him feel alienated in his own community and hurt his chances of finding alternate employment.

This realization shook me, and I began to doubt the conservation work that I had previously felt so sure of. However, over time, I understood that facing this difficult situation head on was exactly what I needed to broaden my perspective and break the status quo.

And so, what started as an uncomfortable conversation, blossomed into something beautiful. The whole town came together, gold miners and conservationists alike, to discuss these tensions within the community. Together we developed a win-win solution: our conservation organization would employ ex-poachers to build and run a sea turtle hatchery.

This idea had numerous benefits. The hatchery would increase protection of vulnerable nests and serve as an education center for school children and tourists. In return, our organization provided income and work references to community members and their families.

We got straight to work constructing the hatchery and then relocating our first sea turtle nests. After three months of late nights and long work hours, the first nest was finally ready to hatch.

This brings me back to that hot, sand fly ridden night at 2 AM. I was on shift with my friend Joaquin, who sacrificed hours of gold mining the next day to stay on watch with me. He entered the hatchery to check on the nest and came back with the biggest smile I had ever seen.

“Nacieron!” he said, “They hatched!” Beside myself with excitement, I walked to the nest to find three small Olive Ridley turtles timidly poking their heads out of the sand. Over the next hour we watched 110 out of 113 hatchlings emerge from the sand, a much better survival rate than we typically recorded on the beach.

In that moment, the sand flies weren’t a thought in my mind. Instead I had the realization that there was no place on earth I would rather be than right there in that hatchery. I looked around and saw a bright sky burning with millions of stars. I saw huge ocean waves crashing into bioluminescent sand. And I saw that giant smile across Joaquin’s face that could be understood in any language.

That smile said that we did it, we achieved our goal. The late nights and long hours had all been worth it, because we helped protect one of the world’s most threatened species. And we did it together.

  • Emma Korein
  • : I am a conservation scientist with too many interests to count. I love traveling, nature, soccer, roller coasters…just to name a few. In 2015 I completed my BA in psychology, French, and education. Undecided on a career, I traveled to Kenya to intern with Save the Elephants. There I found my passion for wildlife conservation, a career that fit my diverse background and interests. I could travel, teach, work with people, learn new languages, and live outdoors. In 2017 I obtained my MSc in conservation then moved to Costa Rica to work as Principal Investigator for the conservation organization Frontier.
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  • : This is the first time this story has been published.