A few brave helpers caught the eggs as the turtles laid them. Seventh-grader Amanda Anderson caught more than 140 eggs.
“It was kind of scary, but it was just really fun,” said Anderson, 12. “And when it was over, I was really glad that I did it.”
Whipkey said the experience was strange and thrilling.
“It was surreal to see all these things happening — lightning and bioluminescent plankton, and giant sea monsters,” he said. “They’re 350 pounds. These things are huge.”
Working with the sea turtles was just part of the group’s 10-day trip last month. It was Whipkey’s fourth trip with students to Costa Rica, which he facilitates every other year.
This was the first time one of Whipkey’s groups had the opportunity to work with the turtles. He said Holbrook Travel Agency was not optimistic about the students’ chances to participate in the research.
Whipkey said: “They said, ‘You’ll never get in. There’s groups that have waited five or six years to try to get in an open spot.’”
Luck was on their side a few months later when a Holbrook adviser called to tell Whipkey about an opening.
“(The conservancy officials) were really concerned when they heard there were middle school girls coming to do research,” Whipkey said. “They said, ‘What have we become that we have middle school girls?’”
But the five girls proved them wrong with their ambition.
“Everybody there was impressed by them,” Whipkey said. “They could have cried. They could have been ‘girly’ and said, ‘I don’t want to do this’ — (but) they were like, ‘OK, let’s go do this.’”
The trip wasn’t all work. They flew over treetops on zip lines, whitewater-rafted on the Rio Sarapiqui, hiked around Arenal Volcano and explored the rainforest.
Chaperone Wendy Walters said she went on the trip to have an adventure with her daughter.
“What I got was so much more,” Walters said. “I watched five young ladies face fears, try foods, and develop appreciation for each other and their surroundings.”
Whipkey said he also wanted to incorporate some community service into the trip.
“Not necessarily a mission trip,” Whipkey said. “But why not do a little mission when you’re down there?”
They helped clean the Selva Verde Lodge and brought school supplies to a fourth-grade class in Tortuguero.
“The kids were learning English because they speak Spanish,” Anderson said. “And so (the teacher) would hold up something and say, ‘What is this in English?’
And the kids knew what they were. And one time she held up a package of pens, and they thought they were pencils — and it was just amazing how much we have compared to them, and we just take it all for granted.”
Anderson said she went to Costa Rica hoping to find a pen pal, but Whipkey said he wasn’t sure how that would be possible. He said Tortuguero doesn’t even have a post office.
“There’s no way to mail a letter,” Whipkey said. “… So a teacher (asked) — her English wasn’t the best — Facebook? And all our kids said, ‘I have Facebook’ — all five of them. ... It’s a pen pal in a different form.”
Anderson said she is excited to stay in touch with her pen pal and “learn more about them, because we really didn’t get to spend much time with them there.”
“I think my favorite part was going to the school and meeting a lot of kids there,” Anderson said. “I guess it was just because they were kids like me.”
The research assistants working with the Grand Haven kids said they were lucky to have the volunteers.
“Their enthusiasm and interest reminded me why I became a biologist in the first place,” research assistant Trenton Owens said.
Anderson said she would definitely recommend the trip to anyone else who has the opportunity.
“Not a lot of people get to go so far away,” she said. “And they should experience it because not everybody lives the same way. And it was just a great experience to see how they lived and in what conditions.”