With each step, wet sand slid off of Eva Bray’s feet, but the freezing cold could not be escaped. It was only 3:00 am; her shift was halfway over. The guide led the group through darkness and rain in search of sea turtles, just one part of the battle against poachers.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but group morale stayed pretty high,” she said. “It wasn’t a vacation. By the time we left we really felt we had accomplished something. Everyone said they’d do it again.”
Bray was looking for an internship in 2014 when she was offered the junior leadership position on a Walking Tree Travel summer program. Walking Tree Travel is a Denver based company, and one of its founders is an SCU alum. It offers over thirty adventures around the world for high school students to learn, travel, and give back. Bray was allowed to lead a trip of her choice. She chose the Sea Turtle Expedition in Costa Rica simply because “something about sea turtles just caught my eye.” In addition to leading, Bray was in charge of social media for the trip. She kept Walking Tree Travel’s website updated with her own photos and captions.
Along with two adult leaders and six high school students, Bray volunteered for La Tortuga Feliz, a sea turtle conservation organization. Its mission is to preserve the sea turtle population in their local area. Prior to La Tortuga’s establishment, 100 percent of sea turtle eggs that were laid on the beach were taken and sold by poachers. To protect the sea turtles, the organization built a hatchery on the beach where eggs found during the late night patrols are placed and watched around the clock until they hatch and can be safely released. On Eva’s first day at the hatchery, she released 57 sea turtles.
“It was super fun if turtles hatched while you were on duty because you were 100 percent responsible for counting, weighing, and releasing them into the ocean,” she said. From midnight to 6:00 am, the volunteers were either guarding the hatchery or patrolling the beach. During the day, they slept, hung out in hammocks, and played soccer with the locals, including some local poachers.
“Poachers are not really bad guys,” Bray said. “They’re trying to make a living, and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is devastating. At night we were going up against each other. There was a rule of non-confrontation. If a poacher has a turtle, we don’t take it and vice versa.”
There is hardly any police regulation on the beach. Because the police are locals, too, the poachers know their schedules or, in other words, they know when to avoid the beach. No one gets caught, so La Tortuga Feliz has taken matters into their own hands. Its rustic beach facility is made up of open-air shacks. Inside the shacks are bunk beds for the volunteers, as well as some other unwelcome creatures. A bat colony made its home in Bray’s shack, and she laughed about being woken up by a bat flying in her face.
“Oh! And look at what my mom sent me the last week of the trip.” She pulled out her phone to reveal a picture of two yellow Labrador puppies cuddled together on a couch. Beaming from ear to ear Bray continued, “She said this is what I got to come home to.”
When Bray was six, a dog bite left her irrationally afraid of dogs. To eliminate this fear from her life, her parents decided to foster dogs in their home. It has been filled with dogs ever since, including the Labrador puppies. It was clear that what Bray was doing in Costa Rica was not something new. Caring for animals has been ingrained in her since she was a child. Bray found a way to channel her passion for animals, travel, and adventure into service, leadership, and a possible career that summer in Costa Rica.
Story by Layne Suhre
Photos by Eva Bray