Hampden youth to study turtles in Costa Rica

Posted June 16, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — The leatherback turtle is the biggest of its order, reaching lengths of 6 feet and a maximum weight of about 1,500 pounds.

Seven local high school students will be face to face with the reptiles by next week.

Hampden Academy teacher Serena Morris will lead five of her students and two more from John Bapst Memorial High School on a nine-day trip to Costa Rica to study one of the oldest species on Earth.

The group leaves on Friday.

Morris, who has done the trip before, said it’s a great opportunity for students to experience different cultures, to get a close-up view of biology and to travel to a place they never have been.

“This year is a little unique because all seven students are girls,” Morris said Tuesday in her classroom at Hampden Academy.

Amber Oakes and Aubrey Stanislawski, students at John Bapst, and Katie Harris, Jenni Lilieholm, Kylee Parker, Kara Sass and Caitlin Swalec of Hampden Academy will accompany Morris.

“I had a friend who went last year, and I’ve really been interested in traveling,” said Swalec, 16, who just finished her sophomore year.

But the trip to Costa Rica, which sits between Panama and Nicaragua in Central America and helps separate the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is not expected to be of the lie-on-the-beach, soak-up-the-sun variety.

“There’s no electricity or hot water where we’re staying,” Morris said.

Swalec said she’s actually excited to be setting all her technology aside for several days. The only electronic devices she plans to bring are a camera and a headlamp.

Costa Rica has a diverse biology, but the area where the Maine group will be — the Pacuare Nature Reserve — is one of the most important nesting areas in the world for leatherback turtles, which face endangerment. In many parts of the world, the turtles’ eggs are harvested illegally by poachers.

Morris and the students will join numerous other instructors and researchers participating in the Sea Turtle Ecology Program, which is part of Ecology Project International.

“They will be right there on the beach with the turtles as they are nesting,” Morris said. “Last year, we had students literally catching eggs as they were being laid.”

The group also will meet with Costa Rican students and participate in an intercultural exchange.

The trip isn’t cheap. Each student had to come up with $2,000 to cover flights, accommodations and food. Swalec said her parents agreed to pay for half. She’ll work all summer when she gets back to make up the difference, but she said it’s worth it.

“I’ve always wanted to see a rain forest. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the female George of the Jungle,” Swalec said. “I guess you could say I’m fulfilling a childhood dream.”

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