Research Spotlight: Katherine Comer Santos

Interview by LASSO member Juliana Huaroc

Tell me about your background: Education, training and research interests in general.

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I founded The Science Exchange Sea Turtle Internship Program in 2006 with a team including members from San Diego State University. Now, I am the Director and an Adjunct Research Associate in the SDSU Biology Department. I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Spanish Literature from UC San Diego in 1994 and a Master’s Degree from SDSU in 2002. My passion for research began while volunteering for the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Research of Endangered Species, which resulted in my thesis on nesting sea turtles at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. Since then, I have collaborated on sea turtle research in Baja California while working as the Research Coordinator for the Institute for Regional Studies (IRSC) of the Californias at SDSU as well as multiple research projects with The Science Exchange.

Currently, our university interns do research on sea turtle nesting and foraging habitats in Latin America. They spend two months collecting, analyzing, and then presenting their own data and can receive college credits in multiple subjects. Topics depend on the research location and interests of the students but include climate change impacts to nesting beaches from increased temperatures and sea level rise, solid waste pollution and E. Coli contamination of habitats, underwater faunal surveys, social science topics such as conservation attitude surveys of locals and tourists, and many more. 

 

How did you become interested in doing research in Costa Rica and how long have you been doing research there?

In 1996, I went to Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica searching for my favorite animal at the time, the three-toed sloth. I found them easily. They hung there and looked down at me from the trees, occasionally looking away but never moving. It was great, but it was time for a swim in the crystal clear ocean! So I put my towel down on the beach under a tree at the Playa and started getting my snorkel gear together. Suddenly, I felt something moving under me. Crabs? When I lifted my towel there were around 100 baby sea turtles crawling to the surface. I had caused the temperature to drop enough that the turtles thought it was nighttime and it was safe to hatch out of the nest. My first thought was why me? Should I lose weight? The second thought was…I have a new favorite animal.

A coati (racoon like animal) was lurking in the bushes waiting for his turtle lunch, and at that time we tourists did not know what to do. So we picked them up and put them directly in the water. I snorkeled with the hatchlings who furiously paddled for the open ocean like tiny wind-up toys. I will never forget that first experience.

Of course, now that I have studied sea turtle biology for 15 years I know we were supposed to wait until sunset to release them in order to minimize predation from birds and fish. Also, you must let them walk a while on the sand so they can imprint their natal beach smells and location into their memories. One in 1000 turtles survives to return to the same beach and lay their own eggs 15- 30 years after hatching. It’s about time I return to Manuel Antonio to see if one of my first turtles is laying eggs.

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Could you tell me more about your research in Costa Rica? In what part of Costa Rica do you do your research?

 We have supported six non-profit sea turtle organizations in Costa Rica and plan to add a 7th this year. Our interns have worked at 8 beaches – on the Caribbean side, Tortuguero National Park, in the south west, Puerto Jimenez, Corcovado National Park, Punta Banco, and in Guanacaste Playa Caletas, San Miguel, Costa de Oro, Playa Grande and Playa Cabuyal. This year we hope to be at Playa Jobo near the Nicaraguan border. All are remote sea turtle stations on pristine sandy beaches where turtles nest. These sites have minimal infrastructure and are jaw-droppingly beautiful. It gives students a chance to see what real field research is like and to get off the grid.

 

What do you find most rewarding about the research you have done in Costa Rica? 

We do research in other areas in Latin America and the Caribbean and what sets Costa Rica apart is the omnipresent wildlife. Although the forest is not always primary growth, the wildlife viewing is easy for visitors because there is little hunting and somewhat controlled development. Most “Ticos” or Costa Ricans take conservation very seriously and many spend their careers protecting their beautiful country. We believe that the elevated literacy rate in Costa Rica (97.8% as reported by UNESCO) helps spread the conservation message. However, there is still a long way to go and so our interns spend long nights patrolling the beach to translocate the turtle nests to a protected area before poachers steal the eggs to sell or eat.

 

What do you find most difficult about doing research in Costa Rica? 

Transportation is difficult, with extensive dirt roads and old buses. Even if you rent a car it can take many hours of rough travel to get to the beach from the capital. Some say that that this lack of human access protects natural areas more. Some say the expatriates who are buying up the coastline want to keep people away from the beach. Who knows? Speaking of that, “chisme” or gossip can make working in the small coastal fishing villages difficult. Everyone knows everyone and everything about you. Because sea turtle conservation is so controversial, with some people believing that we should harvest a percent of eggs for local consumption, malicious gossip can ruin a sea turtle conservation organization. Therefore, especially in Costa Rica, our interns have to integrate with the local community, be very aware of local customs, and not spark gossip for things that we normally might get away with in other countries like drinking beer or dating the locals.

 

Have you lived in Costa Rica for an extended period of time? 

I currently live in Mexico and never in Costa Rica. But 18 Science Exchange interns have lived in Costa Rica for 2 to 3 months between 2009 and 2013.

What did you like most about your life in Costa Rica?

Our interns report very friendly locals and inquisitive children and dogs as their favorite thing. The country is so full of tourism activities, on their off time they go surfing, snorkeling, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, visit waterfalls, volcanoes, and of course – constant wildlife viewing.

During my shorter visits, love the “pura vida” lifestyle the most. Probably because of the hot climate, most people are not in a hurry. With a history blissfully free of war, Ticos are friendly towards foreigners. With a high literacy rate, I find Ticos in general are happy, proud, and forward-thinking people.

 

What would you say are the not to miss places in Costa Rica? Do you have a favorite place? What is your favorite dish? 

There are so many favorites, for a “tortuguera” (turtle lover) we cannot miss the first established turtle camp in the world, Tortuguero, founded by Dr. Archie Carr in 1955. So many important discoveries were made there on that desolate green and leatherback turtle nesting beach on the Caribbean side. For example, that turtles return to nest at the natal beach, that they travel long distances, and that they live long lives. From these cornerstones, subsequent scientists have built a knowledge base that includes discovering how turtles navigate, how they see, how populations avoid genetic bottlenecks, and much more every day. Every piece of the puzzle is important to figuring out how best to save the eight different sea turtle species from extinction.

Gallo pinto (beans and rice) with eggs and Lizano sauce is my go to dish available pretty much everywhere.

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What advice would you give to students wanting to do research in Costa Rica?

I recently published an article – “8 Things That You Should Know About Sea Turtle Internships.” https://www.goabroad.com/articles/intern-abroad/sea-turtle-internships

What would be relevant to any field research in Costa Rica is the following advice:

You Will be Outside of your Physical and Cultural Comfort Zone.

You will go through the several rounds of culture shock. Even though you may speak the language of your host country, you will likely be living like you never have before – mostly outdoors with insects, reptiles, and flying mammals. You likely will feel the effects of new food and sleep patterns too. You will feel lost and alone when the locals start speaking fast and telling inside jokes!

Do not expect that you can hang at the pub and shoot pool while watching your football team. In the tropical areas of the world you will more likely be invited to birthday parties and quinceneras where new salsa and reggaeton dance moves will be added to your repertoire.

There May be Spotty Telecommunications.

Using Google all the time? Forget it! We are all addicted to our smart phones, but it is better if you put it away for a few months and live in the moment. Your supervisors will provide communication methods to ensure your safety, and without the distraction of the phone/internet, you will be more aware of your surroundings and research.

There is No Textbook or Lab Book.

If you are looking for a perfectly planned and organized research expedition, please tell us if you find one! Field research is difficult and unpredictable. You’ll be given a research plan, materials, supplies, and the training you need. However, nature and human beings do not always do what we thought they would do. Often times, you must “go with it” and adjust the research plan to meet the actual conditions of your site. Weather, broken vehicles, equipment failure, delayed nesting seasons, etc. all have to be dealt with as a research team. By problem solving through these challenging experiences, you will be even more qualified and marketable for future field work.

You Will Learn How to Live Simply.

You likely won’t be provided with high tech research equipment, because locals won’t be able to easily replace it. You will have the chance to observe people being very happy with very little. So, get ready to learn some outdoor and indoor survival skills that you will carry with you forever and will empower you to live off the grid.

Give Yourself Time.

Many research missions take a few days to get up and running once you get to the site. You also need time to collect a good size sample of data, because nature (and humans!) do not always behave as you expect. You will likely go through some cultural shock related to “island time.” This may be the only time in your life you have time for reflection and relaxation, so enjoy it while you can!

Thank you to Katherine Comer Santos for this insightful interview!

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