Students come out of their shells in Costa Rica

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SNOQUALMIE - Leatherback turtles don't care if you take their eggs - as long as you bury them somewhere safe.

This was the objective of 22 Mount Si High School students who traveled to Costa Rica from April 9-19 to help the endangered turtles keep their kin alive.

After laying their eggs, leatherbacks go into a trance-like state and are oblivious to what's going on around them, said Mount Si biology teacher Andrew Rapin, who has led the trip for three years.

The eggs are often stolen and sold on the black market as an aphrodisiac. Poachers have put the leatherbacks on the Federal List of Endangered Species, which means there are less than 10,000 in existence.

"There's not many left, so this was a great opportunity," Rapin said.

The students, like other conservationists, take the eggs out of their nests after the turtles lay them in order to measure, tag and rebury them. This helps conservationists keep track of the eggs.

Students worked with EcoTeach, a conservation organization that cooperates with high-school groups on conservation projects. The leatherback project has resulted in an 80-percent survival rate of the eggs transferred.

"I'm really interested in biology," said Ali Bilow, a junior. "I wanted to work with conservationists because it might be something I want to do when I'm older."

Weighing 800 pounds and spanning five to six feet in length, the leatherback turtle is the largest reptile on Earth. It's difficult to get photos of the turtles because they only come onto shore at night and light is prohibited on the beaches where they lay their eggs.

"They feel leathery," said Kamy Bailey, a sophomore.

Students were responsible for raising $2,300 each to go on the trip. They held rummage sales and sold Costa Rican shade-grown coffee, giving part of the proceeds back to the conservation work. The students also received a grant from Starbucks for planting trees in Snoqualmie.

Rapin said fund raising was one of the criteria for selecting students to go on the trip because it would hold more value for them if they raised the money themselves. Students also had to be studying Spanish and write letters of intent stating why they wanted to go and what benefits they would gain from the trip.

"I knew it would be cool. I had never been to a Latin American country before. I knew it would be a big change," said Alison Youde, a junior.

The cultural immersion was also a big component of the trip. Students stayed with local families and experienced a day in the life of a Costa Rican.

Youde said she learned a lot about leatherbacks, but her spring break was really a total sensory experience.

"Everything is different, the air, the smells, the tastes ... The whole time we were interacting with a culture that was totally new for all of us," said Youde, who hopes to join the Peace Corps and someday return to Costa Rica.

The students also got to go white-water rafting, plant trees, shop in local markets and learn new ethnic recipes, among other adventures.

The students will present a slide show of their photos from Costa Rica on June 1 at Mount Si High School, 8651 Meadowbrook Way S.E., from 7-8 p.m.

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