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An olive ridley sea turtle reaches the surf in Costa Rica’s Camaronal Wildlife Refuge.

Mark Bisby

Snowbird Trail is a 12-part series on unusual or different attractions for snowbirds in the sunbelt.

"There must be a metaphor here somewhere," I say to my father as we watch a tire-sized olive ridley sea turtle haul itself back into the Pacific Ocean after laying scores of glistening eggs.

Dad nods pensively – the symbolism must be all the more poignant five years into his retirement – and turns his attention to the turtle nests that litter the black sands of the Camaronal Wildlife Refuge on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Groups of what appear to be locals and visitors like us huddle around a few of the fresh pits, scooping up eggs and carrying them toward a rustic ranger station beside the parking lot.

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I stroll over. "Excuse me," I inquire, "are you supposed to be doing that?"

"Si," replies a smiling, tanned forager. "I'm a park ranger, and these are my volunteers."

Camaronal, it turns out, is one of dozens of preserves in popular snowbird destinations where volunteer tourism operators connect paying guests with a wide range of conservation and research projects. At Florida's non-profit Wild Horse Rescue Center, for instance, Vancouver-based GoVoluntouring (a division of Flight Centre Travel Group) gives travellers the opportunity to nurse abused wild mustangs back to health. Then there's the privately-funded La Marina Foundation Wildlife Rescue Center in Costa Rica's Alajuela province, where GoEco volunteers help rehabilitate injured and displaced tapirs, spider monkeys and scarlet macaws, among other animals.

GoVoluntouring founder Aaron Smith describes his four-year-old company as "an aggregator of need, and a way to filter that need into various channels that match up with travellers."

Its 15,000-plus tourist volunteers seek "a deeper connection" and "feel good about doing good," he continues, adding that many of the trips allow guests to participate in applied projects that aren't open to the public.

After retiring from her job as a biology lab technician in a New York high school, Helen Engelhardt was ready to explore her life-long interest in ecology.

While spending winters on the island of St. Croix, she became fascinated with sea turtles and amassed an extensive collection of turtle-themed artwork. "One day it occurred to me that I knew very little about them, even though I found them so interesting and beautiful," Engelhardt explains. "I had barely even seen any."

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So she signed on for an expedition with Earthwatch Institute, a Boston-based non-profit organization that arranges for members of the public to help scientists with field research all over the world. "These trips aren't just fun and interesting," Engelhardt says. "You're doing work that is necessary to help ensure an organism's survival."

Engelhardt did much more than simply spot endangered green and hawksbill turtles during her 10-day Swimming with Sea Turtles in the Bahamas expedition at the Cape Eleuthera Institute. She surveyed their population, diet and habitat, helped measure and tag them, and deployed underwater video units, among much else.

At 75, Engelhardt says she wasn't physically capable of performing every task. "With the tagging, someone in our three-member team needed to be able to swim fast enough to catch up with a turtle being pursued by a motor boat. I wasn't that person, but I could hold the turtle while it was being measured and tagged."

There was plenty of beach time built in, she adds, but the experience isn't for snowbirds "who are only interested in laying around and sipping drinks by the pool. These are mature folks who want more than a time share or packaged holiday – they want to make a contribution."

Nathan Robinson, field manager of the Goldring-Gund Marine Biology Station in Costa Rica's Marino Las Baulas National Park, says snowbirds are essential to the leatherback turtle research conducted by his team.

Of the 1,300-plus Earthwatch volunteers who have visited the station between October and February for the past 23 years, "many come later in life after a successful career," Robinson says. "They really like the idea of giving back and being part of a project that is well-established and well-documented. They've always had an interest in science, but never had much of an opportunity to take part."

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Long-term monitoring such as the Marino Las Baulas work would be logistically and financially impossible without the volunteers Earthwatch provides, he continues. "It's often difficult to get funding for projects like ours, because answers to the kinds of questions we're asking can be 50 years in the making.

"It's an immense human-powered undertaking: For five months in a row, there are at least three teams of two who walk about 12 kilometres along the beach each night for about six hours. This has been going on for 25 years, and in that time we've missed just two nights."

What makes this 99.95-per-cent attendance possible? Robinson credits "the revolving door" of volunteers.

"Our program is a bit like the turtles," he adds. "Slow and steady wins the race."

How's that for a retirement metaphor?

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