We’re standing on the beach in a huddle around our guide. It’s about 11:00pm on a moonless, partly cloudy night on the Caribbean coast. We can barely make out the features of the other members of our small group. The guide is telling us that another turtle that had been digging a hole in which to lay its eggs has given up on that spot and seems to be moving to another location. We have to wait until the Green sea turtle has completed clearing a nest and begins laying its eggs before we can approach it because we might disturb it and cause it to abandon its efforts and return to the ocean. The nest clearing usually takes about 30 minutes.
Unexpectedly, the guide whispers for us to follow him now. He starts moving quickly to a spot where the beach meets the vegetation. There, a large Green sea turtle is in the space it has cleared and is laying its eggs. Once it begins to lay the eggs it enters a kind of “trance” and is less likely to be disturbed by our presence.
The shoreline we’re on is part of Parque Nacional Tortuguero, a misty, green coastal park sitting on a broad flood plain with a network of canals. The park is located on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, a mere 30km from Nicaragua. The intense biodiversity of the park draws 50,000 visitor per year to view the 400 species of birds, 60 known species of frogs, 3 monkey species as well as caimans and crocodiles. But the big draw are the sea turtles that come to lay their eggs on the 22 miles of Caribbean shoreline. This is the most important Caribbean breeding grounds for the green sea turtle, 40,000 of which come here every year to lay their eggs. Of the eight species of marine turtle in the world, four of them nest in Tortuguero: green turtles, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead.
Back in the late 1950’s the residents of Tortuguero began to tag and track the annual return of the turtles. This would allow them to develop a tourism industry around this activity. Conveniently, the four species have differing seasons for nesting so that this provides an almost year round spectacle. In the early years, groups of observers would wander around the beach somewhat independently and would often spook the turtles, reducing the nesting activity. Ultimately, they developed a “spotter” program. Here’s how it works. We signed up to join a tour on the night we arrived in Tortuguero. We were told to meet again at 6:00pm at which time we would be told which group we would be part of and at what time we would go out to the beach. They run two nightly schedules, at 8:00pm and 10:00pm. The groups are allowed on the beach for 2 hours. When we went back at 6:00 we were told we would be going out for the 10:00pm section. We had been told that the later timeslot is better. At 9:30pm we met up with our guide and the other 3 members of our group and boarded a boat to go up the river about 4 or 5 miles where we went on land to a waiting area.
The spotters are park employees who go out on the beach to locate the turtles that have come up on shore. As mentioned earlier, they don’t want the groups to approach a sea turtle as it is coming into the beach or while it is digging and cleaning the nest. The turtles have very good eyesight and can easily be spooked by people wandering around the beach. Also, no lights are allowed, no flashlights and no cameras or cell phones. Once the spotter has located a turtle that has completed preparing the nest and begins to lay eggs, he notifies the guides and then the small groups are allowed to go up to the nest and watch the eggs being laid. The guides have an infrared light that they can use. The turtles enter a trance like state during this time which keeps them from being disturbed by our presence.
Our first impression is of how large these turtles are. The green turtles are generally from 40 to 60 inches long and can weigh up to 400 pounds. The turtle had used its flippers to clear a large hole in the sand and its entire body was partially submerged in the hole. The guide lifted one of its rear flippers allowing us to see the eggs being dropped into the bottom of the hole. From 1 to 3 ping pong ball sized eggs would drop together. Up to 200 eggs will be deposited in each nest. Each female will generally come ashore 4 or 5 times during the nesting season, July and August for the green turtles. Each subsequent nest for a particular female will have fewer eggs with the final nest containing 60 to 80 eggs. Oddly, warmer weather during the nesting produces more female hatchlings, cooler weather results in more males. They estimate that only 1 of 1,000 eggs will result in an adult turtle. In some cases, the nest will be raided by predators and the eggs will be eaten or otherwise destroyed. Of the ones that hatch, many of the hatchlings will not make it to the water. They will be grabbed by predators on their journey down the beach. Once in the water there are also plenty of predators who await the annual hatching. The females that make it to adulthood will return to this beach in about 15 years when they are ready to lay their eggs. These turtles can live up to 80 years.
Back to the beach. Once the female finished laying, she used her back flippers to pull sand from the sides of the nest to cover the eggs. You could see how she would seem to flatten the flippers against the sand and sort of pat it to pack it tightly. Then she began to use her front flippers to “camouflage” the nest, basically to fully cover the nest with sand. We were told that this process would require about 40 minutes. Our time was up by then and we had to leave the beach.
Earlier, one of the turtles that they had been watching as she was digging the nest, came across some root material and abandoned the nest to return to the ocean. We were allowed to follow her as she returned to the ocean and see how they use their flippers to pull themselves through the sand. This results in the unique pattern in the sand you see in the picture at the top of this article. This whole experience in Tortuguero was very special and we feel fortunate to have been able to visit there.
However, getting to Tortuguero (photos) is not simple. The only way is by boat or plane. There are no roads. You have to make your way to the town of Cariari by bus or private van. From there, it’s another 45 minutes or so through banana plantations on mostly dirt roads to La Pavona where you board one of the 3 daily boats to Tortuguero. It’s about an hour or hour and one-half boat ride. The water level on the river is very low right now and our boat ran aground two or three times on our way over. The village of Tortuguero is very interesting. It sits on a very narrow strip of land of no more than 400 or 500 yards separating the river and the Caribbean Ocean. Once again, there are no cars so there are wide cement or dirt pathways throughout for pedestrians and bicycles. The houses are simple and generally small. We took a walking tour and were introduced to the wide variety of fruits and flowering plants growing throughout the village.
If you find yourself in northern Costa Rica with a spare 3 days I would certainly recommend you make the trip to Tortuguero.