Sea turtle encounter in Costa Rica

Dressed in black, reds and blues we gathered in the darkness at the reception of our resort in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Those of us, myself included, who weren’t dressed suitably dark enough for turtle watching, were outfitted in a fashionable black rubbish bags with holes cut out for our head and arms. Feeling slightly ridiculous, we paraded around in our shiny garb pretending to be models for the ‘Derelict’ fashion show in the movie Zoolander. After a few laughs and photos, we swished and swooshed our way over to the speedboat that would take us across to the 21 mile black sand beach in Tortuguero National Park; known to be the nesting site of more endangered green turtles than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

Fooling around with our plastic bag camouflage

Fooling around with our plastic bag camouflage

Tours to view the nesting turtles are strictly regulated within the national park. Torches, cameras and phones are prohibited, and only the guides brought red lights with them. It was rainy and windy that night, visibility was poor, and the sand was littered with driftwood, making the trek on the beach somewhat hazardous. We all reached out in the darkness to grab hold of each other’s hands, not only to steady ourselves but also to ensure we wouldn’t get lost. The unintentionally random groping in the dark just added to the commardare as we knew we were setting off on an adventure to witness something very special. All of us turtle seekers all bonded a little bit that fateful night, maybe more than some of us expected!

Watchers were all ready spread out scouring the beach for turtles and monitoring the nesting. We were comprised of two groups, as each tour leader could only guide a certain number of people. There was also a time limit on how long you could stay on the beach, so you really didn’t want to waste your time when you were there. We were first led to a large female that had reached the back of the beach and was just starting to prepare her nest, sweeping the sand away with large strokes of her powerful fins. Each group took turns getting close to the turtle to watch this great big beast get started in the first process in the arduous task of turtle nesting.

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As we gathered around the back end of the turtle, some people were struggling to get close enough to see. Thinking to be polite and considerate I decided to crouch down so that people behind me could get a view. However, I hadn’t realised I was now in direct line with the flying sand from a sea turtle. No sooner had everyone settled behind me while I crouched, when the turtle did a huge sweep of her fin and out of the darkness, sand came flying directly for my face.

Of course at the time I had my eyes wide open in wonderment and excitement at the spectacle, and had no idea of the potential danger of being that close and low to a nesting sea turtle. Needless to say, the turtle’s aim was true and my eyes were subsequently crusted over with black Caribbean sand! I had to crunch my eyelids closed several times to try and generate some moisture to wash the sand from my eyes. Even then I didn’t have much luck. So much for turtle ‘watching’ – I couldn’t even see!

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There was no time to wash my eyes out, as we were being led off to the next turtle who was already beginning to lay her eggs. I wiped out as much grit out of my eyes as I could, and was led along with the group by two of my companions who were the only ones who heard my moans in the dark of “I can’t seeee!”. Although every blink was like rubbing my eyelids on sandpaper, I managed to catch a glimpse of the the spotlight on the green ‘V’ of scaly skin which was its tail. Every so often it gently lifted up and a round, white, soft-looking pearl would plop out and into the nest. It really was an amazing sight.

After some time watching her fill the nest, we were finally led halfway towards the crashing surf. Here was another sea turtle who, having finished her nesting, was obviously using the very last reserves of her energy to try and slug it back into the water. We watched her struggle for about three pushes, pause to take some deep breaths, then begrudgingly push off again for another few paces. It was plain to see the poor thing was so tired. As it got closer to the water, I started trying to cheer it on, calling “Common girl! You’re nearly there! Just a little further!”. When she finally hit the water, we all couldn’t help but clap and jeer with some relief, for we were all willing her on with our hearts. It was a night I would never forget, and having had what I like to think of as a ‘sea turtle sand blessing’, I felt an even more special connection to these wonderful creatures.

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Tortuguero National Park, on the east cost of Costa Rica was created in 1975 to protect the four species of sea turtles which nest along the beaches. More information on the national park and the sea turtle reasearch program can be found on the Sea Turtle Conservantory website at http://www.conserveturtles.org/volunteer-research-programs.php?page=tortnp

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