Watching turtles nesting in Tortuguero National Park | Costa Rica
In my humble opinion, if you happen to be in Tortuguero in August and do not watch sea turtles lay their eggs on the sandy Caribbean shores, it’s like being in Paris for the first time without visiting the Eiffel Tower. Hence, when I found out that by paying 30 dollars, part of which would go to the local Sea Turtle Conservancy, I could watch giant sea turtles lay their eggs under the moonlight, it goes without saying that I booked a place there and then.
It was 7.30 pm and people started gathering at our hotel’s (Laguna Lodge) reception area (Read here the post about river safari and the lodge). The evening tour would kick off at 8 but we met a bit earlier in order to meet our guide, who would be explaining the whole procedure and would be accompanying us. «Hi, I am Barney», the guide of my group introduced himself in a low voice. «You are my team from now on!». Following that, he provided some basic guidance such as that we needed to be extra cautious, be quiet and be prepared for everything. The truth is, his voice tone and strict demeanour put some fear in us, but as it turned out, he only wanted to make sure we would not be doing anything to hurt ourselves or the turtles. At 8 o’clock sharp we started on foot for our little adventure.
In my hands I was holding a flashlight and my rain jacket. Nothing else! No phone, no camera. Using such equipment was strictly prohibited, since the sound of a camera clicking and the light from its flash would scare turtles, who would be on their way back to the sea. After a 5-minute walk, we reached a station and waited until the rangers called us to make our way to the beach. They were observing the turtles and knew when exactly a turtle was about to lay its eggs. At the right moment then, they would make a signal so we could move forward and watch. During our wait, we had the chance to get some additional information; what kind of experience that would be, had we not been educated a bit around those adorable sea reptiles?
We learnt that in Tortuguero, one can meet four out of seven kinds of sea turtle that exist on the planet. Little turtles, once out of their eggs, make an instinctive run towards the sea, while male turtles never make their way back to the shore. The female ones return about three decades later to lay their eggs on the exact same shores they were themselves born. Pretty incredible, heh? They had only managed to get a momentary glimpse of their birth place, but still manage to find their way back to the exact same spot, so many years after. This is one of the many inexplicable yet fascinating wonders of nature!
All out of a sudden, we get the go ahead! Some turtles were already on the shore, trying to find an appropriate spot to dig their nest and prepare, while another had already started digging! «Everybody, turn off your flashlights!…Form a chain and do not let each other until we reach the end of the trek», said the guide and made his way to the beach, setting a fast rhythm. We followed accordingly and because of the darkness around us, we began stepping all over each other. Mary could not stop making jokes, and that led to me laughing every time she opened her mouth! The rest of the group started complaining, so we decided to get serious before the kick us off the team.
Unfortunately the first turtle we came across decided that this was not the night for her to lay eggs, so she got back to the sea. We moved further forward and because our eyes had adjusted to darkness, we could actually see the giant sea turtles, who looked like rocks under the moonlight. We heard a sound really close and the guide switched on a special red light he was carrying. This giant turtle was moving slowly really close to us, trying to make her way back to the sea. We made room for her to pass by. Barney whispered that the rangers had notified him that unfortunately, many turtles decided not to lay their eggs that night and made their way back to the sea. There were some good news too, though.
The turtle that was about 3-4 meters away from us had already dug a nest and was in labour position. Her nirvana had begun. While laying eggs, turtles find themselves in a kind of ecstasy and do not really know what goes on around them, which makes it easier for those who wish to watch, because they can get really close without making the turtle uncomfortable. In any case, once the process of laying eggs begins, it cannot be interrupted until it’s completed!
We got closer and formed a semi-circle around her. The guide shed some ‘special’ light on the spot. What a glorious spectacle that was! We were left motionless and speechless. The turtle laid her eggs one by one, releasing a groan every time, and we watched them piling up in the nest like ping pong balls. The researchers from the Sea Turtle Conservancy had also got there right on time, holding a big ruler and their blocks, noting down various measurements. They measured the turtle and had a small sign attached on her right front fin. They could hence watch her and observe her movement.
A single turtle would lay and subsequently hatch about 60 eggs within a period of 2 months. Unfortunately, some would not make it, some others would be eaten by jaguars while some others would die because of human factors like pollution or illegal fishing. Only a handful would return to the same shore years later, to lay their own eggs.
Whatever we might say, no book and no school can beat the real thing. This is what stays in your mind and memory. Take me as an example. This experience has now become a part of me and a part of my memories. So get yourself out there and start living. It is the best form of education!
And remember. Even though sea turtles have been around since dinosaurs walked on earth, they are in danger of extinction. If this happens, it will be forever. You can help in the survival of this rare breed by adopting a baby turtle and spreading the message as far as possible. You can help so that the Sea Turtle Conservancy can more dynamically protect and preserve the areas where turtles give birth, protecting in the future even more turtles and their habitats.
*A huge thanks to Mary Kovaiou and Christina Michali for sharing some of their photos
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