Tortugas!

Last night I joined a small excursion from the school to visit a nearby beach in search of nesting Tortugas; in this area the olive ridley sea turtles thrive despite endangerment and one can live up to 80 years. Now is the season for the females to return to the place of their birth to dig a massive hole, lay eggs and then return to the sea, all done under the cover of darkness with only the moon and a billion stars to witness their journey.Our van was filled to capacity with 14 people inside. I sat in the first row of seats so I could see out the front windshield, not a wise move if you don’t like roller coasters or have watched too many disaster movies. It seems that in most of Costa Rica, once you exit a main road, the exterior roads are makeshift and poorly paved, if at all. Our route from Playa Samara to a small beach outside of Nosara called Playa Ostional was only 28 kilometers but the trip took almost an hour. The roads were intermittent, sometimes maintained and marked with signage, and other times they seem to wander into a glade or thicket that looked like someone had just cleared it with a machete. At some points the foliage was so dense it touched the van and the dirt road was visible only by the limited beams for the van’s headlights. Ruts and ditches, potholes large enough to eat up a tire, and gullies 2 feet deep in recent rainwater marked our excursion heading north on the beach. Twice our guide had to get out of the van to test the depth of the rain pools and to determine the best place to cross. Our van lurched and popped along the path and I was excited. The anticipation of seeing the sea turtles outweighed the slight feeling of nausea I felt due to the bumpy ride and the ever-present diesel fumes and heat.

At the beach we had to follow our guide closely and rely solely on his infrared light and the faint glow radiating from the sea of stars over the sand. No artificial light or development was near the beach, and no one was allowed to use a flashlight or flash photography. Due to concerted efforts by conservation groups in Costa Rica, the nesting sites of the Tortugas are protected and the tours seem to respect the animals. As we walked through the darkness, a small cluster of strangers on a beach in search of turtles, our guide shined his read beam in the water. At last! A lovely, lumpy Tortuga was slowly making her way through the waves and up on the beach. She was about 2 feet long, her shell an oval shape with a marked rise in the center. Her head was large with a slightly pointed beak and her strong legs propelled her through the sand in search of the right spot to lay her eggs. Instinctually, these turtles return to the site of their own hatching, laying eggs within 50 feet of their original nest.

We wandered on and suddenly, as my eyes began to adjust better to the environment, I began to make out large mounds all over the sand. Around us were dozens of Tortugas in various stages of the nesting process. Some were crawling out of the sea, some returning; some were meandering in the sand seeking the spot to begin to dig the foot-deep whole in which to deposit the 80-130 eggs. Others were in process, their large bodies spread above a narrow pit and the white eggs, about the size of a ping pong ball and covered in a shiny liquid that protects the them from salt, sand and bugs, were plopping from the females in a slow, steady rhythm. Occasionally the mother would take a moment, pause, and then begin to slap her back flippers above the nest, making an oddly strange and beautiful beat, followed by a slight swooshing sound from the moving sand. When she was finished depositing her eggs, she worked her flippers in a forward and backward motion, shifting herself above the site and deftly pushing the sand about to camouflage her nest.

It was a perfect night, seeing these fascinating creatures under a sky so black and filled with stars. I felt like I was back in time, watching some prehistoric being driven by an instinct and purpose few of us can begin to understand. There was such beauty in the movement of the turtles, the female’s solitary quest to drag herself from the ocean, find the right place in the sand, dig an incredibly deep hole and then fill it with eggs. It must be exhausting. The guide said that most females take about two to three hours to complete the process and it requires all the female’s strength to get back to the sea.

I watched as several of the Tortugas ambled back into the waves, using their massive front webbed feet to pull themselves forward, leaving their hard-work and eggs behind. I wondered where they would go, where they would rest, and whether or not their eggs would survive. In about 45 days, the eggs that do survive the elements and predators (birds, dogs, other turtles overtaking the nest, humans harvesting to sell the eggs to bars for “shooter” said to act as an aphrodisiac) will hatch and thousands of tiny turtles will begin their mad descent to the ocean to begin the cycle all over again. I would love to see that part of the process, to stand on the beach and cheer on the baby turtles as they discover the ocean for the first time.

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About waggingmytale

I am an English teacher, writer, animal lover, and aspiring athlete. If you stop by and read or "stumble" upon my blog, please leave a comment and say hello. It's nice to know who visits :-) Namaste!
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