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.