Saturday, October 17, 2009

Green Sea Turtles

Tortuguero is on the Carribean side of Costa Rica, where there is a 26 mile long beach which is the primary nesting ground for four species of sea turtles.  We were there towards the end of the nesting season, so we were able to see a green sea turtle laying eggs.  The Carribean Conservation Association requires that you go at night with a guide, and no cameras are allowed so as not to disturb the turtles.  Spotters are employed to watch for turtles and wait until they begin laying, then tourists are allowed to come watch the egg laying without disrupting the turtle.  In this way, one turtle is viewed rather than several and the goal is to minimize disturbance for the turtles.

As we were there in low season, we got lucky.  My friend and I were the only ones from our hotel who booked the tour the night we went, so we had our own private guide, who was very knowledgeable and dedicated to turtle conservation.  We were also lucky that all the groups combined only numbered 30-40 people on the beach.  In peak season it can be 250, which is hideous to contemplate!

As soon as we got to the beach we saw a turtle in the distance beginning to dig a nest.  We got clearance to go closer when she began laying eggs.  I was surprised how close we got - 6" from the turtle!  We could see each soft, bouncy, ping pong sized white egg drop into the hole in the sand.  Supposedly the turtle goes into a kind of trance once laying begins - she did not seem to notice us, but who knows for sure. 

We were also lucky enough to see three hatchlings that crawled very quickly towards the ocean and got washed away on the waves.  Normally you can't see that at night, apparently, but we got lucky.  The beach opens at 5am and we were told you can often see hatchlings then, so we got up early - but unfortunately we didn't see any when photos were allowed.  However, I did take a photo of an egg that was laying near a nest, and a photo of the turtle tracks in the sand.  The beach is covered with these turtle tracks all along the beach. 

Sadly, however, despite the evenings efforts at conservation and turtle protection, the morning revealed that there is still a huge problem with humans harvesting turtle eggs.  Many, if not most, of the night's nests had been dug up, with human footprints and fresh excavation.  While there were some dog tracks on the beach, there was no evidence of dogs digging up the eggs - plenty of evidence of humans doing so.  That was very disheartening and upsetting to see.  Hopefully education about conservation and the turtle's over exploitation will take hold more and more in Costa Rica, but it is quite clear they have a LONG way to go on that front.

Despite the negatives, seeing the turtle egg laying and the hatchlings was my favorite part of the trip - truly a neat thing to see.

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