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Turtle-y Wonderful in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Warning for no photographs at all. We grew up using film cameras. The ones where you have a maximum of 24 or 36 shots on each roll of film and, once used, you had to wait for weeks for the films to be developed at the laboratory and for the prints to be sent back home. You chose your shot carefully, you composed it, each and every picture was a precious thing. Digital photography is fantastic in so many ways – we would never have taken a picture of our meal using celluloid! – but with such easy access to cameras and phones and virtually unlimited shot potential sometimes it feels as though we are so busy capturing pictures for posterity that we forget to experience the moment.

Tortuguero on the Eastern coast of Costa Rica isn’t really how you’d expect the Caribbean to be. Even though you can get a lovely drink of coconut water directly from the pod, the coastline is wild, the sea rough and you probably wouldn’t sunbathe on the beach. You definitely would not want to go swimming in the sea for fear getting eaten by sharks. You also wouldn’t want to swim in the channel on the other side of the peninsula for fear of getting eaten by caiman. But it’s the most amazing place to view some of Costa Rica’s wildlife.

The weather is hot and humid. Really hot and very humid. The area experiences about 6000 mm of rainfall every year and when it rains, it rains. We recommend waterproof ponchos. There was no aircon in the lodge we were staying in, just an old-fashioned fan, which provided a minimal amount of respite. The waves pounding relentlessly on the beach provided an aural backdrop.

One of the main attractions are the turtles that come to the beach to nest. Each species has a different nesting season. We visited in late June, just before the season when the greenback turtles were expected to come ashore. Although our hotel wouldn’t offer a guide because they couldn’t guarantee a sighting, we found a local guide who was willing to take us out and gave us a discount on his usual price, although he emphasised that we might not get a viewing. We decided to take a chance. We knew we were very close to the nesting season and we were pretty sure that the greenbacks weren’t lurking a few km offshore checking their greenback calendars to wait for the 1st of July.

We met our guide at 9pm and were given a briefing. The tours are undertaken to ensure minimal disruption to the turtle. No white light was allowed on the beach at all, the guide had a red torch so that we could – just about – see our way in the dark. In fact, even the local houses that line the shore refrain from using white light in their dwellings so as not to discourage the turtles from coming ashore. A small group of us walked in single file along a stretch of beach. It was really hot and very humid, even at that time of night. Our guide was looking for ‘tramlines’ going up the beach, a sign that a female turtle had come ashore. These appear to be parallel lines when you view them at a distance in the dark but, on closer inspection, the tramlines are actually distinct flipper tracks.

Other groups were scanning different sections of the beach and the guides kept in touch with each other via mobile phone. After walking 1 km to the village and a further 2 km along the beach we learned that a female had come ashore just 100 m away from our hotel. We had to dash back. Did we mention how hot and humid it was? As it turned out, we could have simply sat in the bar drinking cocktails then sauntered onto the beach. Instead, it was a hot, sweaty trot. We earned our turtle.

By the time we had arrived the greenback had traversed the width of the beach from the ocean shore to a location above the high tide mark, had dug a hole and was starting to lay her eggs. Cameras, phones and even torches are – rightly – banned on the beach. There were a couple of other groups who wanted to view the turtle. The aim was to ensure that everybody got a view without disturbing her. She was facing away from the shoreline and had her back to the tourists. Groups of ten people, five kneeling, five standing behind them were allowed to view the turtle for a couple of minutes at a time. Silence was mandatory. Then each group stepped back to let another group have a viewing. Throughout the process each group took a turn – step forward and view, step back and wait.

This greenback had been born on this beach. She was the 1% of all her siblings that had made it to adulthood, had travelled thousands of miles across the ocean and returned to the place of her birth. The egg laying was a real labour for the turtle. She laid around 100 eggs and after the final one, used her back flippers to push sand gently across to cover them all. Once the eggs were covered she then used her front flippers to brush across the sand, disguising the fact that a hole had even been present. These flippers were strong and no one knelt to watch that part of the process– they would have ended up with sand in their faces. Then the tourists melted away to let the turtle rest before she returned to the ocean.

In the spirit of no images, we woke up the next morning elated at our luck. The birds were singing, the Atlantic Ocean (heard in the background rumble) was crashing on the shore. This is how it sounded.

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    • Thank you! I will have to start planning a nature book now 🙂 It was a truly remarkable experience, a real privilege to witness.

  1. Great post, you painted such an evocative and encapsulating picture of your adventure to “earn your turtle”. Loved the eloquent phrasing here that gave me a mind’s eye view of what you went through and that final moment of glory that made it all worthwhile.
    Turtle watching has always been high o my list and now I know where to go to do just that.
    Friends have been to Costa Rica and relayed the tales of how beautiful the coastline is – I hear my name being celled by that coast!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. It was one of the most wonderful things we have seen. We definitely recommend a visit to Costa Rica, especially if you like wildlife. We managed to visit both Atlantic and Pacific coasts (and the middle!) and had a blast while we were there!

  2. Honestly, I’m glad that cameras, phones, and lights are banned on the beach. External light sources can be deadly to turtles during this period when they come to shore, and I often saw the negative impact of people taking videos with flash when I lived in South Florida… So many turtles never made it back to the sea because of the light pollution on the beaches. Great post—it sounds like everyone was super respectful of the turtles and of other people.

    • We were really impressed about the respect shown. We wouldn’t have taken the tour if we had felt that there could be any possibility of stress to the turtle. It makes sense in terms of sustainability from both the wildlife and the tourism perspective – if the turtles are taken care of, they will return and tourists can carry on seeing them. It was also good that local people who lived near the shoreline avoided the use of white light in their homes. It really was a magical experience, something we will never forget.

  3. I’ve always had Costa Rica high on my list for seeing wildlife and you’ve really put Tortuguero at the top! I love the respect for the turtles such as no lights, cameras and the group walking in single file. It sounds like a magical experience – thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you! The wildlife in Costa Rica is absolutely amazing and Tortuguero is definitely one of the top places to visit. We did get lucky with the turtle nesting and it was a truly wonderful experience. We were very impressed about how sensitive the trip was to the environment and particularly the respect for the turtle.

  4. I LOVE how much care is taken to not disturb and to encourage the turtles. No talking, no white light:, small groups for short periods of viewing. That’s just beautiful and as it should be. And the fact that there are no photos in this post, leaving it to our imaginations and your written word, is just perfect. And speaking of written word, “we earned our turtle” was a showstopper!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. We, too, were really impressed about how much care was taken to ensure that the turtles were encouraged. It was absolutely the right thing to do not to allow photos. The experience gave us wonderful memories and that will do.

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