A woman was running wildly down the beach beating a big plastic bottle with a driftwood stick. We stared at her in dismay.
The fierce yet slender woman swung the stick around her head like a lasso, and in a frenzy, the large black vultures that had been skipping along the sands scattered. She saw us staring and came over. “They’re trying to get the baby turtles,” she said breathlessly. “You’re staying with us, right? At the turtle lodge? I’m Luis’ wife.”
“500 turtles arrived this morning.”
This was the email I received the day before from Luis who runs the Ostional Turtle Lodge in Costa Rica. The 500 turtles marked the beginning of the October arribada in Ostional, where thousands of Olive Ridley turtles come to lay their eggs on the beach.
Having just made the journey across the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, we hit the road again determined to make it down to Ostional that night. These biological wonders only take place at certain times of the year and each one lasts no longer than a week, so we didn’t want to risk missing anything.
At sunrise, the turtles were laying their eggs…
We made our way down the track to the beach through the darkness and at 5am the sun rose to reveal mother turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs in the sand dunes. Though these creature are able to glide gracefully through the sea, they are much more ungainly when it comes to moving on land.
The turtles leave large, tyre like tracks behind them as they make their way towards their chosen spots near the back of the beach. Once there, they will dig a hole before entering a semi-trance like state to lay their eggs. Each turtle will lay around 100 eggs. During an average five day arribada, up to 10 million eggs will be laid.
Once the eggs are laid, the mother turtle buries them under the sand. The eggs will incubate for around 45 days before hatching. The mother turtle then swivels around and drags her exhausted body back into the sea simultaneously as more turtles arrive on the shore.
…and the baby turtles were hatching
As we walked further along the beach, Luis’ wife from the turtle lodge waved us over. She’d planted a stick into the sand. “Can you do me a favour and watch these guys?” she said. As we looked down we started to see grains of sand shifting around. A nest of baby turtles were hatching!
After watching new life break through the sand, we looked up in horror at the vultures circling above and dogs roaming around. These little guys didn’t have a chance of surviving their treacherous journey across the beach to the ocean. I was torn: as much as I wanted to protect the new hatchlings, I’d always believed it was better not to interfere with nature and that natural selection was an essential part of the ecosystem.
A local man came over to us and revealed a heap of baby turtles in his outstretched t-shirt. In broken English he explained that without help the turtles wouldn’t make it to the sea. He carried them down to the shore and placed them at the edge of the damp sand so that they could finish their journey.
We shuffled just behind the nest of little sand covered creatures we had been watching all the way down to the sea.
At dusk, there were more turtles
We couldn’t resist staying an extra day in Ostional to watch these magnificent creatures once more. We returned to the stormy beach the next night, excited at the prospect of seeing even more turtles coming ashore. By nightfall, there were so many turtles nesting on the same small patch of beach that you could hardly walk between them!
Legalised harvesting of the turtle eggs…
When we arrived at the beach for our last turtle sightings in Ostional, the local community were digging up the turtle eggs. The golf-ball sized eggs were thrown into large white sacks which young boys struggled to carry to a make-shift warehouse. I couldn’t help but feel that there was something deeply insensitive about the whole thing. The sea turtles travel huge distances and expend all their energy to lay their eggs at Ostional, only to have them stolen. Some of the turtles had barely finished laying before their eggs were dug up.
The poaching of turtle eggs is illegal in Costa Rica. In Ostional, however, the government has permitted the harvesting of the sea turtle eggs during the first 36 hours of the arribada. The massive amount of turtles arriving all in one go leads to the excavation of previously laid eggs by later turtles. Environmentalists found that the bacteria spread by egg breakage was contaminating the nests and reducing the success rate of hatchings.
As much as I felt the practise was distasteful, I could understand why it was happening. Since the local community have been permitted to harvest the first clutches of eggs, the success rate of hatchlings has been improved. The harvesting also supports the local economy of what is a very small town, and it has gone some way toward decreasing the value of the eggs on the black market.
Though thousands of turtles arrive during an arribada in Ostional, at other beaches in Costa Rica the marine turtle populations have been dramatically reduced by illegal poachers. It is thanks to people like Jack Ewing from Hacienda Barú that there are conservation projects which are helping turtle numbers to stabilise. I was very fortunate to accompany a park ranger on their turtle patrol earlier this year, where we saw two Oliver Ridleys lay their eggs on Barú beach.
I felt overwhelmingly fortunate
Even with my own conflicting thoughts on the ‘helping’ of the baby sea turtles and the legalised harvesting of the eggs, I left Ostional feeling overwhelming fortunate to have experienced this incredible and rare natural phenomenon. Pura vida.
Have you ever seen an arribada? What are your thoughts on the legalisation of egg harvesting at Ostional?