It’s so dark the people with me are just blurry shadows. We’ve been told to wear dark clothes, keep quiet and turn off cameras and phones. We walk quickly. I try not to think about the possibility of tripping over driftwood or a ridge of broken shells since I can’t see the beach beneath my feet. Huge waves are pounding into shore right beside us. The sky is jam-packed with stars.
We are on Playa Pirata in Costa Rica with our guide Ivan trying to find one of the sea turtles that comes ashore here at night to dig deep holes and lay between fifty to a hundred eggs. Twenty- five years from now if things go as nature planned some of the turtles that hatch from those eggs will return to this same beach where they were born and lay eggs themselves.
It isn’t long before Ivan whispers he’s spotted a turtle on her way back out into the ocean. Ivan turns on an infra red light that won’t disturb the mother and we watch her slow steady progress across the beach. Her flippers and tail leave a distinct pattern in the sand like that of a tractor tire.
In many places beachside resort development and tourist traffic have discouraged sea turtles from coming ashore to lay eggs. All seven species of sea turtles are on the endangered list. A local man tells us that in the 1990s hundreds of turtles came ashore on this beach to lay eggs each night. Now you are lucky to see one or two.
In Costa Rica where eco-tourism is the backbone of the economy they are trying to save turtles. Beaches where turtles have traditionally nested are open only to small groups of visitors accompanied by trained conservationists. Resorts must be built far enough from the beach so that at night their lights won’t disturb the turtles. Recycling is a priority because plastic bags discarded in the sea, kill turtles that think they are jellyfish and eat them. Fishing is regulated since getting caught in fishing nests is another danger for turtles.
After our first turtle sighting Ivan takes us to a different beach where a conservationist thinks a turtle is about to lay eggs. We sit silently around the huge hole in the sand the mother has created. She is spraying sand out of the hole with her flippers. Just when our guide whispers he thinks she’ll start laying eggs she crawls to the edge of the hole and heads back out to sea. Sometimes turtles come on the beach but don’t lay eggs. This is called a false crawl and happens because they detect danger. Even though we have been very quiet I wonder if we spectators are responsible for the mother’s false crawl. We follow her as she moves back to the ocean. It’s a slow, difficult and awkward journey.
Our mother turtle has just swum away when Ivan our guide calls out excitedly, “Stop! Look down and watch where you are walking.” He has spotted two tiny turtles who probably hatched just days ago making their way to the sea. They flutter like baby birds along the beach leaving tiny scratches in the sand. A few times they turn the wrong way and I hold my breath hoping they will make it to the ocean. I have tears in my eyes when those infant turtles finally reach the waves and are washed out to sea. I know only ten percent of hatchlings make it to adulthood but maybe these elfin ones will be survivors.
Watching sea turtles in Costa Rica and learning about their lives and history, is a moving experience and one that makes you very aware of how fragile the world’s natural creatures really are when faced with human encroachment on their habitat.