04 Jan A Sea Turtle Surprise in Costa Rica
Standing on an empty expanse of sand in a tropical downpour at dawn, I witnessed one of nature’s most moving wonders: On Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, tiny green sea turtle hatchlings were being released to the sea.
Our small group, traveling with Natural Habitat Adventures, was fortunate to be on hand for the event. We were staying just up the hill at Tiskita Jungle Lodge, one of Costa Rica’s original ecolodges, which has played an integral role in supporting sea turtle conservation in the area. Two decades ago, lodge founder and owner Peter Aspinall helped the local community of Punta Banco launch a project to protect the endangered turtles. A portion of the fee for each guest’s stay at Tiskita helps fund the project. Volunteers from the village collect eggs, place them inside a protected pen, and monitor them until they hatch.
The day before the release, we walked from the lodge to the town where our naturalist guide, Alex Arias, showed us the pens. As we looked over the fence, we met Victor, a local volunteer who manages the effort. He had transferred the most recent clutches of eggs laid on the beach into the enclosure, re-burying them in the sand. As we approached, he greeted us with a big grin on his face. Alex translated as Victor animatedly explained in Spanish that this last round of eggs was about to hatch, and our timing would be perfect to witness the final release of the season. Early the next morning, the infant turtles would be transferred back to Pavones Beach where they would make their way to the sea.
Victor’s pride in the project was evident as he explained the process to us. We watched in wonder as he worked on his knees, monitoring each set of eggs closely. He brushed the sand away from a nest to reveal a couple new hatchlings that had cracked their way out of their eggs using a small temporary tooth on their snout. Once they made their appearance, he carefully picked them up, cradling the dark gray hatchlings in his hands as he deposited them with several others that had recently emerged. Keeping vigil into the wee hours of morning, he collected all the hatchlings and met us on the beach at 6 am.
In the warm, pelting rain, we accompanied Victor as he carried a plastic bucket containing 85 newly born turtles. He knelt down and gently emptied it onto the broad expanse of beach. The tide was out, and the tiny hatchlings had to cross at least 100 feet of packed sand to reach the ocean. The squirming turtles were a mere two inches long, so it took some time to cover the distance. Delighted, we watched them scurry toward the surf’s foamy edge, leaving artful trails of foot, flipper and tail prints.
We learned that it was necessary for them to crawl on the beach first: Chemicals from the sand would imprint upon the turtles, so that after spending years at sea, nature’s code would tell the females how to return to their beach of origin to lay their eggs. Scientists also think that magnetic fields, characteristics of seasonal offshore currents and celestial cues may guide the turtles’ return.
As the baby turtles crawled toward the sea, they navigated by keeping an eye on the lightening horizon. As I moved around in my bright orange rain jacket, some of the hatchlings followed me. Victor asked me to remain behind them, so they did not mistake me as a beacon to follow to safety. Just as my jacket was a potentially dangerous distraction, increasing light pollution poses problems for infant sea turtles who may become disoriented by street lights, the glow of beachfront resorts or other artificial light sources.
While sea turtles worldwide are in constant danger of commercial harvest, bycatch in fishing nets or ingesting plastic debris in the ocean, these crucial moments after birth pose the greatest threat. Lurking birds scan the beach in hopes of swooping in to dine on the hatchlings, though they and other predators such as crabs and raccoons kept their distance as long as we were in view. Not only did we get to witness this touching moment, we were also helping the hatchlings survive against dramatic odds: Just one in a thousand sea turtles survives to adulthood, with the greatest number of casualties occurring on the perilous journey to the water.
Eventually, every one of the vulnerable creatures entered the ocean, joining more than 50,000 already released through this local conservation program. At sea, they will face the next set of challenges to their survival, including warming ocean temperatures, which disrupt marine ecosystems. Though sea turtles are slow to mature, those that make it 30 to 40 years may mate and reproduce, with the females returning again to this very beach to lay eggs of their own.
While it was lucky happenstance that our group was able to witness this rare and special event, other travelers can join Natural Habitat Adventures’ Mexico Sea Turtle Odyssey for a more immersive adventure at La Escobilla Turtle Camp on the Pacific coast. Guests learn about sea turtle conservation at the camp and also at the National Mexican Turtle Center, where they watch olive ridley turtles drop their eggs at night and help researchers patrol the beach as the hatchlings make their way to the sea. Nat Hab’s Wilds of Borneo trip also offers a sea turtle encounter at Selingan Turtle Island, while guests on the company’s Natural Jewels of Costa Rica adventure visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy at Tortuguero. And if you’d like a trip that includes both the awe of Costa Rica’s annual turtle nesting and the thrill of whitewater rafting, try Costa Rica: Pura Vida, with O.A.R.S.
Though sea turtles have inhabited the world’s oceans for more than 100 million years, filling a vital role in the marine habitat, today six of the seven species are endangered, including the Pacific green sea turtles we observed. The seventh species, the loggerhead, is listed as threatened. Ecotourism is an important factor in raising awareness about the turtles’ plight, as well as a force to help local communities recognize that protecting turtles can provide economic sustenance. When you choose a nature adventure with a sea turtle focus, you’re part of that mission.
Want to go behind the scenes with Wendy at the Tiskita Jungle Lodge hatchling release? Check out this video!
Green Sea Turtle Hatchlings | Natural Habitat Adventures
Wendy Redal taking us behind the scenes with Natural Habitat Adventures to watch some green sea turtle hatchlings released on the beach of the Punta Banco community in Costa Rica as part of sea turtle conservation with Tiskita Jungle Lodge
Posted by Adventure Collection on Wednesday, January 4, 2017
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