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By starlight, a two-hour hunt for a nesting turtle

Rangers on the beach scout the locations of nesting turtles and radio the coordinates to guides. Rangers on the beach scout the locations of nesting turtles and radio the coordinates to guides. (Neil Osborne for Caribbean Conservation Corp.)
By Chris Ladd
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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TORTUGUERO, Costa Rica - There are no roads to the national park here, nestled as it is between the Caribbean Sea and miles of brackish mangrove swamps. Yet several times annually, two great migrations collide at this place: the sea turtles who swim thousands of miles to claw their way up the beaches to nest, and some 35,000 tourists, who snake their way in hired boats up the canals from Moin and Saripiqui for a chance to see a massive 400-pound tortuga firsthand.

Twelve of us circle about our guide on a soccer field in Tortuguero village. It’s just after 10 p.m., and we wait for signals from the beach. This waiting is part of the new system of turtle-gazing, our guide, Alex, tells us.

Five years ago, he would have led us to the beach, stuck his finger in the air, and chosen on a whim whether to lead north or south. Then we would have walked for an hour, maybe finding a turtle, maybe not, but trudging on nonetheless until it was time to turn around and march back.

Now we wait as rangers walk the beach with red-filtered flashlights and walkie-talkies. When they come across a turtle, they radio in to our guide with the sector and marker number from the posts spread about 330 feet apart along the edge of the beach. Then we rise and walk along the trail set back from the beach until we reach the marker.

Alex kills time disseminating some basic biology and some general history of this place, named not for the turtles but for the tortugueros - the men who, until recently, turned most of the creatures who came ashore into soup. As turtle populations declined, Costa Rica in 1975 declared Tortuguero, one of the most important nesting grounds in the world, a protected national park. The result should become apparent in the next several years, as the hatchlings of those early days return here to nest for the first time. Green turtles, which we are hoping to spot tonight, don’t lay their first eggs until the age of 25 or 30.

A red light flashes from the beach. The radio crackles. One of the searchers has found a turtle, about 600 feet south. We pair off and snake around village houses to the trail, and then out to the beach, flashlights, cameras, anything that might scare a nesting turtle back into the sea relegated to our pockets.

We’re not far from the village when we reach her. She is about 40 feet from us, a little more than halfway down the beach, and we pause as, with flippers like boomerangs, she heaves her body in two-foot spurts toward the water. We move close enough to hear the sand move under her shell. Then she is in the surf. We watch as a wave breaks, then she is gone. She leaves no eggs, just a hole dug too close to the village.

A turtle nests once every three or four years and conditions must be perfect. Anything amiss - a barking dog, a door shut too firmly - and it’s back to the sea, where she will stay until conditions are right to try again. We walk past the half-finished hole, perhaps six feet in diameter, a shallow arc sloping down maybe a foot, connected to the sea some 50 feet away by the line dragged from her tail.

In ideal circumstances, we will see three key stages of turtle nesting tonight: the laying of the eggs, the covering and disguising of the hole, and the return to the sea. Some groups spend their two hours waiting on the field, never spotting a turtle. It’s 10:45. We have until midnight to find another one. We leave the beach and return to the field.

Eleven o’clock comes and goes. The village is sleeping now, the houses quiet. At 11:15, Alex walks out to confer with the other guides. With each minute, our chances grow slimmer. Then, Alex, radio to his ear, jogs back. There is a turtle, he says, 1 1/4 miles north, already up the beach and digging in the sand. There’s no guarantee she will stay, but if we’re game to walk quickly, chances are good we can make it in time. We rise again from the field and follow Alex to the trail.

It’s nearly midnight when we reach the marker. Alex explains, his whisper just carrying above the surf, what will happen next.

A nesting turtle digs two holes. The first, a shallow body pit big enough for her to lie in, is what we saw abandoned back near the village. The second, a narrow, 2 1/2-foot cavity to hold the eggs, was nearly completed a few feet to our left. Until that hole was finished, our turtle would scare easily. Once she started filling it with eggs, we would have a chance to get closer. Alex leaves us to check in with his colleague, then gives us the OK, and we join him in a clump about five feet behind the turtle.

The eggs are coming, two and three at a time, glistening in the red light, dropping like wet ping-pong balls into the sand. Some say turtles go into a kind of trance as the eggs fall. Still, it feels wrong for us to be here, witnessing something so private.

We see about 100 eggs drop. The probability of their surviving to maturity is slim to none. For every 1,000 eggs buried on this beach, it’s believed that just one will survive to adulthood. The rest will be dug up by raccoons or dogs or poachers or, once they have hatched and crawled out to sea, be eaten by sharks or other fish before the hatchlings grow shells thick enough to keep them safe. Then only the largest sharks are powerful enough to count these armored beasts as prey. With so few natural predators, the world’s oceans once teemed with massive turtles like this one. But centuries of tortugueros have changed that, and the success of recent decades’ attempts at conservation is far from certain.

After the last egg drops, the turtle, using her rear flippers, pushes sand over them. She never sees the eggs and if, two months from now, any emerge as hatchlings, she won’t see them either. She will be long gone and doing laps around Bermuda, or the Azores, or the Cape Verde Islands, anywhere in the great circle of ocean currents that leads back here to the Caribbean.

Chris Ladd can be reached at c.g.ladd@gmail.com.

Related

If You Go

What to do

Silvia’s Reservations

silviavanderheiden@yahoo.com

Book a two-hour hunt for nesting turtles by starlight. Also available through most hotels. $15.

Caribbean Conservation Corp. 800-678-7853

www.cccturtle.org

Spend 1-to-3 weeks working with biologists, monitoring and tagging massive turtles up close. Includes transportation from San Jose and meals. From $1,399.

Where to stay

Casa Marbella

Across from the Roman Catholic church, Tortuguero center

011-506-8-833-0827 011-506-2-709-8011

casamarbella.tripod.com

A quaint, cozy B&B right on the canal, with full breakfast included, $40.

Cabinas Miss Junie

One block from Paraiso Souvenir Shop

011-506-2-709-8102 (-8029)

www.iguanaverdetours.com

Spacious rooms with ocean and river views. Great food. $70.

Where to eat

Buddha Cafe

25 yards from the main dock

www.tortuguerovillage.com

Crepes, pizza, pasta, and lasagna on the canal. Entrees $6-$8.

Dorling’s Bakery, Coffee Shop, and Ice Cream

Next to Casa Marbella, Tortuguero center

www.tortuguerovillage.com

Cool off with a batido of fresh fruit blended in water or milk, or relax with a cup of Costa Rica’s finest coffee and carrot cake. $1.50-$3.

Miss Junie’s

Cabinas Miss Junie’s restaurant is famous in the region for its rondon, a hallmark Caribbean stew of fish, yucca, and plantains simmered almost a full day in coconut milk. $11.