CASKE 2000 > Stories > Culture > Costa Rica > Playing Hide and Seek with Sea Turtles


Playing Hide and Seek with Sea Turtles

10/25/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

Luke opened the front hatch of my kayak and handed me my mask, snorkel, fins and ankle weights. After spiting in my mask and rinsing it to prevent fogging, I strapped it on, tied one end of the towrope to the bow of my kayak and the other one around my waist. I jumped in the water and donned my long freediving fins. The water was so murky I could not see five feet ahead of me. In the middle of the rainy season the swollen rivers discharge sediment and mud turning the ocean into a thick brown color that looks more like soup than turquoise tropical waters. I raised my head to look for the creatures that I knew surrounded me. I spotted the closest floating 60 feet to my left. I finned over and then stopped moving and held my breath to approach slowly by gliding forward with my momentum. When the two rear flippers were less than a foot ahead of me I slowly extended my arms and touched the animal. It hadn’t even noticed me. I got a hold of the shell and the sea turtle slowly swam left, turned its head toward me and stared with big round eyes, as if to ask who I was and what I was doing on its back. I kept my grip and the turtle resurfaced to breathe and swam slowly, pulling me. It was a beautiful Olive Ridley Turtle, three feet long and weighing well over a hundred pounds. My presence didn’t seem to threaten the turtle. When it dove, I was able to re-orient the turtle to make it swim back to the surface. Ridley turtles can stay underwater for up to an hour and half, but the longest I’ve held my breath freediving is two minutes. I played for five minutes with the reptile like Jacques Mayol had done with his beloved dolphins. It was like dancing, and such a unique experience that I wanted to repeat it with other partners.

I raised my head above the surface and looked around. I could see three other turtles 100 feet ahead of me. With the rope dragging my kayak behind me, I pushed on the stiff long fins. As I approached the next turtle I controlled my breathing and only moved my legs at a very slow pace. I kept my arms along my body and swam toward the tail of the turtle. I wasn’t as stealthy this time and the turtle turned around and spotted me. Instead of chasing it I stopped and stared at it. Something happened, maybe we had a magical moment of communication, for without breaking eye contact, the turtle closed the 3-foot gap and swam right toward my face. I found my eyes 10 inches from the turtle’s head. I could read great curiosity in its eyes and was able to see the details of its sharp beak. When it came close to butting its head on my mask, I remembered that the size of a turtle’s brain is insignificant and started to worry it might mistake my nose for a shrimp and I extended my hands forward to push the front flippers to the side. The turtle, perhaps offended by such a gesture, slowly dove away. I dove too and followed it for a few seconds before giving up.

When I surfaced, turtles where all around me, all I had to do was swim 30 feet to get to the next one. Some only returned to the surface to breathe for a couple of seconds before diving again. Most likely they were feeding on shrimp at the bottom. Others preferred to float and paddle lazily against the mild current.

We didn’t search long to spot this pack of turtles as they were in the same location as the day before. We had paddled our kayaks along the shoreline of the town of Ostional (Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast) and we found ourselves in the middle of thousands. We got so close that we could touch them and managed to play tag with them for over an hour. We would paddle up to a distance of 20 feet and then let the kayak’s momentum take us to within inches of the turtles. Some dove, but most let us pass by and touch their shells. When we touched their fins or tail however, they quickly dove. It was amazing and I regretted not having my freediving equipment on board, thus we decided to return the next day.

The little hamlet of Ostional is set on the middle of a long black sand beach with world-class surf. For its waves it may be one of the three best locations in Costa Rica but is a well-kept secret. As a nesting ground it is among the most important in the world, hosting the Americas’ largest population of Ridley turtles. There, in front of this settlement, dozens of thousands of turtles lay their eggs monthly. They come in mass once a month for a period of two to three days to lay their eggs on the beach they were born on. This event is locally referred to as the “Arivada”, or “Llegada”, which means the Arrival. I was told that anywhere from ten to three hundred thousand turtles could be coming at once. The beach becomes so crowded that for two days, one could walk up and down the beach on the backs of turtles without touching sand.

After hearing these stories and looking at a few photos as proof, I heard from locals that they were expecting the largest Arrivada of the year. We didn’t hesitate to delay our paddling of the coast to witness such a phenomenon. We were excited when locals told us we had arrived just on time as the moon was changing the next day and the turtles were already a week late. They were expected on our second night there. In the evening, we strolled the beach in the pouring rain and were happy to see two turtles laying their eggs. It was an experience I could not forget as we dug gently in the black sand behind the turtle’s tail to see the deep hole in which it laid over a hundred eggs. With its flippers it then filled up the hole and used its body weight to pack it, in order to prevent birds from easily digging it up.

The next morning we were up at four o’clock but we only saw one turtle. We were told that they would certainly come within the next two days. Thus we waited, setting our alarms to stroll the beach twice a night. Two days later we were told again that they would come within two days and the week went by without ever seeing much more than 10 turtles a night. That alone was fascinating, but deceptive, considering the massive arrival we had been promised. It was interesting to hear the theories for the late arrival from all the villagers and even the biologist. Some said they didn’t come because it had rained intensely and the swollen rivers stirred the water too much. Others thought that the sky had been too overcast. The truth, we later learned, is that nobody truly understood why the turtles didn’t come.

In Ostional villagers are very knowledgeable about the arrival, and they should be, as more than 80 percent of the village is making a living from the turtles. In the past, poachers sold as many eggs as they could and the Ridley population declined. Since 1987 biologists have been working with a cooperative that organizes villagers to protect the baby turtles, clean the beach and extract eggs only from the first wave of turtles that would otherwise be destroyed by the second wave of turtles from the same arrival. The management of the harvesting has gone well. The Ridley population is rising again in the wildlife reserve of Ostional and villagers are still able to extract hundreds of thousands of eggs monthly.

Egg sales are the mainstay of the Ostional economy. They are sold to distributors who target bakers and bars throughout the country. Eggs are served raw in a shot glass with a bit of Tabasco and sauce. One of the main buyers though is a cookie company in San Jose that believes they are crucial to making a superior product. In Ostional illegal poaching has ceased and scientists believe that the cheaper, legally harvested eggs from Ostional have captured 95 percent of the market from poachers that raid other beaches hosting turtles.

As turtles are crucial to the economy of the town, villagers take a keen interest in knowing and protecting their turtles. When there is no Arrivada, no money comes in. Their confidence that the turtles were due to come, caused us to stay longer than we planned. Yet we realized that the nesting pattern of sea turtles is not an exact schedule and after 10 days, we had to return, disappointed, to San Jose. We got out just in time, as a tropical downpour continued for four days. The rivers, usually crossed by four-wheel drive vehicles, became impassable and Ostional was sealed off.

We called daily to the owner of the guesthouse where we had stayed to know if the turtles had come. When she finally told us that hundreds could be seen in the water and that the arrival was imminent and the rivers’ levels were back to normal, we returned with hope. Indeed all the signs of an arrival were present. Each morning we saw tracks of over a hundred animals that had come during the night. Three days later we left Ostional in disappointment one more time as we had appointments with journalists and reporters in San Jose that we couldn’t miss.

We returned yet again to Ostional a couple of days later with the intent to continue paddling south along the coast of Costa Rica. We were skeptical we would see any turtles at all yet we decided to give ourselves another couple days but no more, for if we were going to stick to our plan to paddle the Peninsula of Nicoya, we couldn’t afford to waste any time. We already had our plane tickets reserved and less than three weeks before flying out of the country to document an important indigenous festival in Guatemala.

After driving 7 hours from San Jose we met our host and checked in again at the Cabinas Ostional. People were excited to tell us that the baby turtles from a prior Arrival had started hatching that same day. The next morning we woke up at 4:00 to witness the event. We were the first ones on the beach before sunrise and at first didn’t see anything. Our excitement gave way to more skepticism. As the light increased it dawned on us that baby turtles were everywhere on the beach even just at our feet. The small, gray bodies on black sand had been invisible in the pre-dawn darkness. It looked like an invasion of army ants coming out from holes separated by no more than a few feet from each other.

As soon as the day broke, the full village was out on the beach scaring away the numerous vultures and collecting the baby reptiles to carry them close to the waves. Scientists have reported that unaided, less than one percent of baby turtles make it to an adult age. For this reason the Ridleys lay an estimated 50 million eggs each season on the beach of Ostional. The first challenge for a tiny turtle is to walk the long beach to the ocean. The black sand beach of Ostional hosts a large colony of vultures that feed on eggs and baby turtles. As well, dogs, chickens and a few dozen wood storks feed on eggs during the day while coatimundies, coyotes and raccoon come digging silently at night. Little turtles are totally defenseless and if the giant shoes of some clumsy tourist crush a few, most get saved by the well-organized villagers. I usually think that it is best to let nature be and not intervene, but I agree with the biologists in this case who say that humans, particularly shrimp fisherman, kill so many turtles that a little help is necessary to maintain a healthy population. So we spent the next three days taking endless photos of thousands of little turtles struggling to get out of their nests, stumbling down the beach or being carried in buckets and finally getting washed back an forth in the violent surf.

Hatching starts a few hours before sunrise and usually continues until 8 or 9AM. All the villagers come to the beach at first light armed with plastic buckets and cardboard boxes. They drum on them with a stick to scare off most of the predators and then fill them up with babies and carry them down to the water. Vultures however always find an unguarded spot where they feed on defenseless turtles. Other predators I saw in Ostional were little crabs. So little that they can’t drag the baby turtles entirely into their hole. I saw a dead one with its small tail and rear fins in the air and its head stuck into a crab hole. When I lifted it a crab had eaten its eyes. Villagers do what they can to protect the turtles on the beach, but once into the sea, many other predators await them and only a very small percentage will make it back twenty years later to lay their eggs in Ostional.

Three days passed and the stream of baby turtles tapered off and we asked the villagers again about the Arrivada as it was already 26 days late. The first theory was that the Arrivada would probably happen as soon as the babies finished hatching. The pregnant females, not wanting to crush all the babies, were waiting before invading the beach. The explanation made sense and people told us that it had happened before, that the turtles occasionally skip a month and that what followed was usually the largest arrival of the year. Villagers, who by then had become friends, assured us that the arrival would be a sight we would never forget. How could we not stay longer? Patience, patience, patience, the most important virtue for travel in Central America, it seems is also one necessary when waiting on nature. We decided to cancel our kayak departure again, even though prior delays and problems had caused us to cancel the entire previous month’s paddling itinerary. Because of those tardy turtles we were getting soft. If we were going to wait, we were at least going to train a little to stay in shape. As we could see sunlight reflecting off of the heads and shells at the surface of the water, we decided to paddle our kayaks through the large breakers, and go look for them on the ocean.

Having seen so many turtles in the water while paddling the first day, on our second day out we took our diving gear. Once in the water with my freediving equipment, in the middle of the turtles, I felt like I was back in my element, dancing with sea turtles. It had been almost three weeks since the first day we had come to Ostional. Three weeks filled with hope and disappointment. We had been hoping to see thousands of turtles on shore, but here, swimming in the middle of such a large concentration, it was like being in a dream. They are so awkward on land and yet in water are so powerful and beautiful. As Luke got the video ready, I approached another turtle, grabbed its shell with both hands and let it tow me gently in a circle and down into shallow dives. Most turtles didn’t fight; they just played the game until they got tired of pulling a dead weight and then flapped around to signal that they wanted to be released. I spent an hour in the water swimming with them and then got back in my kayak to let Luke enjoy the moment. From my boat, I could see up to thirty heads at once. Luke however wasn’t very lucky. Each time he got close to a turtle, it dove away. He saw a few close up, but was never able to touch them or ride them. After half an hour he gave up, not understanding what was wrong with his approach. Was it his swimming or breathing technique? I told him I knew why and he laughed when I explained, “you see, when I see them I think about how beautiful they are in the water, but when you approach them, they sense that you think how delicious they would be on your plate sautéed with onions and chilies”. The gourmet chef assured me that, with the exception of lobsters, he never thought about cuisine while diving with marine life. I wondered if Luke was the one bringing bad luck to the village and keeping the turtles from coming to shore, after all they were all out there, probably just waiting for us to leave.

With patience and persistence you can accomplish anything. We can paddle the coast anytime, but most likely we will not have other opportunities to experience an invasion of nesting turtles. So for the time being we will wait.

As they seem to be afraid of Luke, we decided to leave town for a day or two to coax them in, and to call every day for a status check. We left for Playa Grande also on the Nicoya Peninsula. There between October and December the giant leatherback turtles come in small numbers of 10 to 30 each night to lay their eggs. We had read about them, but it doesn’t matter how much one reads. It is inconceivable until you actually see them that these turtles can reach over two meters in length and a ton in weight. When we saw the first turtle laying its eggs, we were speechless. Its head was much bigger than ours, its breathing sounded like a spouting whale and its size, although not quite two meters, was astounding. Its long rear fins dug a very deep hole into the sand. Its body looked gelatinous with thick layers of fat to protect the leatherback and allow it to dive to a depth of up to a mile.

Throughout my travels, I have seen many strange animals, but there for the first time I felt I was in the presence of some extra-terrestrial being. No words could do justice to this experience and photographs will not capture the breathing or the energy spent by this giant of the sea to fin its way up the beach. We wished to take photos, but more than the Ridleys in Ostional, Leatherback are sensitive to heat and light and only come to shore during the middle of the night. In Playa Grande, flash photography is strictly forbidden and I was only able to take a few shots by covering my flash with a red plastic filter. In the morning, we walked the beach and gaped at the wide tracks left by the giant turtles.

A week later we called Ostional from Manual Antonio and learned that the turtles could be seen swimming in the surf zone. We drove back just in time to experience the first day of the Arrivada. None of the stories we had heard prepared us sufficiently for the sight that met our eyes. The turtles first start coming at night, and when they start, they don’t stop. Thousands of turtles were laying their eggs on the beach and returning to the water while thousands more came out of the surf. Our local friend Louis took us for a walk on the beach. There were so many turtles they had to climb on top of each other. We helped a few which were struggling on the their backs after flipping over while trying to cross over a log or another turtle’s back. In places it was not possible to set foot between turtles without stepping on them. The invasion we had long waited for had finally come.

For over five kilometers along the beach, the sand was covered with shells and flailing flippers. The smell was strong, a mix of reptile stench and the whiff of decay from thousands of eggs, upturned and smashed by the current wave of turtles. We returned in the morning when there were less turtles, but enough light to take photos. The villagers were already at work extracting eggs. Men felt the sand for nests by pushing downwards with the heels of their feet. The women followed, digging up the holes and filling large bags with the eggs. Finally, the young men carried the large sacks to a waiting truck. The bags were thrown on top of each other without precaution. The soft eggshells can absorb shock and heavy weights. The bags were then put into storage rooms to be repacked later. Villagers extract half a million eggs in two days, less than 5 percent of the amount laid in one arrival. The biologist told me that people could easily extract four times more without any harm.

Ostional is a rare place on earth where so many turtles can be seen almost monthly. Yet we wondered why we never saw many tourists in Ostional. Even during the Arrivada, guesthouses didn’t fill up.

We rate Ostional as one of the best beaches for its incredible wildlife, its excellent surf, the kindness of its people and some of the lowest-priced, comfortable lodging in Costa Rica. Ostional is an attraction on par with the famed Volcano Arenal and Manual Antonio National Park. And when you finally do see the turtles, they won’t let you down.

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