CASKE 2000 > Stories > Culture > Costa Rica > Leatherbacks and Strip Development


Playa Grande, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica "Leatherbacks and Strip Development"

10/29/2000 by Luke Shullenberger

Development tends to sweep through Costa Rican coastal communities like tidal waves. A discovery of some sort of natural phenomenon or the zoning of a large hotel in a rugged, scenic place is the tectonic event that triggers the swell of followers. They blow through a tract of undeveloped land, pulling down trees and eroding the beach and leave behind hulking detritus in the form of resort hotels and bungalows. Some of them are beautifully designed and a few are even “environmentally integrated”, but none of them are as lovely as virgin beach. Playa Grande is not exempt from the trend that is altering the landscape of Costa Rica’s beaches; the irony in this case is that the main attraction may disappear before the next wave of development.

When they nest, the endangered leatherback turtles are habitual but very choosy. The population that arrives at Playa Grande year by year, originally chose the spot for a variety of environmental reasons. They are sensitive to the shape of the beach, the composition of the sand and the water. Those are the few that biologists have been able to determine with any certainty. 30 years of study of the turtles’ behavior and habits has revealed a few other patterns that remain unexplained. You will hear talk about the turtles’ sensitivity to lunar cycles, tides and water temperatures, but it is mere postulation. All will agree however, that they react strongly to light and to humans. The emergence of more hotels only increases both.

The Playa Grande area was supposed to be a no-development zone. According to the Ministry of Forestry that was the original law. In a compromise typical of Costa Rica, the allure of the tourist dollar caused policy makers to reconsider (read lucrative kick-backs), and now only the beach itself is a no-development zone. Lots set back from the beach are selling quickly, and hotels are springing up every season.

In the past few years, the numbers of nesting turtles has decreased dramatically. Over 100 per night used to be a common sight. Now, on a good night, you may see 20 and most of those are repeat visitors, as each turtle will revisit the beach to lay eggs up to 12 times during the five month nesting season. Biologists speculate that the overall population may now be less than 100. There can only be one explanation for the drop off.

Fortunately, the poor land-use practices are somewhat compensated for by the management of the refuge by rangers and police. So as not to frighten or disturb the turtles, beach access is strictly limited. No more than 60 people may be on the beach at a time and groups are limited to 15. At the peak of the high season, you may wait up to two hours to be admitted. A ranger/guide accompanies each group; and don’t even think about flash photography. We were accosted by a vigilant policeman who yelled at us for using a low-emission, infra-red flash. Initially taken aback, we realized later that he was right to have made his point so strongly. It is not just the hotels that affect the landscape and the rhythms of Mother Nature, the tourists themselves can do more harm.

Historically, the biggest threat to turtles has been egg poachers. The “hueveros”, the egg collectors, have a long history of stealing turtle eggs. The traditional market for the eggs are the bars and restaurants where they are considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac and are swallowed raw with a dash of Tabasco and/or steak sauce. Most bars now serve legally harvested Ridley turtle eggs from the managed, sustainable harvest program in Ostional further south. However, leatherback eggs are still found on the black market. The owner of the hotel/bar where we stayed at Playa Grande told us that illegal vendors approach him every week. He kicks all of them out in an attempt to make a statement but others always arrive in their place.

For an intimate and moving experience with the leatherbacks, the only time to go is the end of the low-season in October and November. The rangers tell of overwhelming Christmas and January crowds. In October, the refuge is not even officially open, yet the friendly rangers, unmolested by the hordes, are relaxed and will happily engage in long discussions as they lead you along the beach on a personal tour.

We stumbled out onto the beach at 10:00 PM to the main entrance. During the high season there are drink stands, a holding corral and ticket booth to keep crowds under control. On this night, we walked right onto the beach past the empty parking lot. Down the beach we saw the faint glow of red lights. The only lights they allow on the beach are infra-red, in most cases a flashlight wrapped with a piece of red cellophane.

There is no way to accurately describe the feeling of having intimate contact with a massive animal at its most vulnerable and revealing moment. We approached the small group of people surrounding the turtle and could only see the dark mound of its body in the blackness. Less than ten feet away, I was taken aback by a sound, a geyser-like gasp of exhalation. Standing next to it I was able to see its dimensions clearly. Six feet long and every bit of 1000 lbs. it dwarfed me. The shell was not like any I had ever seen. Unlike the hard, chitinous shells of other turtles, the leatherback has an interior frame of bony, longitudinal ribs covered by a thick leathery skin. It is protective but not rigid, with an elongated, cylindrical shape. The pliability of the body allows it to dive to incredible depths of over three thousand feet and withstand water pressure that would cave in and crush other marine life. Yet by far, the most striking characteristics were the sheer size of its head, the three ridges running down its back and a gelatinous, fluid hindquarters, like the skin of some alien from another age and planet. We saw six in a four-hour period; I was overcome with awe. It was unforgettable and as a memory it will have to remain. Due to the rapid decline in population, the chances are that I may not ever have the opportunity to see one again.

The leatherbacks are on the verge of extinction and biologists are in a frenzy. 20 years ago the estimated world population was over 115,000. That figure has decreased by more than 70%. Healthy numbers remain in French Guiana and Suriname but large populations in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and some parts of Mexico have disappeared in the span of two decades. Playa Grande is considered one of the top five nesting sites in the world. Numbers in the 1980’s were estimated at over 1,600 females. Two years ago the figure dropped to less than 220 and this year it may dip below 100.

Fishing, development of nesting sites and egg poaching are the major factors affecting mortality rates. Gill nets without turtle-exclusion devices are still used by most of the industry. These are the leading killers, taking over 1500 turtles a year. Egg poachers continue to supply an underground market for the legendary aphrodisiac, even in Eco-enlightened Costa Rica. Development of beaches that serve as nesting sites scares away the leatherbacks who are wary of humans and extremely sensitive to light. The decline in the numbers at Playa Grande may be directly attributable to the lights from the wave of newly constructed hotels and restaurants there and at neighbor Playa Tamarindo.

Serious studies and preservation efforts are underway but it may be too late. In Playa Grande, Drexel University coordinates with other efforts around the world to track females and protect eggs. I witnessed a group of students and researchers inject females with a tiny tracking device and excavate their nests and relocate the eggs to managed hatcheries. The studies are producing excellent data on migratory habits and mortality rates. The managed hatcheries produce a much higher yield and the infant young have a higher chance of survival. However, numbers continue a steady decline.

We may be witnessing the last gasp of a species that has survived from the age of dinosaurs. All of its prehistoric peers were killed by the Ice Age or by massive tidal waves, epic natural disasters. The leatherbacks may be swept into extinction by an epic disaster created by man. I would like to believe that what I saw on the beach was the birth of a new consciousness, of a conservation ethic. Yet even the fact that I was there made me part of the problem. The leatherbacks want a quiet, dark beach lit only by the stars and marked with only the footprints of other animals. We want the same when we go on vacation. That kind of real estate is a limited resource. When it comes to leatherbacks versus greenbacks we all know which wins.

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