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Experience Costa Rica Turtles Nesting at Playa Ostional

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When we were planning our trip to Costa Rica this past summer, witnessing turtle nesting was at the top of our family’s “must-do” list. We have been turtle fans for a long time and knew that this beautiful country is home to some of the world’s largest turtle nesting grounds. Equally impressive is the fact that Costa Rica, known for its eco tourism, is also one of only a few countries in the world that keenly protects turtle nesting sites as well as turtle hatchlings (by relocating nests out of harms way and building hatcheries). Given that it is estimated only one in 5,000 baby turtles makes it to adulthood, this human intervention is of critical importance to endangered turtle species.

Doing our research, we learned that there are several big turtle nesting sites in Costa Rica. Among the best known is the famous Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean side of the country (a nesting site for mostly Hawsbills, Green turtles and Loggerheads turtles, who come to lay their eggs in the summer months). On the Pacific side, two of the most renowned turtle nesting locations are Playa Ostional (where Olive Ridleys come ashore in August and September) and Las Baulas (the nesting site of the enormous and endangered Leatherbacks who nest there from October through March).

Based on the time of the year we were visiting and the fact that we were staying on the Pacific side, our family chose to visit the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, situated on Playa Ostional, a magnificent stretch of beautiful dark volcanic sand beach, about a 2 ½ hour drive south of our resort in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. This beach is known as one of the largest turtle nesting grounds in the world with over 1 million eggs laid each year. The Refuge’s main purpose is to protect the nesting grounds and promote education on turtles and marine life.

We hoped to witness the arribada, a massive arrival of turtles on shore to lay their eggs, which is thought to be correlated with moon phases and tides. Therefore, if you wish to witness an arribada and you have flexibility with your travel plans, you should seriously consult the lunar calendar as, following Mother Nature’s rhythm, arribadas normally occur during the last quarter of the moon phase, just before the new moon. We did just that.

All tourists interested in visiting the turtle nesting sites should keep in mind that it is critically important that the turtles successfully lay their eggs. Noise and especially bright lights can frighten them and make them decide to return to the sea without nesting. Therefore, all flash photography and bright flashlights are strictly prohibited. To navigate the beach and observe the turtles, you are only allowed to use flashlights covered by a red filter. The beach is closely monitored by rangers to make sure the grounds are safe for the turtles and their hatchlings and that the visiting tourists are not disruptive to their normal behavior.

We timed our arrival for late afternoon to have time to enjoy the beautiful beach and familiarize ourselves with the area, as we would soon be walking around in complete darkness. Our path had us crossing a river mouth that emptied into the Pacific and had a relatively strong current following an afternoon downpour. It was helpful to know where we were going beforehand.

After the sun went down, it quickly got very dark. We decided to head back to the ranger station since it was likely to be several hours until turtles would arrive. We passed the time chatting with friendly rangers (some students of the Biological Institute), learning more about Costa Rica turtles and preparing our flashlights. Then we waited for a radio call from the beach. And waited. We were told that there had been many turtles on the beach over the past two nights and that the numbers might be dwindling given the moon/tide position.

Finally, we got word there was some activity on the beach. We followed our friendly ranger Eduardo, who led us to a pitch-black beach. Soon thereafter, we spotted a couple of large Ridleys. Keeping an appropriate distance and making sure we approached them from behind, we carefully observed them make their laborious way from the ocean. We were told they were very old and likely wouldn’t be laying eggs. We then walked for a long time, slowly leaving all the other tourist groups behind. It was 10:00 pm and our guide told us that we might have better chances of seeing more turtles later in the night, several hours from now…

While we were all wide-awake and full of adrenalin at the time, we knew that our children wouldn’t last that long. Just as I was wondering if we should turn around and leave, Eduardo spotted a young mama turtle a bit further down the beach. We followed her fresh tracks from the ocean and as we approached, we noticed that she just started laying her eggs!

Costa Rica turtles laying eggs at Playa Ostional

An Olive Ridley turtle laying eggs at Playa Ostional.

We quietly observed in stunned silence. It was incredible! The experience was so intimate and moving that our children forgot to breathe and I have to admit it brought tears to my eyes. But I wasn’t the only one crying… I had heard the expression “turtle tears” before, but finally understood what it meant. Toward the end of the process, as all the eggs were laid and the mama turtle started to fill in the enormous hole, we saw tears coming from her eyes that were reflected in the light of our red filtered flashlight. My heart was heavy with the thought that she would likely never meet any of her babies. Having covered her hole, she turned around and started to head back to the sea. We watched her reach the waves and then disappear into the ocean.

It turns out we missed the arribada by a couple of days, but it did not matter. Seeing just one turtle lay her eggs was an experience of a lifetime!

Things to keep in mind:

  • I recommend arriving at Playa Ostional in the late afternoon to: (1) enjoy the beautiful volcanic sand beach, (2) familiarize yourself with the area since you will be walking around in complete darkness and (3) allow for enough time to check in at the ranger station, get the permit to visit the beach and prepare your flashlights (see next point).
  • If you know you want to observe nighttime turtle nesting, remember to bring a flash light for each member of your family. You will only be allowed to use it with a red filter, but not to worry the ranger station will be happy to provide one for you.
  • There are very limited food choices in this area, so I highly recommend you bring food/snacks. We had a delicious picnic dinner provided by our hotel on the beach as the sun was setting, making for yet another memorable experience.

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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…

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