It was 2009 in Costa Rica that we saw sea turtles in the wild for the first time.
I remember the exhilarating experience of exploring this country. We had quite a few “firsts” on this trip. Seeing active volcanoes, the Pacific Ocean, wild monkeys and HUGE spiders in person. Being in tropical rain and cloud forests. The new to us scenery and the beauty that surrounded us just took our breath way.
By the time we arrived to Ostional, hoping to see the turtles lay their eggs I could not believe how incredibly lucky we have been to have these experiences. We were there in person to see something we have just previously read about and seen on TV.
It was an absolutely beautiful, but sobering experience.
I could have never imagined the emotions these turtles would bring upon me.
Witnessing their hard work coming up the beach, pushed by instinct. Digging holes, laying their eggs in a trance and disappearing, absolutely exhausted back into the dark waters.
I know witnessing natural selection can be hard, and we expected birds and other wildlife get their share of the eggs, but seeing packs of the local dogs decimating nest after nest was heartbreaking. What was even worse was the human greed and short sightedness.
As people fell on the nests taking them apart, looking for the bounty they brought to them, momentarily satisfying their next meal, the promise of money being made left my heart heavy.
A lot has changed since and more progress is being made as we realize some of these resources are not unlimited.
Long traditions are fought by many as we try to override man’s instincts for instant gratification and trying to protect those scarce resources for future generations at the same time.
Fast forward many years as we travel with our little guy, roam schooling him, exploring together. A bit late in the season for arribada (the synchronized, large-scale nesting of some species of sea turtle) my beloved in search of this experience for our son, combed the nearby beach towns for sanctuaries to visit and maybe allowed to volunteer at. The promise of the upcoming full moon and lunar eclipse hinting its sliver of hope for the last of the season’s females coming ashore.
Talking to locals has given us much invaluable information that can not be found in guide books, FB pages, so we set out to check one of the beaches mentioned.
As we picked up fresh produce and fed a late lunch to our growing boy a passerby good naturally commented on how far we were from home. You would be surprised how often our NJ license plate sparks a conversation.
Our discussion turned to the turtles of course and we learnt about the blood baths that used to take place at the local beaches only few decades ago. People in masses descending to take what nature provided for “free”.
Witnessing the horrors, some foreign visitors offered guidance and their business expertise to the local communities. Harvesting the healing properties of the indigenous plants a cosmetic “factory” was founded. Different cooperatives were formed to help support a tourism based economy helping to reduce their dependence of turtle meat and eggs. Next the conservation efforts were started.
On a whim, we drove further on to check out somewhere where these conservation efforts seem to have worked out quite well.
We ended up at Escobilla. Where the local people formed a cooperative to protect the nests and release the hatchlings, harnessing the money brought via tourism. To our surprise they said upon our inquiry that they were releasing olive ridleys that night if we just waited a little bit.
Our guide appeared with a shallow bowl and presented it to Ziggy, who shone with excitement being trusted to carry the small treasured creatures to the beach. Soon she drew a line in the sand and instructed us to release them. Taking their time to make note of the beach, it’s sand, slowly their journey began. The approaching waves reviving them, their instincts quickening the little flippers towards the water.
When unexpected experiences happen it’s hard to come down from the high it leaves. To our unmeasurable surprise, we were granted entry to the enclosure where the eggs were protected and the nests waited for the sun and time to do their magic.
To top this experience off we were there just in time to see some of the newly hatched turtles slowly emerge from the sand. They dug their way up from the depth to see the world around them for the first time. One nest held leatherbacks, (the largest of all living turtles) their eyes closed, all concentration focused on inching, easing themselves through the sand. At another nest Olive Ridley turtles were doing the same. No matter what creatures, witnessing a birth is a cathartic moment.
Being a mom it deeply left me with so many major feels. Thankful to have seen this miracle with my own offspring.
After some time the sobering reality caught my eyes. Instead of taking them to the beach straight away, these little creatures are stored, waiting for the tourists to arrive and pay for the right of releasing them by the water.
Leaving me in turmoil. Instead of slaughter they are show pieces. Conversation starter for sure. We debated; Are they still better off? I think so.
Protected from the hungry wildlife on shore, we are providing the money to help conserve these species (with a slight detour in their journey to be a part of our experiences).
They numbers have been increasing, so it seems that the conservation efforts have been working.
Traveling smacks you in the face with so many big questions.
While the little guys paddle out to sea and disappear to begin what’s called “the lost years” hopefully someday returning to these same beaches as adults to lay their own eggs, I feel I go down the rabbit hole of questions and possibilities regarding our experience. Hoping to re-emerge like they do with clear answers myself.