Sunday, October 3, 2010
I apologize in advance for the vast number of turtle photos that accompany this post. But, oh, how I wish you could have been there!
Saturday mid day we were thinking about heading to the beach, when we got a call from another new family. Want to go see the turtles? Of course we do!
Just north of Nosara is a town called Ostional, home of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge where tens of thousands of marine turtles come to lay their eggs. This mass nesting behavior is called an "arribada," and is unique to a few species of marine turtles, primarily the Olive ridley. Ostional is famous for hosting the largest arribadas of Olive ridley turtles in the world. The best time to catch an arribada is during the rainy season (have I mentioned that it is currently the rainy season here?), at night, and during specific phases of the moon. Several weeks ago, Ian and Sadie and I tried to drive to Ostional to see what we could find out about the arribadas, but quickly discovered an enormous river blocking the road. Clearly we would need some help seeing the turtles.
And help arrived yesterday.
About 10 of us (a few teachers from school, another family with three kids, and an extra kid from the neighborhood) piled into a couple of cars and drove to where the road meets the river. We parked and walked across a narrow hanging bridge to the other side of the road. Once there, a large open bed truck picked us up and we drove into Ostional, hanging onto the sides of the truck and admiring the lush countryside.
The trucked dropped us off at what appeared to be the porch of someone's house, site of the "Local Guides Association." In Ostional, the local community has gotten very involved in conservation of the turtles. I'm sure there is more story to the story than I have figured out so far, but from what I understand the national conservation agency has worked with the community to set up a system where the community members are allowed to harvest a certain amount of eggs at the start of an arribada (in part because subsequent turtles will dig up the nests of the first turtles when laying their own eggs and once the eggs are dug up they will not survive to be hatchlings). In return, the community protects the turtles, cleans debris from the beach, patrols night and day for poachers, flushes birds and dogs, and guides tours. Visitors may not go on the beach without a guide during an arribada.
So we paid $6.00 each ($3.00 for the kids) to be accompanied by an extremely knowledgeable local woman as our guide. She gathered our group together for some basic rules (don't cross right in front of a turtle arriving at the beach because she might get confused and not come in to lay her eggs, don't get too close to the sides of a turtle because the shells are sharp and you could get hurt, and...well, that was about it). Normally, we would also hear lots of rules about not taking any pictures because the flash disturbs the turtles but, for some reason, this arribada was happening in the daytime. We would be able to really see the whole beach and we would be able to take pictures!
And take pictures we did. I can't describe how amazing it was to stand on a nearly empty beach among thousands and thousands of turtles, some heading to shore, some laying eggs, some heading back. Looking towards the ocean, you could see masses of turtle heads poking out of the water as they made their way slowly with the waves to the beach. Because it was still light out, we had the pleasure, the phenomenal experience, of being able to look down the entire beach full of turtles. The sight was so surreal, so unlike anything I could ever imagine, my mind struggled with comprehending that I was actually here, in this spot, seeing what I was seeing.
The turtles themselves were massive. And exhausted. And determined. They labored up the beach slowly, pausing occasionally to breath deeply, then plunged on ahead to find the perfect egg-laying spot. They seemed to pay no heed to the people walking among them, so focused on their mission they were. When they find the perfect spot, they dig a hole, lay between 70 and 120 eggs, pack the sand back in the hole, and turn around and go back to sea. The entire process takes about one hour. More, said the guide, if a turtle is particularly old or hurt (we saw a few missing flippers).
The beach was covered in eggshells and even whole eggs from previous turtles that were continuously being dug up by this batch of egglayers. Vultures waited in the trees, dogs paced along the road, everyone waiting for their turn to eat the uncovered, now doomed, eggs. The kids were concerned at first, wanted to rebury the uncovered eggs, but after being assured that they wouldn't survive, their concern turned to curiosity. Guess who was the first to crack one open in her hand. Part of me was unnerved by the site of kids cracking eggs that a turtle had just laid with so much effort the day before, another part was reassured by the open curious nature of kids and the hope that this experience may help pave the way for six more scientists.
When it began to rain in earnest and the kids' excitement and curiosity morphed into hunger, we walked back along the beach and piled into the truck. We rode back to the river in the dark and pouring rain, watching fireflies light up the adjacent fields.
It was an amazing experience. I wish you could have been there. Perhaps you can join us in November to watch the hatchlings race back to the ocean.