Following the Turtles in Costa Rica

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Once, during a presentation I participated in as a part of an environmental activity, we had to introduce ourselves and talk about the animal we identify ourselves with.


I felt a little bit like a sea turtle that just hatched of its egg and was heading towards the beach. Nothing stops that turtle, they just want to move forward and reach the sea.


Quite specific right? But that’s how I felt, and above all, that’s how I felt in 2003, when I was in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and in Panama for two months.


As it happens, my objective was to find sea turtles and in the process of doing so, I became one of them; nothing was stopping me: I walked on deserted beaches, I got lost in the mangroves, I visited the beaches by night, without any flashlights and I was alone…


I really adored being in Costa Rica; it’s a small country, so diverse, however, when it comes to its natural environment, with so many friendly people and easy to travel around in. I really felt free, confident and surprised by its high biodiversity every day I spent there.


I started my trip with visiting my friend Maria and her husband Memo in Córdoba. She was doing a master’s on the subject of birds and they were also owners of a bookstore and coffee place where we spent several nights together with their friends from all around the world.


July and August are the arrival months for turtles to lay their eggs on the beaches. On some occasions, there were so many turtles arriving at the same time that they didn’t have enough space or they would crush each other’s nests.


With Maria, we visited the Tortuguero National Park and since she knew everyone there, they let me be a volunteer for a night. Being a volunteer is a long-term project, but they made an exception and I was able to spend the night walking around the beach to make sure that no one harmed the female turtles that came to lay their eggs, nor stole these eggs.


Also, there was a research project to identify the turtles that were arriving, many had metal tags put by other researchers so they had one of their legs and on their shell.


After much struggling, the first green turtle came out of the sea, made her nest and laid her eggs and covered them before going back to the sea. There were also several tourists with their guides that were able to witness it.


However we had the privilege to see everything very closely, check the tag number and count the eggs. The females were very focused on their duties, they didn’t have the time to pay us any attention… as if they were in trance.


I found out which beaches were the best to witness arrivals and I tried to visit several of them. One of them was a beach called Ostional, a little village with a large pristine beach inhabited by a large number of crabs and black vultures.


I arrived by hitchhiking since there was no transportation and I tried to go out at night to see if the turtles arrived but I didn’t have any batteries in my flashlight and there was no light outside and I had nobody with whom I could go out with.


That night was one the few during which I felt very lonely. I had nothing to read, I couldn’t receive radio waves, there was no TV, the people from the hostel I was staying at were out… So I decided to walk a little bit and sleep very early without seeing the turtles.


Another main beach was Nacites, in the Santa Rosa National Park of Guanacas. I stayed at the park a few days and ask a special permission to be able to visit the beach. It was only accessible for the students in the master’s program in Vida Silvestre that my friend


was part of and for other researches. It was located at approximately 25 km from the rooms I was staying in. They explain me how to get to the beach, because there was a path going through the mangroves where many crabs lived and though hills… not very clear but I still left. I walked all day, met only two people that confirmed me that I was on the right track.


I arrived in the middle of the search, I met the students I already met on other occasions and decided to stay there and sleep there even though I had only brought a pareo. Luckily, they lent me a mattress and offered me other things to eat. However, I was not able to see any turtles that night but the walk was an unforgettable one nonetheless.


The next morning, we went back through another way. At some point, we had to go down a cliff of 98 feet (30 metres), only hanging from a little rope and supporting myself on the rocks with my feet while some of them went rolling down and falling off the cliff… I was really scared, I felt teardrops dropping as the young man who indicated me where to put my feet was scolding me for not doing exactly what he said.


I had a hard time glancing down the rocks, and felt the urge to turn around and sit down, which only caused me to rip my pants and feel even more embarrassed.


Finally, we reached the ground, I went back my camp by truck and – like a turtle – I resumed my travel towards my next destination.


During this trip, it wasn’t only the turtles that I dedicated myself in pursuing… but also black howlers, capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, common iguanas, birds, and marine wildlife. I spent so many hours watching fish while snorkelling that I felt like I was a fish myself.


I returned to Montreal several pounds lighter, very satisfied about my experience and happy about seeing turtles, even though they made it difficult for me. My search continued…a few years later, I saw some while swimming in Bali and in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.


I grabbed one when it was swimming close by and the divers had told me that the turtles enjoyed being petted, so we were able to swim together for a little moment.


What I didn’t see unfortunately was a leatherback sea turtle, the largest of sea turtles, which also travels towards Costa Rica and also unfortunately is under threat of extinction. One of the reasons why that is the eggs are being illegally collected, as they’re eaten and considered as having aphrodisiac properties.


Some day, I will dedicate my time into finding one leatherback turtle on the beaches since I have more chances of seeing them and tell you all about these giants of the seas.


And as for me, I’m still moving forward at the pace of a little turtle towards the sea, but unlike one I’m going more towards animals, to see them and help them as much as I can, and that is my sea.


Author: Helena Arroyo

Amelie Delobel

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