We were in transit with Eliot and Mindy, a lovely couple from Allentown, N.Y., who proved to be fun, kind, and interesting people. After a half-hour drive, we arrived at the ocean nursery in time to see the little turtles poking their little turtle heads out of the sand. We fell instantly in love. Just to give you perspective, they are no bigger than the palm of my hand.
Volunteers lined the shore digging sandy paths for the turtle sojourn and keeping predators at bay. Vultures circled and lurked (as vultures are wont to do), but to no avail. The humans rallied to the tiny turtles’ defense as they made their way to the sea. Some too weak or tired died along the way and volunteers buried them in the sand. But oh … the ones who made the trek were little champions, instinctively moving toward the tide that would carry them out to their ocean home to start the second part of their minutes long life.
I really do not have the words to express how sweet, how moving, how humbling, how miraculous it was to see nature at its complicated best. It is something the four of us will never forget as we rooted for our wee charges.
Barbara: It’s so true: words can’t really capture how extraordinary this experience was for us. Not just the actual reality of witnessing it, but even the anticipation before we went. When I was growing up, my dad preferred documentaries to regular TV—much to my adolescent dismay—but all those episodes of Wild Kingdom and National Geographic specials must have winnowed their way into my soul because I’ve become an adult wildlife documentary geek. So after years of watching docs on turtles, I was completely verklempt at the possibility of watching an honest-to-goodness hatching and water “migration” in real life.
These little hatchlings—and the gorgeous photos (thanks, Phil!) do not capture how truly tiny and vulnerable they really are (I mean their heads are about the size of the tip of my baby finger!)—emerge once a month (their parents having journeyed here to lay their eggs on the full moon nights) to make the treacherous journey from nest to sea.
The turtles are considered delicacies and were once fished almost to extinction until about 25 years ago when they became protected by the Costa Rican government. After these measures were taken, their numbers did rise sharply, although it seems they’ve recently plateaued—probably due to the changing acidity of the seawaters (hello, global warming). It does bear reminding each other that conservation methods DO work. So well, in fact, that the locals are now allowed to take a certain number of eggs each month for breeding (to eat).
By the way, these are Olive Ridley turtles, but leatherbacks and greens also nest here. Volunteers ward off predators as they aim for the water (and we 4 guarded our fair share of hatchlings this morning), but the real epic travail comes once they make it through the waves into the open water because they must skim the surface for 5 days before they can submerge to safer depths. Sharks and seabirds and fish await these tasty, helpless treats. Sadly a mere one out of every thousand turtles makes it through alive. Which is why we need to protect the babies on at least the first part of their precarious journey.
The babies that emerge after 9am can be scorched due to the heat off the sand, so volunteers gather these later hatchlings and put them into pails of water, protecting them from the sun until about 5pm. At this point, they’re released from the nesting area to find their way into the sea. We were told two theories for why they need to be released from the higher sands: 1, that they may need to build their muscle strength and coordination before they hit the water, and 2, (most likely) that they need to tune into the Global Nesting Position, or GNP (um, okay, I just made that up), during the trek to the sea in order to key into where they will one day be returning to nest. Which will be in 15 years. One volunteer described the amazing experience of helping National Geographic’s yearly turtle count during the time when thousands of turtles arrive on a full-moon night (sometime in June or July) bearing fluorescent seaweed on their backs, then wading to shore, nesting with audible outtakes of breath (like loud sighs), eyes literally weeping, and then loudly and rhythmically drumming the sand over the eggs with their fins. So there’s my next wish-list ecological adventure!
Phil: It’s a good thing we humans don’t have to endure the same right of passage as these poor sea turtles. Just imagine babies dropping onto the floor of the maternity ward and having to somehow make their way home on their own. We’d be extinct by now. Looking at these tiny little turtles through the lens of my camera, it struck me how alone they are with no one to guide them.
Colin: It’s like getting art funding in Toronto. Ba doom ba!
But all joking aside, it was an amazing display of fortitude and courage.
Deb: We set our hearts and compasses on one little turtle who I named Tico. I cannot honestly say that the group sanctioned that. However, we followed this feisty little fellow from birth to sea, tracking his every crawl, and it was so heartwarming. He was a mover and a shaker, turtley speaking. On a mission was this little guy. He hit the sea like a pro.
But our last little turtle (who we named Scott, for Ridley Scott) sadly had more than his share of challenges. He slept in and as a result missed the high tide. His best efforts were thwarted by the receding waters and our friend, Mindy, finally lifted his tiny self up, fins flapping, and carried him out to sea. As we left, we were hoping and praying that one of our little guys will be that one in a thousand.
Barbara: In other news, we had a glorious last day here by the pool, eat eat eating and sipping healthful tonics. Deb, Barbara, and Phil finished the day with 90-minute bamboo massages. Deb’s massage turned into two hours. Colin did not want to partake. As he said, “After ten minutes, massage irritates me.” We finished our time here with another delicious Costa Rican meal and a lovely Chilean red and are now going to bed, happy and rested. A big thank you to the heavenly Harmony Hotel!
PS For those of you who want more info about our hotels or tours or experiences here in Costa Rica, you can find the links by clicking on any of our posts that feature bolded blue typeface. This different typeface always indicates a corresponding link!
Deb and Barbara: In the next few days we’re going to post videos of our trip that were too tough to download here, including wonderful footage of Tico, Scott, and their buddies as they fought the odds. So please stay tuned for that.
You can still enter to win your own Gift of Happiness here at the Facebook site.
|At the Turtle Reserve -- full moon setting....|
|...as the sun rises. Volunteers gather.|
|Eggshells litter the beach. A lone vulture lurks.|
|Phil taking video.|
|On the drive home with Mindy and Eliot, we see a tree full of monkeys!|
|Walking (and shopping) the little town outside The Harmony.|
|Lunch! (tuna poke, mmmmm)|