Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Our Costa Rica Gift Of Happiness: Day 7, Turtles On A Mission

Deb: Just when we thought the trip couldn’t get any better, we were told by our concierge that there was to be a turtle hatching in Playa Ostional Wildlife Refuge this morning and that we could go and experience this wonderful hatching in person. We set out at 5:50am! Yup.

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)


  1. That is .... beyond words. And I'm just sitting here reading your descriptions and drinking in the phenomenal photography. It must have been so much more affecting actually being able to witness it.
    This is why the love of nature is so deeply ingrained in me - the sight of everyday miracles that are even more astounding when you take a closer look.

  2. I agree...I am at a total loss of words...
    What an amazing experience for you all to witness and to be so kind as to take photos and videos to share with all of us!
    Simply Beautiful.

  3. Just sitting here bawling my eyes out and repeatedly whispering, "Oh, my God." In the good way.

  4. Sharon (Ariel) ReineJanuary 11, 2012 at 12:06 AM

    Pat Conroy devotes an extensive section in his book "Beach Music" to the birth of baby loggerheads in South Carolina. a very "Circle of Life" moment. Your photos really help visualizing this incred Nature moment.
    Here's a quote. "Leah every time I see this, I feel i've discovered G*d all over again."

  5. They are so cute and even me a non animal lover couldn't help but be captured by your stories today. Safe travels home.

  6. I am still "awwwwwhhhhhh"ing here !!!! :D
    lol...I was wondering i was a little geeky because i like watching wildlife documentaries (as long as it doesnt include any hunting and killing).... the moment i started reading all this.. i was like..."hey ive seen this on National Geographic once".....and then Barb you said it.....thank god I have company :D lol...I mean you guys wrote everything...and each line i read i went "yeah....right...yeah i remember that...thanks to NATGEO"
    The turtles are so cute ..... TICO.. teeheee.....Deb thanks for the great name !!! (and i read your comment on the last post...Yes you looked very elegant getting on that horse :P !!!)
    Loved the pictures....Phil...AMAZING WORK !!
    And the best one...the one where the turtle in hidden below that wave....Phil youve outdone yourself this time !!!...it looks like a blanket not even a wave....i mean...its awesome.....the best picture ever !!!!
    And whoever clicked that picture of Phil taking a video.....amazing.....that is sucha great picture !!!!
    But i loved them all.....cant wait for the videos !!!!!!
    And yeah....I am very JEALOUS of you guys that you got a massage (and Deb I am more jealous of you because you got a 2 hour massage)
    I felt better when i read Colin didnt get one i was like ...YAY!!! company.....but when i read "After ten minutes, massage irritates me"...I was like BA DOOM BA !!!!!! But seriously...I am jealous of the rest of you (Sorry, Colin I couldnt resist)

    Anyway.....you guys had a wonderful time...ofcourse....And thanks for a Real Costa Rican experience...delivered at home !!! You guys have a safe journey back home....(Please tell me you guys are thinking something like Harry said in the sorcerer's stone "I am not going to home..I am going from home !")
    We are waiting for the videos...Man you guys are gonna have the "COSTA RICA HANGOVER" for a long time....I know I will...!!!!
    LOVE YOU ALL xoxo

  7. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!
    More wildlife happiness! The beginning of their lives at the beginning of the day. Turtle poetry... Turtlstoy? Nah.

    I'm glad someone had their hand on the sand at some point. (Phil, was that your hand? Good job if it was. Great shot if it wasn't.) A description of how big something is is one thing, but to see the actual comparison and perspective is quite another.

    How bad am I that, as they're heading to the ocean, I'm thinking, "Flippity flap flippity flap"? I mean, I know they ARE, but Jeff Davis has nothing to do with it!
    Good luck, little guys!

    Safe travels home for all of you! xx

  8. So, ummmm, click on my name. If you want. No biggie. Just, ummm, yeah, I link again. Whatever.

  9. That is sooo cute! Go little turtles!

    Pictures are awesome! What an experience!

    *hehe* When I first saw the pic of you all staring into the sky, I thought: Wait? Did the turtles just fly away?

    Sorry...I'm still dizzy today...

    Uh..monkeys...I don't like monkeys.

  10. wow those turtles must be tough little animals to survive being born like that that . i hope as many survive as possible .

    i love the look of the monkeys in the trees . i hope you did'nt stand directly underneath though, a friend of mine got rather heavily crapped on doing something similar !

    that bamboo massage sounds wonderful too .

    i can imagine Costa Rica being your favorite holiday spot for some time to come . thanks for sharing it all with us .

    finally don;t forget to have a safe journey home .

  11. Wow. How awesome. Good things to look at before a first long day of classes.

    Wishing for safe travels home! :]

  12. This makes my heart smile. :)

    I am so beyond happy and glad that you all had an amazing time in an even more amazing place. I pray for your safe return! :) As for me, I'm off to a full day of classes (my LAST semester, to be exact). Cheers and hugs from Kentucky!!!!!!!

  13. Love following your adventures Deb . Never expect to go to these places so I am living through you. Keep up with lots of pictures they are my dreams LOL Look forward to every days stories Peggy

  14. Oh my gosh, what a moving experience for you all. I would have been crying watching those little guys struggle for their life, and to get there and have to float at the top for awhile as bait.....:(
    You have shared so many moving experiences in one week, I am so happy you loved Costa Rica. Have a safe trip home, and at least it is still somewhat warm here and your re entry won't be in a blizzard!!
    Thank you for a great trip!!

  15. Hi all, we are about to do our five hour drive to San Jose so we don't have time to comment except to say that we are thrilled that you are thrilled by our thrill. Wonderful stunning experience!!! xo

  16. omg I love turtles, they are by far my favorite animal. this is a treat indeed. I just melted when I seen them. still melting as we speak . thanks for posting. this made my day

  17. Beautiful. Amazing. Inspiring.

    What a wonderful experience that must have been. I too got a bit watery-eyed reading your post and then seeing the pics (well done, Phil, yet again).

    Dawn, when I read your comment about flippity flap, I laughed out loud! I totally get that! You know, one could make a music video using that song (Jeff Davis and Chip Esten, of course) and these pics and the video that the ladies have and it would be fantastic!

    I'm with Colin on the massage thing, I just never really liked the whole idea. Glad 3 out of the 4 of you enjoyed them though. Deb, 3 again...I guess it really is your lucky number!

    Have safe travels home, all!


  18. I have enjoyed these posts and updates so VERY much - thank you all for taking the time to be so giving in this way. I am from Canada near Toronto, and I just thought I'd add that at least you won't be in shock from the weather when you return - it's almost as warm here as it was where you are!!!! HA! Safe travels home!

  19. Truly this was a trip of a lifetime. To get to see the baby turtles begin their lives by struggling out to sea. I almost cry when I think about how many don't make it.
    Thanks for all of the marvelous photographs and lovely narrations. I felt as if I had been traveling alongside you.
    Don't forget to pick up our souvenirs on the way out. I'd like a silver baby sea turtle pendant please. :)
    Have a safe trip home, free of car sickness.
    Hugs & Hugs (yep, I ran out)


  20. What a wonderful end to a wonderful sounding trip, thanks for taking us all along with you. Happy and safe travels home!

  21. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    *tackle hugs*

  22. Happy happy bday Dawn. :-) hope its an amazing one for u

  23. What a trip you've had. Thanks for all the posts and sharing. Safe passages home!

  24. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

  25. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday Dawn, happy birthday to you! Hope you have a good one!
    Deb, Barb, Phil, and Colin, I am so glad you all had a good trip. Safe travels home!

  26. Please, God, get them home safely. Please, God, get them home safely. Please, God, get them home safely. Please, God, get them home safely. Please, God, get them home safe. Ad infinitum.

  27. Hi, Glenda here, While I still have my wits about me , I will comment now, because today I have a bad allergy and need to take an allergy pill called “Allegra” which means happy, so I will wait until I finish this before I take the happy effect. I´ve enjoyed yet another day of your adventures. You were so lucky to have been there when the babies were hatching. It is also an awesome sight to see the Moms´ by the hundreds , emerge from the ocean and make their way to the nesting area to lay their eggs. You must return to see that, especialy the huge baulas. Your visit to Costa Rica, and your recounts of the daily events has made me realize that I am very fortunate to live here and have endless opportunities in the palm of my hand. Weather I am able to take advantage of that or not , for whatever reason, is an entirely different matter but needs to be solved. The point is… it´s here and so am I and as my late father said to me, need to “ let go” of all my deceased family Mom, only brother, and now Dad, and make new life experiences and memories. I am in the land to do that and your blog with photos of your daily adventures, smiles, laughter, seeing you enjoying new experiences in Costa Rica, and even peoples comments recomfirmed my Dads´words. Maybe I should take this as a sign from beyond. Enough… I need to take the allergy pill Allegra. My face and eyes as swollen and probably my brain. So wonderful to see all of you marvel over simple things and so happy you could experience the birth and struggle of the baby turtles!!! Hate to see ya go! Love everything about the blog . ¡Que Dios le acompaña en su regreso! Come back soon. ADIOS!

  28. For months I've been reading your blog...enjoying every post.
    Initially it was to share, with my late sister during her illness, the
    experiences of fellow Canucks in their 'middle ages'...she, an expat in Cognac, France and me in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, the realization by both of us in her kitchen in France last summer that, Deb, you are Debbie McGrath of Sir John A. Linda and I, and my other dear, late sister, Elyse, went to school with you and I was in "Guys and Dolls" with you, albeit as a lowly "Hot Box" girl. I suppose this is where I should say, "I knew you when...". Great memories. Anyhoo...enough of old home week.

    My family has loved Costa Rica since our first stay at a remote ecolodge near
    Corcovado on the Osa peninsula, Marenco. Your recounting of your voyage and the wonderful pictures are a comforter in my day and are helping to take me out of the darkness that was 2011. Pura vida indeed.

    Thank you for taking the time in your busy lives to keep up this gem of a blog.

    Safe trip home.

  29. We'll get back to you all tomorrow (after a good night's sleep), but had to wish Dawn a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!
    xoxoxo Deb and Barbara

  30. Thanks so much, ladies! Glad you're all home safe! Now get some sleep! xoxo

  31. Why bother burying the dead babies? They are meant to be the nutrients for the predators - and wouldn't letting them snack on those e keep them distracted from the healthier ones?

  32. Responding backwards from here (seems easier...): Pam, that is an EXCELLENT question. Wish I'd thought to ask that when we were there. I will say this, the volunteers burying the dead turtles in our little pack were all teenagers -- and they were marking it with a cross. I don't know if this was something endorsed and encouraged or simply done in the moment. It is very emotional. If I get a chance, though, I will try and ask this question.

    Dawn, mwah! Arlene, I read your comment to Deb while we waited for our luggage last night and we were both just so delighted: first that you found us and read, and secondly, that you finally realized you have this lovely real life connection to Deb. Welcome!!

    Glenda, it is wonderful reading your comments and knowing you were so close in proximity to us. It was great reading your perspective. I hope you'll keep weighing in as we finish our Costa Rican travel diary, and after that when we start talking about completely unrelated stuff -- you are a TMA friend!!

    Lana, thanks and welcome!!!

    Rigel, congrats on starting another blog!! Love this idea and it looks great!

    Dawn and Steph, flippity flap, indeed. Would make an awesome song (and dance ;) ) And Turtlstoy? Brilliant.

    Holly and Kelly, thanks for being here. Kelly, hope the lousy root canal is better!

    BEcki, that's funny! And I forgot to mention, these are howler monkeys. Very small for the hugely loud sound they make.

    Lyndsie, I'm glad we could make your heart melt with the pics -- can't tell you how often our hearts melted in real life over there.

    Shalaka! Yes, Costa Rica hangover -- in that I want more hair of the dog!! I miss it madly!!!

    Madge, thanks! And Sharon, I would LOVE to hear that music. I imagine it's incredibly powerful. Kelly from NJ, Rigel, and of course our lovely new reader, Sarah! Yes, moving beyond words. Will never forget it.

  33. Read this last night returning from Book Club - of which, Barb is a member! We like to call it "The Best Book Club in the World!" We had a wonderful discussion about your blog and how much fun we were having reading it. Your posts, pictures and humour have been wonderful. My son and his girlfriend went to Costa Rica last year and loved it. I have entered the contest you suggested because it looks like somewhere we would LOVE to go!

  34. Hey Diane! Yes, the best book club in the world!!! Thanks so much for posting this comment -- makes me sniffle. Love you all!


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