Magic in the moonlight
Sea water streaming off its back, the moonlight giving it the appearance of mercury, the silent figure continued past us, intent on its purpose. And I felt tears running down my face.
As a child I had been fascinated by a television programme that documented sea turtles swimming thousands of miles to return to the beach where they themselves had hatched, to lay their own eggs. The story was followed to its conclusion – the eggs eventually hatched and the beach was filled with thousands of tiny hatchlings all valiantly trying to make their way to the water, programmed by the same genetic ‘software’ that would one day bring those that survived to adulthood back here again. The tragedy that then ensued, as great crowds of seabirds swooped, picking them off one-by-one, reduced me to tears, as did the narration which informed me that even those that made it into the water had barely any chance of surviving the predators that awaited them.
And now I was standing on a beach in Costa Rica, watching the first part of that story unfold before me and I found it immensely moving. The beauty and dignity of the adult female green turtles, their shells well over a metre in length, was stunning. The silence of the night and the watching small crowd was punctuated by the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the moon lit up the trail left by the turtle, looking like tractor-tracks in the wet sand.
Our guide called us in a whisper over to a site about 20m away where sand was flying into the air. “Don’t get too close or you’ll get hit”, she warned as we gathered to watch another turtle. This one had finished laying her eggs and was now busily disguising the nest, her large flippers scooping sand over the eggs and filling the large crater she had dug and positioned herself in to lay dozens and dozens of eggs.
I’d imagined that this would be a gentle process but it was anything but. That sand was flying with considerable force and you could hear it clattering when it hit driftwood or fallen coconuts. It was a mesmerising site. This beautiful, endangered creature doing all she could to protect her eggs and give the offspring she would never see a chance of at least hatching out.
The next two hours passed as if in a dream, punctuated by excited whispers as more turtles arrived and crawled out of the sea, some half-flung up onto the beach by bigger waves. Occasionally a red light would wave and we would head over to where another guide was indicating that they had found more action, either a turtle disguising its nest or one laying eggs.
Watching the eggs being laid was clearly deemed the hot ticket of the evening but I kept missing the key moment. Most turtles lay dozens of eggs – as many as a hundred in one clutch – but the first ones we saw had either nearly finished or had only produced a small number of eggs and, in each case, I barely caught a glimpse.
We had left Evergreen Lodge in Tortuguero National Park at 8pm that evening. It was already dark and the short boat journey that took us to the shore of the lagoon was itself magical, the lights of the village we would visit the next day lit up, giving us glimpses of bars and restaurants and people socialising. Then the boat pulled up and we all disembarked onto sandy ground. The boat headed back to the lodge and our small group, the guide at the front, made our way for a few minutes through the dark forest, with small torches helping us avoid obstacles.
Dressing for the occasion
As instructed, we were all dressed in dark or neutral clothes. It’s important not to wear anything that could catch the turtles’ attention. When they are actually laying their eggs they are in a sort of trance, but before that they can be distracted and are likely to abandon their nest and head back out to sea. Our guide pointed out several large craters in the sand which indicated that exactly that had happened at some point.
Phones and cameras are banned on the trip and I was pleased to see that everybody seemed to have adhered to that. It would have been so tempting to whip out a phone and start filming or taking photographs, but that would have produced just the distraction the turtles didn’t need. Also, it was so much more real, so much more intimate, to simply be in the moment with these beautiful animals, rather than focusing on them through a viewfinder or a screen, distracted by thoughts of how many ‘likes’ the pictures would get on social media.
Torches are also forbidden once on the beach itself, so we were fortunate that the moon was full and the sky clear. The guides have torches with red beams. These are less visible and distracting to the turtles but are only shone on the back of the animals, never on their faces.
Time was now passing and the boat would be returning for us shortly. The guide was conscious that some of us hadn’t seen the magical egg-laying moment and she was as pleased as we were when another turtle was found, mid-stream, so to speak.
The eggs came out in quick little spurts, several at a time. We probably saw two or three dozen in a minute or two. They fall about 30cm onto other eggs from the same batch. All are soft-shelled at this point, so are undamaged by the fall.
It was amazing to see and I felt strangely protective of the life that would develop within those shiny, soft white globes, about the size of a golf ball. I wondered if any of the hatchlings would survive to make it into the water and, if they did, if any would return to this same beach in decades to come and lay their own eggs.
Gentle, vulnerable giants
The moonlight allowed us to really appreciate the size and beauty of the adult females. Green turtles reach sexual maturity between 20 and 50 years of age, so some of these ladies had been at sea for half a century, travelling thousands of miles from here, before making this journey. They will lay several batches of eggs this season.
Their heads are large, their flippers chunky and powerful. Yet you are also painfully aware of how vulnerable they are. They can’t pull their heads in and, in the days when they were hunted for meat, they were a horrendously easy target.
Turtle hunting stopped decades ago in Costa Rica and the turtles and their nesting sites are now protected – there are over 40 of them in the country. The Costa Ricans are immensely keen on protecting the environment and, as our guide put it bluntly, once it became evident that the turtles were worth more alive than dead, even those who once made their living from catching and killing these gentle giants accepted that it was a thing that belonged in the past.
Marine turtles are still vulnerable of course, whether it’s from being accidentally caught in fishing nets or from pollution such as plastic. And, once outside the protection of Costa Rica, these turtles are vulnerable to hunting. The turtles who nest on Tortuguero will head out to various feeding areas in the Caribbean, with many making their way to the waters off the coast of Nicaragua. Turtle hunting is now illegal in Nicaragua but illegal hunting takes place and more than 10,000 are killed each year.
“It cost $40 per person for this tour and it was worth every cent,” I heard an American guest murmur – a sentiment I concur with. The money goes towards turtle protection and conservation.
The whole experience was a ‘bucket list’ item for many of us and it was every bit as fantastic as I had hoped.
Watching the eggs being laid was indeed great but, for me, the most beautiful and moving moment came when we watched one female, her eggs laid, her nest successfully disguised, make her way back to the water. As she trod her solitary path, her shell now dull in the moonlight thanks to its coating of sand, I thought of her journey back to this, the Costa Rican beach of her birth, brought here by that mysterious inbuilt ‘sat nav’, and of the journey that now lay ahead of her. When she got to the edge of the water she stopped, letting the waves break over her. She must have stayed there for a couple of minutes and then a much bigger wave arrived, tossing her up into the water as if she weighed nothing. For a second it looked as if she was going to be washed back onto shore but then the water receded, taking her with it.
Our last glimpse was of a dark head before she slipped beneath the moonlit waves and began her long, lonely journey as her eggs lay sheltered beneath the sand.
Responsible sea turtle viewing
To learn more about this fantastic experience, and how you can do so in a way that minimises the impact on the turtles, read Brad Nahill’s feature on our website.
Track the turtlees!
Since 2000 the Sea Turtle Conservancy has been satellite tagging some of the turtles who nest at Tortuguero, and you can follow their epic journeys on the Conservancy’s website.
Where else to see them
Costa Rica is a fantastic place to see the sea turtles. Tortuguero is renowned as the place to go – it is the most important nesting site for green sea turtles in the Western hemisphere – but there are plenty of other options such as the Papagayo Gulf, Nicoya Peninsula and the gorgeous Osa Peninsula, which has lodges such as Casa Corcovado, ideally situated for turtle spotting. Many of our Costa Rica holidays include beach stays that could involve turtle tours – and we can always tailor-make one to your precise specifications to give you the best chance of seeing these wonderful creatures.
Brazil’s Praia del Forte, close to Salvador, is known for its turtle project, with the Tivoli Eco Resort an ideal base.
The Galapagos Islands are a great place to see turtles. You won’t see them nesting, as they do this at night when visitors aren’t allowed onto the islands, but you are likely to see them when snorkelling.
Moving away from Latin America, lodges on Pemba Island in Tanzania can provide access to turtle nesting on Misali Island. The bare-foot paradise of Fundu Lagoon is a fabulous base for this, while the luxurious Manta Resort even has an underwater bedroom. Imagine watching shoals of fish and other marine life – including sea turtles – swimming past your bedroom window!
Turtles tours are also offered in South Africa. The St Lucia Wetland Park on the KwaZulu Natal coast is a world Heritage Site and a wonderful spot for seeing leatherback and loggerhead turtles nesting. You can take turtle tours from lodges such as Thonga Beach and Kosi Forest Lodge.
The Tribes blog brings you regular articles written by our specialists, travellers or partners and conservationists in our destinations. We have a big collection of articles now, so have a mooch to find some interesting short reads.Explore more
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