Experiencing a Turtle Arrival in Playa Ostional, Costa Rica

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It’s 5 a.m. and the sun is rising over thousands of sea turtles on the beach at Playa Ostional in Costa Rica. We crouch behind one of turtles — a giant olive ridley sea turtle — as Maria Aviles quietly digs a small hole, revealing the interior of the turtle’s nest. While we watch, the turtle releases a ping pong ball-sized egg, which drops atop her previously laid eggs. This wasn’t on our itinerary. It takes luck to see an arribada, or turtle, arrival. 

I’d already enjoyed a week-long stream of ziplining, kayaking, river tubing, and hiking. But the previous day, our charismatic naturalist guide Marco Fallas had said we might be able to see a massive turtle arrival — if we got up at 2:30 a.m., drove for two hours, and managed to cross two rivers with banks that fluctuate with rain. How can you say no to that?

Turtle eggs have long been a source of protein and cash for people living on the Costa Rican coastline. Not only has eating turtle eggs been a normal part of life, but some people believe the eggs provided something extra. “They call these sea Viagra pills,” Fallas said. In 1966, Costa Rica made it illegal to eat, buy, or sell turtle eggs. So the poachers moved in. 

The situation on the beaches remained tense until 1984, when Basilio Vega Figueroa and other local elders formed Asociación de Desarrollo Integral de Ostional, which created guidelines around collection and protection of turtle eggs. Together with conservationists and University of Costa Rica researchers, they devised a compromise allowing townspeople to collect turtle eggs for the first 36 hours of an arribada. Ostional is now the only place in the world where there’s any legal egg harvesting. It’s still a controversial practice. Locals also make money guiding. Turtle tours range from about $20–$60 USD per person. 

“My grandfather started with the project,” Aviles tells us in Spanish, with Fallas translating. “That’s why it’s in my heart. It’s a very sustainable eco project for the turtle eggs.” 

Townspeople harvest less than one percent of the eggs the turtles lay, she says. As turtles arrive in waves over the course of three days, they find a spot and dig a nest — often disturbing the nests of turtles that came before — then swim back to sea, leaving their approximately 100 eggs behind. “They’ll be digging in the same place where the first mama came on the first day, and there will be eggs flying all over the air. And then the ocean, with the high tides, that’s going to be washing out a lot of the nests,” Aviles says.

I’m not a turtle biologist, but as I stand on the beach, what Aviles says makes sense. Eggs litter the shore, some oozing yolks. I’ve never seen so many happy vultures, and even local chickens and roosters are sauntering along the beach, seeking eggy snacks. The stench is overpowering. And this is only early in the second day. Despite the smell, it’s incredible to be up close to these massive turtles, watching their tranced-out faces as they lay their eggs. We even see a few tiny hatchlings trudging through the sand, looking for the sea.
Many countries have opportunities to witness turtle hatchings and many also showcase their programs to protect these endangered sea turtles. “For olive ridleys, Costa Rica and Mexico are amazing,” says George Shillinger, executive director of the conservation nonprofit Upwell Turtles. Tortuguero, Costa Rica is known for green turtles. “It is an amazing place to see green turtles swimming in near-shore habitats and resting on beaches,” Shillinger says. “For leatherbacks, Trinidad, Gabon, Pacuare, Costa Rica, and Juno Beach and Jupiter, Florida are great places.”

Read more dispatches from around our pale blue dot:

For more info on sea turtles, read “Mexico’s Playa Viva Enlists Visitors to Help Protect Sea Turtles.”

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Teresa Bergen
Teresa Bergen
Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based author who specializes in the outdoors, vegan and sustainable travel. Her articles appear in many publications and she’s author of Easy Portland Outdoors and co-author of Historic Cemeteries of Portland, Oregon.

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