Spotting Sea Turtles

Rainforest is reflected on the silent waters of one of Tortugeuro's many water channels.

We set off at 8pm with Roberto (our guide from Casa Marbella) and two other guests. It was a short, dark walk to the beach front of Tortuguero. From here on it would be a 15 minutes to 2 hour walk before (if!) we spotted anything. We stumbled down the dark beach, banging into logs and debris, tripping over rocks and walking in the surf by the light of the moon and stars overhead. Lightning was striking the horizon, lighting the beach front up temporarily, allowing us to spot turtle tracks in the soft sand leading from the surf to the back of the beach. The sky was alive with a million stars – all seemingly visible with the naked eye. Roberto stopped to highlight turtle tracks, leading lines from the water to the foot of a palm tree – alas, the occupant had been and gone so we continued onwards.

The brief sea breeze offered a moment’s release from the harsh humidity of Costa Rica. I paused to enjoy the moment,  a pleasure that lasted just seconds, because any pause would allow sand flies to start feasting on me. Slapping myself silly I pressed onwards, always scanning the immediate horizon for turtles and tracks.  Every 5 minutes or so we’d stop to do a group count and ensure we had not lost anyone on the way.

Our eyes frantically scanned the shoreline – we were to look out for black spots in the surf. This I found incredibly difficult – not only because my glasses kept steaming up in the humidity, but also because I had no comprehension at all as to how big these spots should be. I’d never seen a wild sea turtle and had not idea what to expect. I knew I’d be looking for either a giant bulk or a minute blob on the horizon, but did not know which and I was therefore next to useless.  I was informed to look for a black spot about 1.5 m long, moving faster than you might expect for a turtle. I tried and tried and tried….

The shoreline was dotted with hundreds of seemingly phosphorescent speckles, which I think were shells reflecting the incredible starlight overhead. If I was not so obsessed with turtle spotting it would have been a very romantic moment. We stopped suddenly – a red light flashed twice in the distance. This signalled to us that another group had found a turtle. More lights flashed and my heart skipped a beat. A shooting star flew overhead and my pulse rate soared – this could be it! We pressed on in the direction of the light, picking up speed and tripping over flotsam and jetsam with alarming regularity. Nothing else seemed to matter but crossing the now shrinking distance between the turtles and ourselves. This could be my first ever wild turtle sighting!

We arrived at the light source some 7 minutes later, battered and bruised. It was a female turtle who had emerged from the sea. A tense 10-15 minutes followed whilst we wondered a) what to do b) what to expect. We were informed that once turtles emerge from the surf they spend about 10-15 minutes combing the area to assess its suitability for nesting. At any point they can turn back and head into the surf at an alarmingly fast rate. It was therefore crucial that we did nothing to disturb her and that we remain at a respectable distance. The suspense was palpable – our untrained eyes could see nothing in the dark, no artificial lights were allowed and we had no idea how close she was and what she was doing. I bounced around like a woman possessed, fighting off the biting sandflies and fanning myself in the incredible humidity.  My fidgety patience was rewarded with good news – she’d started to create a nest! From here on it’d take 20-30 minutes for her to complete the nest and start to lay her eggs.  We therefore settled down and waited, admiring the glorious  night sky. I asked our guide question after question, eager to manage my expectations of what we might see once she started to lay eggs.

Whilst waiting, we jostled with each other for position, crouching, standing on tip toes, doing anything we could to try and make sense of the shadows and catch a glimpse of the nesting turtle. Despite my eyes adjusting somewhat, I still could not make out anything.

After a further 15-20 minutes of waiting we heard a frantic shout from one of the guides – he’d tip -toed back towards the nest to assess her progression and she’d gone. Defying her bulk, she’d picked up speed and was heading back into the surf. We ran over towards the tracks and saw her heading back into the water by moonlight. She was so beautiful. Her bulk was tossed back and forth by the choppy surf as she struggled to migrate from beach to water. Moonlight reflected off her shell and she could be seen for 30 seconds or so before she was consumed by the water and slipped out of sight. That was my first ever wild turtle sighting!

Not to be deterred, we turned and hiked to the next set of flashing red lights towards a Green Sea Turtle who’d been on land and nesting for over 30 minutes. We made it just in time to see her lay her eggs!

4-5 groups had gathered to watch so we formed a single line arching around the horizon of the turtle, everyone eager to have their 5 second views of her laying the eggs. Turtles go into a trance when laying their eggs so she was (thankfully) oblivious to our presence. One by one we inched forward..my heart was racing and my glasses were steaming as I stumbled closer one foot at a time, tears forming in my eyes in anticipation. We were given one beautiful and brief moment with the turtle. Gently holding back her flippers, I saw her lay 3 eggs into the nest, where another 50-60 eggs had already been laid. I shed another silent tear- it was a magical moment.

Walking slowly away I reflected on all the people at home who I know had wanted to see turtles laying their eggs, and vowed there and then to share my experiences with them on my return.

Turtles can lay 130-150 eggs in one night, so we subsequently got a second chance to see her lay more eggs before she woke and started to camouflage the nest with sand, using her flippers as shovels. For a brief moment we got to see her wide eyes as she surveyed the crowd present, so we then stepped back into the distance to allow her to continue in relative peace.

It was then that the volunteers moved in to record and measure the turtle.  It seemed necessary but undignified for the turtle. We watched as her huge flippers flicked batches of sand in the eyes of the volunteers as she frantically tried to camouflage her nest. They worked as quickly as they could but fumbled a lot and the whole scenario seemed somewhat dragged out. It’s then I realised the value of professional conservationists and vowed not to become one of the well-being, (albeit teenage), uninformed and unaware volunteers.  I hoped with all my heart that the turtle would break free soon.

From our vantage point we could see the turtle cover herself and the nest in sand. We stayed for maybe another 10 minutes or so,  but then our 2 hour limit was up and we had to retire from the beach. We started the long walk home with huge smiles on our faces, walking in stunned silence. What a night. So many emotions, so many memories.

You are forbidden from taking photos on the turtle walks, so I am afraid I have no specific turtle photos to share. However, photos from Tortuguero are available in our Costa Rica gallery. 

 

 

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