Playa Camaronal, Costa Rica – A few years ago, somebody gave us this children’s book that follows the life cycle of a hawksbill turtle, Tammy the Turtle: A Tale of Saving Sea Turtles, by Suzanne Tate. The story tracks Tammy from the day she hatches on the beach, along with 100 brothers and sisters, and makes her way to the sea. Tammy has many adventures, and the story ends when Tammy finally returns to her natal beach to lay her own eggs in a sandy nest.
Last night we had the chance to see this story unfurl in real time, when we took a Turtle Tour with Carillo Tours
A few years back, Daddio and I had seen the leatherbacks nesting in Trinidad, and it was truly one of the most amazing natural phenomena that I have ever witnessed. I hoped to share a similar experience with the twins (one of the very rare circumstances that I agreed to keep them out so late). Unfortunately, the leatherbacks nest only during the darkest nights of the month (the week before the new moon) so we missed it by a week. But the olive ridley turtles nest in lesser numbers all month long, all year long.
The tour left around 7pm, more than an hour after sunset so it was already dark when we set out on the 30-minute drive to Playa Camaronal. The boys entertained themselves by looking at Christmas lights. About halfway there, we had to do a river crossing, ie, we drove through the river, which was also exciting. The tour was off to a good start.
Camaronal is a black sand beach with absolutely no development, so no artificial lighting, which is how the turtles like it. We did not even use flashlights; instead the guide had a special red light that would not deter the turtles. This also meant that the sky was filled with stars–more than the twins had ever seen before. The new moon cast its glow on the ocean, lending an eerie luminescence to the crashing waves. It was really beautiful.
I’m not sure the twins appreciated this too much, as they were already tired by the time we arrived. But they hung in there, waiting patiently while we strolled up and down the beach, watching for a turtle to come ashore. Volunteers patrol the beach, salvaging the nests as soon as they are laid and moving the eggs to the protected nursery, where they are safe from poachers and other animals. Raccoon are the primary predator, but local villagers also steal the eggs to sell them for big bucks. (Apparently, turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac.)
Anyway, the presence of the volunteers meant that as soon as a mama turtle had dragged herself up on the beach, the volunteers alerted our guide, who gathered us around to watch the amazing show. The twins had a front row seat, as she used her back flippers to laboriously dig a hole in the sand and then deposited her ping pong ball-sized eggs in the hole. We could actually see the eggs drop out — somewhere between 80 and 120 of them. Apparently, the turtle is in a sort of a daze at this point, so she doesn’t mind having spectators.
When she was done, the guide invited the children to gently push the sand over and help her fill the hole up. Then she took a few extra minutes to push some leaves and branches over the nest to camouflage it, before slowly making her way back to the sea. The whole process took about 40 minutes and the twins were engaged at every step of the way.
Then we learned that one of the nests in the nursery had also hatched that night, after some 55 days of incubation. Another volunteer brought down a big crate of tiny turtles–76 survivors from one nest–crawling all over each other to get out. Turtle hatchlings confront their biggest threats between the nest and the water’s edge, so the volunteers give them a ride down to the water’s edge to send them on their way. She gave the kids a few minutes to look (but not touch!) up close, before gently tipping the crate over and letting the little ones scurry off to their uncertain future.
¡Buena suerte, tortuguitas!