As Costa Rica‘s rainy season (“green season” in tourism terminology) intensifies, peaking in September and October, tourism slows to a crawl. Though the warm and jungled beaches may not be packed with sun lovers, however, the huge tropical moon shines over a far older migration.
For more than 130 million years—since Central America was an island archipelago and dinosaurs ruled the earth—mother sea turtles, who spend most of their lives at sea, have climbed laboriously back to the beach where they were born. Between the ages of about 15 and 45, these lovely ladies will lay several clutches of eggs each year; perhaps one in 5000 tortugitas, or hatchlings, will reach adulthood.
Six of the world’s eight species of sea turtle nest in Costa Rica, the most famous and photogenic of which is the olive Ridley. These smallish sea turtles arrive by the thousands in arribadas (“arrivals”), which cover Nancite Beach in Santa Rosa National Park and Ostional Wildlife Reserve day and night.
More independent ladies do make solitary nests elsewhere on the Pacific Coast, including Playas Caletas, Estilleros, Hermosa, Nosara, Matapalo, and Camaronal. But “mass nesting is nature’s way of ensuring that after the turkey vultures, feral dogs and raccoons have eaten all the fresh eggs they want, there will be enough left over to produce a sustainable population,” as John Burnett explained to NPR.
Arribadas occur six or seven times each year, between June and December, and last about five days apiece. Though these are traditionally predicted according to lunar cycles (and tour operators who’ll invariably tell you that the turtles are “arriving tonight, for sure!”), most scientists and park rangers rely on reports from fishermen, who see gathering groups of turtles in the water.
Other species of sea turtles visit Costa Rica throughout the year, including endangered leatherbacks, or baulas, the world’s largest reptile and among its most threatened. These nest in rapidly dwindling numbers on Pacific beaches between September and March, and Caribbean shores from February through July. Even rarer are hawksbills, harvested for their beautiful shells, which are used to make illegal jewelry; they nest primarily on the Caribbean between May and January.
Green turtles, though hunted for meat , still arrive in great numbers to Caribbean shores from February through July, most famously to Tortuguero National Park, home of the venerable Sea Turtle Conservancy, and isolated Parismina, where they are monitored by Save the Turtles. Smaller numbers nest from March through September on the Pacific Coast, primarily Playas Naranjo, Cabuyal, Carate, and Río Oro.
Though sea turtles ruled the seas for millions of years before the first human walked upright out of Oldavai Gorge, their numbers have fallen fast over the past 30 years. Despite the ready availability of Viagra (sildenafil), and strict laws against harvesting the eggs (except at Ostional Wildlife Refuge, with a limited legal take), poaching continues. It has worsened in recent years due to growing popularity among Chinese men, who suffer from erectile dysfunction so severe that some pay more than US$100 per egg.
There are scores of sea turtle conservation programs around Costa Rica and the world that need volunteers to patrol beaches and protect these threatened nests from poachers. Prices and facilities vary widely; as with all volunteer programs in the developing world, it’s worthwhile to do online research before committing.
Even if the poaching miraculously stopped, however, sea turtles face many other threats. The meat, a traditional favorite throughout Central America, is also illegally harvested, particularly on the Caribbean Coast. Global overfishing not only depletes their food supply, but also entangles them infishing nets, where they often drown. If turtles accidentally consume plastic, which resembles tasty jellyfish, they also may die. And global warming scientists worry because baby sea turtles sex according to the temperature of their nest; if the sand hits 32°C (90°F), all newborn turtles will be female.
The reason why Costa Rica has become a leader in sea turtle protection, despite their traditional use of eggs and meat, and rising prices paid by unfortunate Asian consumers, is because of tourism. Travelers willing to pay for tours and volunteer programs have offset lost income and inspired local conservationists, in Costa Rica and beyond. Thank to their success, there are now sea turtle protection programs in Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador and around the world, all seeking to save the species and earn a decent living while doing it.