The Turtles Are Coming…The Turtles Are Coming
We look out on the sea on this moonless night and with the help of sparkling phosphorescence notice dozens of little black heads popping in and out of the waves. They are slowly but surely advancing our way, scattered along the horizon of black, volcanic sand. A unique and amazing spectacle of nature -the turtle armada has begun.
We found out about it from a local expat “turtle whisperer”. ” The Arribada has started on Playa Ostional and you don’t want to miss it. ” Literally translated, Arribada means Arrival. An Arribada occurs every month. During an Arribada, in a single night anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of sea turtles march heavily up the beach at high tide to conduct what can only be described as a mass nesting. Arribadas follow a lunar cycle of 3-4 days before a new moon. Countless female turtles begin congregating affshore several days before riding the high tide in to begin their nesting march to the same spot they themselves hatched years before. Over the course of the next few days as many as 500,000 mother turtles will dig nests along an 11 km stretch of Playa Ostional, a short drive from our temporary home in Costa Rica.
We chose to watch the turtles arrive at night. We did not want to wait for daylight and chance witnessing the attacks on eggs and hatchlings by predators. The law requires a local guide and we are glad we had Luis to help us find our way along the black beach in the dark. It was eerie to have countless turtles silently and slowly make their way past us in the search for the perfect nesting spot. Our own headlamps would have been useless – only official guides carry light on the beach and it must be red to not disorient the turtle moms.
Luis, our guide, is part of a cooperative of over 300 families that watch over the turtles and try to protect them from predators. It’s a tricky situation though, turtle eggs are thought to be an aphrodisiac in the native culture and highly sought after by Tico (Costa Rican) men. The local village has an agreement with the government of Costa Rica that allows collection of up to 5% of the first wave eggs (can easily be 850,000 in a large Arribada). The later batches of turtle eggs are left to hatch and hopefully make it back to sea.
Local culture has it that since females lay large clutches of eggs three times a year and male turtles overcome great adversity mating in the rough and tumble sea, turtles are sexually potent. Turtle eggs are highly coveted and bring big money to the village. Called the “poor man’s Viagra”, a Costa Rican man will eat 3 turtle eggs and expect to perform that many times the same evening.
As we watch, the beach becomes so thick with turtles dragging themselves up onto the beach to lay their eggs that we have to be careful where we walk. These are Moms on a mission. The digging of the nest 2 feet down and hatching of the eggs takes about 30 minutes. After hatching 80-100 golf ball sized rubbery eggs, the mom turtle camouflages her nesting site by flipping and pounding sand over the area. At the end it is impossible to say for certain where those eggs are hiding. We were told that 45 days from now those hatchlings will crawl their way out and try to make it to sea before predators catch them. It is estimated that only from that At the end it is impossible to tell where those eggs are hiding. We understand that 45 days later those hatchlings will crawl their way out and try to make it to the sea before predators catch them. It is estimated that only one out of 100 hatchlings will make it back to that same beach 15 years later for their first round of nesting. That is a lot of future nesting for a turtle that could live to the ripe old age of 65+ years.
Then all this quiet frenzy is over. We are speechless at the specter of countless large sea turtles dragging their exhausted bodies back to the sea; each step a struggle, their bodies not designed for this terrain. Their flippers dig into the sand and push, inch by inch, towards the ocean leaving distinctive turtle tracks, but well camouflaged and hidden eggs two feet below the sand. The poor moms look worn out as they take deep breaths and rest along the way back to the ocean. It’s taking every last bit of their energy to return home. We would love to assist but let nature do its thing.
As much as we detest the thought of eating those eggs that turtle mom worked so hard to deliver, the bargain that has been struck between the Costa Rican villagers and “their” turtles insures that this grand spectacle of nature will go on into the future.