Can We Save An Ancient Race? Costa Rica Ecotourism And Sea Turtle Preservation

She was barely fifteen as she silently laid offshore in the tropical balmy eastern Pacific  off a very small beach often called Ostional in a land which, five centuries before, Christopher Columbus had named “Costa Rica”, the “rich coast.”  

She was an olive ridley sea turtle.

And soon, our lives would come together for a few short hours and I’d have a Costa Rica ecotourism experience of a lifetime. 

The practically day after day afternoon tropical rains  had ended as the sea turtle continued to wait expectantly. The moon was in its last quarter and, although she would never know why, it was having an effect on her, just as it had for thousands and thousands generations before her.

As it has done for billions of years, the silent celestial body was passing majestically in its seemingly eternal phases. Although she could not appreciate it, powerful but unseen appeared to be attracting this particular olive ridley turtle to a beach where she had hatched. She wasn’t alone. At the outset, two or three yards from her, another Pacific sea turtle rested alongside her, then a third, followed by a few more, then hundreds, thousands, now tens of thousands of  marine sea turtles. For more than 100 million years it had been thus: huge coming ashore of one of the world’s oldest animals, culminating when the celestial satellite was in this phase.

Life is always magical. Merely a handful of months before, this particular turtle was swimming in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean more than 2,500 miles from this beach. And the thousands now waiting in the same bay with her were scattered through more than a million square miles of sea.

Despite the fact that there was enough food way out in the Pacific, something had started to wake within her. Thousands and thousands just like her experienced the same timeless compulsion to return to Costa Rica. They, and she, were all paddling back again to exactly where they had first crawled the beach.

Now, many months after something inside spoke to her, she waited in the gentle light just a couple of hundred meters from her destination. She had swum so incredibly far and yet now the silent voice which previously had brought her to this moonlit beach told her to delay. She was anxious. Over the several weeks and thousands of miles she had swum she had come across several male olive ridley sea turtles in the immense azure tropical sea waters and several had bred her for the reason that, like her, they also were encountering something unseen, a primeval stimulus. No matter what it was, it was so compelling that her kind had been coming back to Ostional Beach since before the earliest dinosaur.

Throughout the tropical night this little ocean turtle seemed to be waiting. She had mysteriously found  the same beach where she had first crawled to the sea. We have no idea how an olive ridley sea turtle finds the precise beach where she began life. There are only a few nesting beaches on earth and they are not very large. In truth Ostional Beach is only a few hundred meters in length. Today part of Costa Rica’s Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, it is believed by many to be the most important olive ridley marine turtle nesting site in the world.

Astonishingly, in 1995, the year this turtle first crawled the beach, perhaps up to 500,000 female olive pacific sea turtles had found their way ashore to nest here in enormous numbers. These amazing invasions are called “arribadas” —which loosely means “they are arriving”— and more and more tourists are witnessing them during their Costa Rica vacations.

Unfortunately, our sea turtle’s mother will not nest at Ostional this year. For the last two decades, her mother had joined gigantic Ostional arribadas annually and she would have done so yet again except that she drowned in a shrimping net lacking an internationally required turtle release device. Long-line fishermen killed thousands more in what’s euphemistically called “incidental catch” almost completely avoidable with the aid of using bigger hooks. Untold thousands perished needlessly from ingesting plastic bags.

Needless to say, the thousands of olive ridleys just offshore understand none of this. As we look out over the water in the pale moonlight, there are now so many that it almost seems a person could walk on their shells for a mile or more. All of us stare in awe at the pure magnitude of God’s creation.

They have no idea or understand that they were on earth long before the first Tyrannosaurus Rex. They also have no idea that we are waiting for them to come ashore so that when they lay their eggs on this tiny wildlife refuge,local residents will legally raid their nests and collect many eggs from the first nesting turtles in return for protecting the rest of the clutches and preserving their kind.

They also don’t know that they are endangered and that their future rests on people like you and me.  Or that, like their endangered cousin, the Atlantic green sea turtle, Costa Rica ecotourism  at Tortuguero Park and other Costa Rica marine turtle preserves, may be saving their ancient races from extinction.

They only know that this is where they are meant to be.

Finally, as quietly as they first appeared beyond the surf, as soundlessly as they had gathered, as patiently as they had waited, they start to arrive ashore.  One turtle, a second, dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands—even more than that–lumber onto the sand and nest.

All night, all day, day after day in a spectacular display of life. As eternal as the moon itself.

Arribadas!  They’re arriving!

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