The Great Turtle Hunt!

Tortuguero National Park is the most important sea turtle nesting area in the western hemisphere and each year from July through October mama turtles come from as far south as Brazil and as far north as Florida to lay eggs on this 22 mile beach. And, since we were there in early October, we were advised that we could sign up for a night visit to the beach to witness this miracle of nature. So, of course, we signed up. Just because we signed up, though, did not mean we would be approved. The tour was to begin at 8 pm, shortly after dark. If we were approved to go we would be notified at 5:45 by a sign placed in the office window. So, at the designated time, we nervously approached the window. Yay! We were in!

So, by now you are looking around this blog post and perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Where’s the pictures?” Well, there aren’t any (hardly). Here’s why:

Tortuguero Turtle Rules

You will need to click on this to read it.

Nor surprisingly, some years ago tourists got wind of this miracle of nature and fell over each other and the turtles trying to see it. Even worse, before then hunters killed the turtles for soup. So, only recently has the government stepped in to stop all this foolishness. In the national park these rules mush be followed. So, no cameras or cell phones. You actually have to go and just look. What a shock to the system!

To set the scene for you, here is what the beach looks like in the daytime:

DSCF6146

Somewhere down there is where we were, probably about where the fog starts.

So, anyway, a group of about ten of us met a little before 8 pm at the lodge where we met our guide. He was not one of the lodge staff, but a specially trained guide from the national park. He led us to our boat and off we went into the night. I should mention something else about our group. Included in the count were these two children and their parents:

DSCF6583

The girl, I would guess was maybe seven and I doubt that the boy had blown out his fourth candle. Later, when I complemented their mother on how well they managed on this somewhat difficult trip, she said that this was their reward for being good. That was how much it meant to them.

So, anyhow, we’re out on this river and there is not even a hint of moonlight. The only lights at all are the running lights of the boat. We round a bend and there is now another lodge in sight. We pull up alongside it and the first thing we hear is a loud dance music! So, I’m thinking maybe the band is going to be dressed up like Mutant Ninja Turtles and this is all some kind of elaborate hoax.

But we soon were snapped back to reality. This was only a place to disembark. Once we were of the boat our guide said to stay together, keep quiet and follow his light. Then off he goes in to the darkness.

We were soon well past that lodge and winding our way along a path, sort of, through the bush and the trees. The guide was the leader, of course, and he directed his flashlight behind him to theoretically light our way. Well, he lit the way of the first three or four, but the rest of us, farther back, soon found ourselves tripping over tree branches and who knows what else. We yelled at him to slow down and eventually he got the idea that he had lost of few. Then he asked if anyone had a flashlight and the family with the two kids did. That helped.

We continued on like this for maybe twenty minutes, although it seemed longer. All of a sudden we found ourselves at some kind of park entrance with fence around it. Our guide told us to wait while he went and talked to the park rangers. A quick glance around revealed that there were maybe five or six more groups like ours standing around waiting. Well, he starts talking to a nearby ranger and while my Spanish is not exactly fluent, I could tell by the volume and the tone that this conversation was not going well. In time, though, the guide came back and told us it would be a while before we could get out to the beach.

So, if you read the rules above (there’s still time), you may have noted that, once you are in the park the rangers are in charge. In addition, there are people who roam the beach, called spotters, and they are the ones who find the turtles and report back the location. And, the beach is divided into five “bases”.

Anyhow, we are waiting around killing time and I started up a conversation with the guide, a very nice guy really. At one point he said he loves Costa Rica and it’s a wonderful place to live, but it has its share of problems. I asked him what he considered to be the worst problems. He gave two answers, which I will reveal in the next and final chapter of this blog.

Well, all of a sudden the walkie talkies start cracklln’ and we are off! This time we are joined by somebody from the park. He and the guide start up another Spanish conversation and, once again, it seems a bit more passionate than the situation calls for. We wind our way through more trees, but this time white lights are forbidden. Both our guide and the park guy have red flashlights. But, they are not making a race of it, so we are able to keep up. We eventually end up in a clearing, at the edge of which is another path to the beach. The park guy goes down the path while we wait, with one red light remaining. We wait about fifteen minutes. The park guy does not return. Instead there is more crackling of the walkie-talkie. When the conversation is over our guide says, follow me.

We walk down this clearing for about twenty minutes till we come to another trail. The guide stops and says they think they have a turtle. He is going to check and make arrangements to get us there. His last instructions were, “Stay here!” Off he goes.

So, here we are, 10 people including two small kids, out in the forest on a pitch black night, left alone. As you might imagine, most of us saw the humor in this situation. In our various travels Dianne and I sometimes find ourselves saying, “You know, I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, but I never (fill in the blank).” This was one of those occasions.

After about another fifteen minutes, all of a sudden we see a red light. Our guide has returned. They had found a turtle. We were on our way!

Once again we were winding our way through bushes and trees, but this time we soon found ourselves on the beach. This is not South Beach, though. There is plenty of driftwood, coconuts and other stuff to trip over. We wound our way through these things, then suddenly the guide stopped.

Now here we were surrounding a square hole larger than a card table and about two feet deep. Down in that hole the red flashlight revealed a very large sea turtle. For her, the egg laying process was done. Now she was covering the eggs with sand. I happened to be right behind her and can testify that she could throw sand in high volume and considerable force. Our guide estimated that she was about three and a half feet long and probably weighed about 300 pounds.

Green sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean. Every two years they come down to Costa Rica to lay eggs. And, while the ladies are onshore, depositing roughly a hundred eggs in the sand, the gentlemen are swimming about a mile offshore, smoking big cigars and playing cards. Where they learned that kind of behavior no one knows.

So, we watched our turtle throw sand for a while and the kids were getting quite a kick out of it. We all were, of course. Suddenly the turtle decided she had done enough and began to crawl out of the hole. Even though it was plenty deep, she had no problem getting out. She took a look around, found the ocean, and began her journey back to the sea. After she cleared the hole we followed along behind her. The guide insisted that the kids follow immediately behind her and we all filled in behind them. Of course, it would have been that way had the guide not said a word.

Here is a Google photo that comes pretty close to what we saw. Just imagine it all dark and the turtle red.

Well, it was an incredible thing to witness. As she pushed her way through the sand, she left little plow marks. In just a few minutes she made her way to the surf. She didn’t even slow down. The waves covered her and she was gone. We all said our goodbyes and wished her well. Hopefully, though unlikely, she didn’t even know we were there.

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