Nesting Sea Turtles at La Playa Piratas

Daniel, our guide for the evening, picked us up shortly before dark. The group was small, just the two of us and two young women from Argentina. The night would be dark as it was broken cloud cover and the crescent moon would not rise until much later in the evening. We were off to search for the nesting Pacific Black Sea Turtles on the beaches north of Tamarindo.

Pacific Black Sea Turtle - photo credit Rosa Sandoval photoa available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

Pacific Black Sea Turtle – photo credit Rosa Sandoval – photo available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

We turned off the highway onto a dirt road rutted with washboards and after considerable bouncing and rattling about arrived at La Playa Piraticas. Daniel went ahead to scout for turtles coming ashore and our small group waited on the beach listening to the sound of the surf and watching the stars beginning to populate the heavens.  The white foam of the waves was interspersed with several massive rock outcroppings silhouetted against the night sky under the faint glow of the stars. A few fireflies flickered here and there, pinpoints of light in the night.

Daniel emerged from the blackness and quickly led us in a single-file walk south along the beach for a few minutes to where we quietly approached and spied upon a female turtle who had already dug a shallow, circular depression about six feet in circumference. She had selected a spot high up on the beach, near the encroaching trees, and could dig no further down for rocks and roots impeded her progress.  She continued to labor at the task for some time while we watched and then, exhausted, relinquished the chore and made her way awkwardly back towards the sea. We saw her enter the surf and a wave finally lifted her and restored her graceful movement.

Returning to the sea

Returning to the sea

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they've come ashore

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they’ve come ashore

We immediately regrouped and Daniel led us back north along the beach to find a second sea turtle whose black bulky form we had sensed, more than seen, arising from the waves when we had passed the spot previously.  We remained on the beach until Daniel, using his red light, scouted around quietly to find where she had decided to nest.  Stealthily we approached her, and remaining soundless and kneeling about two feet away to her rear watched as she created the circular depression for her nest alternating between her front and back flippers and pivoting  from side to side about the depression to make sure that the depth remained consistent.  It was fascinating to watch the intensity of her digging, flinging the sand out of the depression.  Although we were crouched a couple of feet behind her as she dug, we were splattered by several flippersful of sand on the face and body from her powerful efforts.

Once she had completed her digging of the circular depression, it was roughly 18 inches deep and uniformly level and compacted. Work then began on digging a trench which would be at mid-line of the rear of her shell and would serve as the repository of the eggs. Using her rear flippers she bore into the soft sand to remove and spread the material. With the trench roughly 15 inches deep, and with no further fanfare, she began laying her eggs.

laying the eggs

At this climax of the evening we found it necessary to relinquish our place at the nest after we hurriedly snapped a couple of pictures aided only by the guide’s red light. A government biologist, alerted by Daniel, came to take possession of eggs as they were deposited in the nest and transfer them to a beach where the danger of high tides exposing the nest to predators would be lessened.

It probably makes no difference that there is a taxonomic disagreement as to whether the Pacific Black Sea Turtle is a unique species, as some contend, or a subspecies of the more predominant Green Sea Turtle. The sad and sorry truth is that all sea turtles are endangered by extinction. Their dwindling numbers remain subject to depredation by natural foes such as land crabs, raccoons, gulls and other shore birds but thus it has always been. Man’s voracious appetite, along with habitat depletion, threatens the turtle’s existence. It was with this sobering reality that we savored the night as we watched the eggs, loosed from the mother’s body, fall into the sandy cavity of the nest designed through the millennia as the hatchery of the turtles.

 

 

 

 

 

By Richard and Anita, June, 2014

 

28 comments

  • What a magical experience. I was so glad to see you had a guide that was sensitive to the situation and the eggs are removed for greater chance of hatching. Impressive photo with so little light!

  • wow! such a cool experience for you guys!!

  • What a great experience for both of you, and it sounds like you were in the company of a responsible guide as well! Awesome!

    • Having a conscientious guide actually made our experience better because, while he took extra care to make sure we didn’t infringe on the turtle’s space and disturb it he also tried to make sure our experience was enjoyable. And we could leave knowing we’d witnessed something truly remarkable without leaving too many footprints!

  • I’ve heard about the sea turtles at Tamarindo before, but your description made me feel like I was actually there. It’s on my bucket list! And that baby turlte is too cute!

    • This was actually one of the things we’ve been trying to do since we started traveling but, as you know, so much of travel is about timing, opportunities and downright serendipity. So, we can cross it off our list but that doesn’t mean, should the opportunity present itself again, that we won’t jump at the chance!

  • Wow, fabulous, i’ve never seen the black sea turtles, those are quite rare…that image with the eggs is so well done, love it

    • We had never heard of the Pacific Black Sea Turtle before we came to Tamarindo and there’s actually a debate if they are a separate species altogether or a subspecies of the Green Turtle. Whatever they are, it was fascinating to see them nest and we were quite pleased with our photo of the eggs. Your compliment means a lot as I’ve seen the quality of your work!

  • What a fabulous experience –
    We have turtles in the Bay here off Brisbane, Australia – When we go out kayaking we watch their heads pop up for air and occasionally in the shallows we can see them swim past us just below the surface –
    But I’ve never witnessed a hatching as they go a little further north to do that –
    One for the bucket list :)

    • We were lucky enough to be snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii a few years ago when four green sea turtles were in the area and it was amazing to see how graceful they were underwater. I can imagine how fun it is to see the turtles in Australia and watch them swim by. You’ll definitely have to put the nesting sea turtles on your list.

  • How amazing to see these creatures in their natural setting!

  • Michele Peterson

    What a rare and special privilege to be able to witness this natural wonder. I’m so glad to see your guide is using a red flashlight on his tour, part of responsible tourism. In many beach zones, people are literally loving sea turtles to death with huge crowds of observers armed with flash bulbs, flashlights and video cameras disturbing the nesting process so much that the female turtles return to the sea with out laying they eggs. Near Puerto Escondido, the population of olive ridley turtles is on the rise and it’s now possible to see an arribada — 5,000 turtles raring ashore in one evening. However, larger turtles such as the leatherback are still endangered — mostly due to getting caught in longlines of fishing fleets in the Pacific. A beautiful post!

    • We also were glad that the guide used the red flashlight and was especially careful to make sure that we did not disturb the nesting turtles in any way. He was very conscientious and would caution us to stay back and remain silent. Seeing two turtles come ashore was more than we had hoped for and I could only dream about how awesome it would be to see an arribada. Maybe someday…

    • Yes, ain’t that the truth, Michele. Too often campaigns in support of different wildlife causes are launched without thinking of all the consequences as in the case of bright lights on a dark beach that inhibit the turtles from doing their natural thing. Thx for the heads-up about the red lights. And thanks to Anita for the terrific post.

      • Richard was very involved in the turtle recovery volunteer program on Padre Island where we lived (before we became nomads) and public contact with any of the nesting sea turtles is STRONGLY discouraged for just the reasons you mentioned, Doreen. We were both excited to be able to witness the turtle laying her eggs and also to know that the guides are acting as responsible wildlife conservationists.

  • The turtles have such a beautiful marking. My niece lives on the pacific side of Mexico and they are also going to extra measures to protect their endangered turtles too. This work is very heartening for saving the planet’s species.

    • We first learned about the sea turtles and the efforts to protect the species when we lived on Padre Island in Texas. The Kemp Ridley turtles nest there and the Island has a very active turtle recovery program.. Volunteers (including Richard) patrol up and down the National Seashore looking for turtle tracks and nests and alert the biologists who will recover the eggs, put them in incubators and then release the hatchlings back to the sea. Extraordinary work!

  • Such an amazing experience – it’s almost like they are in a trance. I’m so happy that so many folks work to help sea turtles – we used to live on St. Croix and when a hatching happened, everyone would pitch in to be sure the babies made it to the ocean and away from the roads. We’ve seen bars cleared, traffic stopped and buckets especially stored in vehicle trunks come out for the cause!

    • We lived for 10 years off the coast of Texas near the Padre Island National Seashore and were lucky enough to see an early morning turtle release of the hatchlings. It was quite moving to see the little creatures scramble for the sea and volunteers waving streamers overhead to keep the seagulls from swooping down and carrying them off as well as deterring the ghost crabs from snatching them.

  • They are precious – especially the babies! I’m sorry to hear that they are endangered like so many other beautiful creatures. I’m really glad something is being done to help and protect them :)

  • I’ve always thought this would be a really interesting experience. Aside from the eggs washing away, isn’t there a concern for other animals getting to the eggs as well? Those baby turtle photos are super cute.

  • We’re so glad you enjoyed this post, Maida. Seeing the sea turtles and watching one lay eggs has been a high point of our Cost Rica stay, especially since Dick was an active volunteer with the Kemp Ridley sea turtle recovery program when we lived on Padre Island. I hope you and your granddaughters have a chance to see this, too!

  • This a most wonderful article and beautifully written. I sent it to my teenage granddaughters who will love it. They have visited CR 2x with me. Thanks

    Maida

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