The prospect of seeing a sea turtle in the shell was close. The expectation had been building in my head for months: visions of these fascinating creatures surrounding me on a rugged beach in the tropics, illuminated by the stars above. I was lucky enough to volunteer with these animals, in a bid to learn about the natural world and do my small part to protect it. The time had come. The beach I found myself on was Ostional, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica, a long stretch of grey volcanic sand more suited to all things wild than to the whims of sun-tanning tourists. The waves here are powerful, giving rise to dangerous rip tides that can drag even the strongest swimmer to a watery grave. Life is abundant, from tiny octopuses in the rock pools that form at low tide, to crocodiles waiting patiently in the murky water of the lagoon.
It is also a prime location for sea turtles, hosting the second largest ‘Arribada’ in the world. An Arribada, meaning ‘arrival’, is the synchronised nesting of thousands of turtles over a few days, a rare phenomenon that is considered one of the wonders of the natural world. In Ostional they happen every month, so if you want to see a turtle this is not a bad place to start.
Stepping on to the beach was like entering a wasteland, full of the scattered debris of trees and plastic washed up from the ocean. Shards of broken eggs were everywhere, ripped to shreds by opportunistic predators. Black vultures hopped around on the egg-encrusted sand like they were dancing on the graves of their enemies. The sheer quantity of eggs was astounding- there had to be turtles nearby.
Seeing one up close was like travelling back in time. Their shells looked weathered and prehistoric, olive tinted with a light dusting of sand. Their dawdling pace stood in stark contrast to the hustle of the world around them, and they took long pauses to breathe before trundling on. The Arribada was in its final days, and so the nesting mothers I saw were mostly handicapped stragglers who had arrived late to the party. Some were missing chunks from their shells from an altercation with a hungry shark or a fishing boat. Others were short a flipper, desperately hauling their great mass up the beachfront with diminishing strength. All the while, vultures pecked away at the flesh beneath their shells, and wandering dogs dug up their nests. Still, these stoic creatures moved forwards, determined to lay their eggs.
There was another problem. The tracks in the sand came not from turtles but from hundreds of human feet. The beach was full of tourists. Sunglass-donning Americans skipped around en-masse, adding an air of insincerity to this important natural event. Some crept close to the turtles to take pictures, dazzling them with the bright flash from their phones. Others even got in the water with them, potentially blocking their path back to the ocean. The encroaching humans had an obvious effect, distressing the already troubled animals and interrupting their nesting process. The trampling of the sand containing millions of eggs can also lead to deformities in the hatchlings that emerge, producing babies with misshapen shells or worse.
The species in question was the Olive Ridley, considered the most abundant sea turtle worldwide. Even still, their population has decreased by thirty to fifty percent worldwide, and they are now classified as vulnerable to extinction. Their main threats include egg harvesting, poaching for their meat and ocean pollution. They hardly need more stress.
As easy as it is to blame the tourists, it is not their fault. They may only access the beach accompanied by a local guide, and it is the guide’s responsibility to educate and control their group. Unfortunately, many of them neglected to do this. For locals, this is a short-lived and abundant source of revenue, so they aim for maximum turnover of clients, skipping the educational lecture and allowing them to run around freely like school children. Some of the guides were good, of course, but greater enforcement is needed for this practice to be sustainable.
This was an example of irresponsible ecotourism, but when done well it can have a positive impact. In Costa Rica, funding from tourism has led to the development of national parks and reserves that now cover almost a third of the country’s land mass, bolstering its impressive biodiversity. A sanctuary I visited in the town of La Fortuna was a shining example of how to do things right. They reforested a large section of land and left this open to the wild, allowing a healthy population of three-toed sloths to move in by their own free will. Tourists can marvel at these languorous creatures from a distance, allowing them to creep between the treetops undisturbed. Costa Rica is also home to many rehabilitation sanctuaries, whose main goal is to nurse injured wildlife back to health and eventually release them into the wild.
Obviously the best course of action would be to leave nature alone completely, but in our overpopulated world, where natural resources are becoming ever scarcer, expecting no exploitation of animals is unrealistic. In neighbouring Nicaragua the population is poor and tourism less common, so poaching is rife. Marine turtles are hunted for their meat, shells and eggs and are being driven to the point of extinction. Compared with poaching, tourism is certainly the lesser of two evils. The key is to strike the balance between profiting from nature and conserving it, all the while ensuring that by observing the world you are not degrading it.
If you want to see wild animals up close and help to conserve them, volunteering is a great option. The turtle refuge at Ostional was incredible, full of inspiring staff who really care about what they do. From escorting endangered Leatherback hatchlings safely to the ocean, to dodging hundreds of nesting Olive Ridleys at 2am during an Arribada, every day was an adventure.
Check out goeco.org for this and many other volunteering opportunities all around the world. Learn more about sea turtles here-https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/sea-turtle