Turtles on Tortuguero Beach

A trip to Tortuguero just wouldn't be complete without a visit to the beach, famous above all for its nesting Green Turtles. The final outing of our stay in the national park was a nocturnal one - a 10pm departure to walk down the beach and catch a glimpse of nesting sea turtles. 

We first visited the beach at Tortuguero during our first day at the lodge to get an idea of the environment. The beach itself is stunning. It stretches unbroken for hundreds of miles along the Caribbean coastline, backed by rainforest, and fronted by the rough, wild Caribbean Sea, that looks as though it could throw you around as if you were nothing more than a rag doll. As you look down the beach towards the horizon, a gentle layer of sea mist covers the sand that is littered with washed-up coconuts, logs and palm leaves that have been thrown up by the waves. And, most importantly, there is not a single piece of litter in sight. The beach is pristine, practically untouched, and protected under law and by the local people. It's wild, remote and a haven for wildlife.

So, at 10pm on our final night, we left the lodge with a local guide to head to the beach and try to see the turtles. The whole process is very strictly controlled, with the turtles' wellbeing being the most important consideration. No cameras are allowed onto the beach, nor are torches, which all have to be switched off the minute you step foot on the sand. The number of tourists are strictly regulated, as is the time each group can spend with one turtle and the guides use red light only to minimise the disturbance to the turtles. 

The nesting turtles in Tortuguero are big business, and provide a great source of income for the local people, yet it was fantastic and uplifting to see that the local people care about the turtles above anything else. They could probably make a lot more money if they shipped in more people, opened the beach up to bigger groups of tourists and allowed cameras on the beach. But they don't. They care about the welfare of the turtles more than making a quick mint, and that's brilliant.


The beach was approximately 10 minutes from our lodge. Here, accompanied by our guide, we waited for a signal telling us a turtle had been found and that we could begin to move towards it. Once this signal came, we walked down the beach, past the Tortuguero airstrip and towards the more remote stretch of beach where the turtles had begun to haul themselves onto the sand to lay their eggs.

When we reached the area in question, we were instructed to switch our torches off. From here, we would be moving in darkness. And so we progressed down the beach, occasionally tripping over the odd branch or coconut as we went. It was a very unique experience stumbling down a tropical beach in the pitch black, with only the sound of the waves breaking the silence.

That was until a flash lit up the entire beach, and for a split second we could see where we were walking. Then, back to darkness. And a few seconds later, the silence was broken by a huge clap of thunder; so loud it was as if someone was hitting a drum next to your ear. When we turned and looked out to sea, our eyes were greeted by the sight of a huge lightning storm raging over the ocean. And what an atmosphere this created. It was immensely exciting already and we hadn't even seen a turtle...

Green Turtle on Tortuguero Beach*

But, luckily for us, after around 10 or so minutes of tripping across the beach, we reached a nesting turtle. The guides ensure each turtle is only disturbed by two groups of tourists before it is left alone to finish its business and return to the sea. The trips aren't run every night either, and only until midnight, to try to keep the disturbance to a minimum.

The turtle we visited was laying quite high up the beach, a long way from the water. We approached slowly and quietly and gathered around behind the turtle at a respectable distance. Our guide then turned his red torch on and we watched in silence as the turtle began to lay eggs. It was exactly as I had seen on television as a child. It felt like a privilege to not only see a turtle during such an important time in its life but also to watch as it laid its eggs and began to cover them up with sand.

Green Turtle laying eggs**

It looked clumsy as it swung its paddle-like flippers around its shell to cover its precious clutch of eggs. It was at this point that we left it to finish in the relative safety of the night. And so we stumbled back up the beach, reflecting on the secretive and incredible process we had just witnessed first hand.

The life cycle of a turtle is fascinating. The turtle, as a baby maybe a few hours old, leaves the safety of the nest and scampers across the sand towards the sea. Only a small number survive this first test, and once in the ocean it only gets harder. If the turtle is lucky enough to live through its first ten years in the sea, it reaches sexual maturity and can then mate. The female turtle will then return to the same beach it left over 10 years beforehand, which could be countless miles away by this point, and lays its eggs. How they find their natal beach is still somewhat of a mystery, though a recent study concluded they use the Earth's magnetic field, and the unique magnetic signature of the beach on which they were born (read more here).

The danger is still not over even when laying their eggs as an adult. A good number of turtles, especially in Tortuguero, are eaten by Jaguars who roam the more remote stretches of beach. Tortuguero has a good population of these big cats so for any turtles returning to these beaches, there is an added danger to be wary of.

The whole thing is an incredible feat. And to witness one small part of it was amazing. But it made it even better to be able to enjoy the experience safe in the knowledge that our tourism was sustainable and had no bad impacts on the wildlife in the area. In fact, it helped fuel the local economy and protect the turtles too. And this is another reason why Costa Rica is such a wonderful country. The people have a deep connection with their wildlife, and really care about protecting it.

Related: Costa Rica Part Two - Tortuguero National Park

*Green Turtle on Tortuguero Beach credit: Mark Spangler (Flickr) - used under CC BY 2.0, no changes made
**Green Turtle laying eggs credit: Francesco Veronesi (Flickr) - used under CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes made


Popular posts from this blog

Conservation: Costa Rica Leading By Example after Deforestation Report

Extremadura: Raptors

Bird Ringing in Surrey