Far away from life flashing across iPhone screens, an ancient ritual is happening in Costa Rica. MelissaWozniak journeys off the grid to sea turtle territory in an ecotourism effort that may eventually save them
There are no roads to Tortuguero. From La Pavona, a docking depot on the outskirts of a dense banana plantation, the River Suerte cuts through blankets of swampy undergrowth clinging to the banks of the rainforest. If the river is low, it may take a shallow-bottom boat two hours to navigate these canals, part of the national park that links Tortuguero to the mainland. It is here, in one of the most remote and most biodiverse parts of Costa Rica, that many of the world’s sea turtles come ashore to make their nests.
Tortuguero’s narrow strip of Caribbean beach, rough with volcanic sand, is no new destination for the turtles. Every two or three years they return to the same beach from ocean currents that have led them as far away as Spain or Brazil. They’ve been making this pilgrimage for millennia.
What’s new is the wave of tourists who have made a pilgrimage of their own to watch them, and in doing so, lend a hand to their survival.
Of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, five are endangered. Some are on the brink of extinction. Habitat destruction and bad fishing practices account for many of the casualties, but the most vulnerable part of a sea turtle’s life is when it has yet to hatch. On land, turtles are exposed to predators—most notably, the human kind, who poach the eggs and sell the meat.
Sixty years ago, Tortuguero was a village that made its living on turtle eggs. They were sucked down raw for breakfast or cooked as a meal, just like they were in many Caribbean cultures. When ecologist Archie Carr opened the Sea Turtle Conservancy in this coastal town in the 1950s, he had to learn how to not only protect the animals but to change the village mindset as well.
To help the turtles, scientists at the Conservancy bring media attention to the animals’ plight and eco-tourists from all over the world to become first-hand participants in their sea turtle tagging program. On night patrols, in total darkness—turtles only come ashore at night and are distracted by any light source other than the moonlight reflecting off the ocean—small groups walk the beach on lookout. If a turtle emerges from the waves, they assist scientists as they measure and tag the animal for tracking and note the location of the nest to monitor it in the days ahead.
June through November, hundreds of greens turtles dot the beach. It was a chilly night in March when I sat guard with a rare 850-pound leatherback turtle as she dropped her eggs in a pit just inches away, one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Since the Sea Turtle Conservancy began its work in Tortuguero, the green turtle population has increased by 500 percent. As for the village mindset, that’s shifting, too. These days, Tortuguero’s economy depends on conservation, not consumption. Former poachers guide the tours, and the Conservancy leads education programs in the local school. “If the turtles go away,” one little girl astutely told me, “where will we be?”