As you are trudging along a sand-fly infested beach in darkness, sweaty and itchy, you may begin to wonder why you thought this was a good idea in the first place when you could have ended your day with an icy cold beer and good company. But then your guide mutters something, a ripple of excitement goes through the group you’re with and there it is…the dark shape of a female turtle slowly dragging herself up the beach. All discomfort is forgotten as you watch the awkward progress of the huge creature pull herself into position to dig out her nest in the sand with her flippers and lay her 100 or so eggs. She uses her flippers to cover the soft eggs and then moves the sand to disguise her unborn offspring from predators, before returning to the water. As much as an hour might have passed during her labors, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it!
Baby turtles normally hatch 2 to 3 months after being laid and seem to be in tune with moon cycles, as it is the reflection of the moon on the ocean which guides them to the water as they emerge struggling from the sand with their siblings. If you are lucky, you might also have the joy of watching the tiny Leatherbacks make their first steps on the beach which they will return to years later to lay their own eggs – that is if they survive their first few days out of the shell. Amazing to imagine that these small turtles are somehow imprinting information that will allow them to return over journeys of thousands of miles from just this short but difficult trek to the ocean! So resist that temptation to lift one up and ‘help’ it to the sea!
Leatherback turtles are huge (up 8 feet in length and weighing up to 1,496 lb), ancient animals and to witness this incredible moment in their life cycle is a real privilege. They are protected from poachers by locals who are often ‘poachers turned gamekeepers and zealous volunteers, but the eggs remain vulnerable to natural predators and determined poachers. Turtle watching is usually strictly controlled in Costa Rica for the protection of this endangered species. Expect to be permitted on turtle beaches only with a guide during the season and to be kept at a reasonable distance from the turtles so that their laying isn’t disturbed. You may find that you are not allowed to use flash photography for the very same reason. The turtles supposedly go into a trance-like state during laying, so you might be able to view the animal more closely at that moment, but who needs a photo reminder of such an unforgettable experience anyway?
Leatherbacks lay on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica between November and April, mainly at Playa Grande, Nicoya. Most tourists opt to stay in the laid-back resort town of Tamarindo and drive the very short distance to the National Park to view the turtles.