By OneJungleMonkey, your expat expert on all things Tamarindo
Hey! So you’re coming to Tamarindo. And, yay, you’re coming during Baula (Leatherback) turtle nesting season! Obviously, you’re going to want to sign up for a tour to see these incredible prehistoric mega-turtles. The nesting of the giant Baula sea turtles is one of the most amazing things you will see during your visit to Costa Rica—and you will see a lot of amazing things. I’ve seen a lot of amazing things myself. I’ve lived in Costa Rica, mostly in Tamarindo, since 1995 and boy do I have some stories to tell. I’ll be blogging about them for you so that when you get here, you’ve got some inside local knowledge tucked in with your passport.
Before you even have time to ask, let me tell you: yes you do need to sign yourself up for a “Tamarindo tour turtle” to see these turtles. Playa Grande, where this endangered species lays its eggs, is a national park and is highly patrolled during the night to keep people from bothering the turtles or stealing their eggs. Turtle eggs are yummy, or at least some people think they are, and humans cause leatherback turtles enough problems without also eating future generations! If you are caught wandering Playa Grande after dark without special permission, you will be escorted from the park by some unhappy park rangers.
The turtle nesting tours take place a night at Las Baulas National Park because the turtles only come out of the water in the dark. They can’t run, and they don’t have big teeth, sharp claws or terrifying roars, so the cover of night is their best defense against predators. They return, year after year, to the beach where they hatched, to dig a hole, lay their eggs, bury the eggs, and return to the water. During this process, the turtles appear to be in a trance-like state in which they ignore us completely. Believe me–when you’re standing there in the night on the dark star-peppered beach watching this giant prehistoric creature do something it does over and over for perhaps up to 100 years…it’s pretty amazing.
I saw the sea turtles twice, both times many years ago. I’ve chosen not to go back because honestly, I think (or imagine?) that our presence bothers them somehow, no matter how unobtrusive we attempt to be. This is not to say that you shouldn’t go! I just mean I’ve had my turn—two of them, in fact. Both times I was lucky enough to actually see a turtle. You don’t always. Wild animals are like that. The park guides can predict what time the tide will be right for turtles to appear, and that’s about it. Not every turtle tour sees a turtle, just like not every fishing trip produces a meal.
First, your group meets up on the Tamarindo side of the estuary where the park guides give a briefing: No noise, no camera flashes or lights of any kind, etc… Light and noise are very upsetting to nesting turtles who want nothing more than to be alone in the dark to lay their eggs.
Next, you go down to the estuary and get in a boat that takes you to the other side. You have to stay together as a group when you get to Playa Grande, and this is for several reasons. One reason is, as I mentioned, it’s illegal for people to be wandering around on the beach where turtles are trying to nest. The more we leave them alone, the better, and the national park employs guards to enforce this. Another is that the only lights allowed are the ones the guides have. If you wander off, you won’t be able to see. It’s amazing how well your eyes adjust to the dark and how not-dark the beach is at night, especially on clear nights with starlight or moonlight, but still—stick together because if your guide receives a call on his radio from a monitor stationed down the beach stating that there is a turtle coming out of the water, you don’t want to be left behind.
It’s a little hard to describe the magical eeriness of watching a prehistoric turtle almost the size of a VW bug emerge from the sea in the dark and drag itself up onto the land. It is stunningly clear that these turtles are not land animals. I mean, all turtles are slow, but a Baula sea turtle in the sand can barely move. The amount of effort it takes them to drag their immense bodies, so agile in the water, from the water across the sand past the high tide mark is almost inconceivable. It takes a long time. No drama, no excitement, just an immense amount of work for this turtle, who may be up to 100 years old, crawls to the spot she chooses on instinct, clumsily digs a hole in the sand with her flippers, positions herself, and drops dozens of eggs into it. That finished, she will use her flippers to push sand back into the hole on top of the eggs. Then she laboriously turns and crawls back to the water.
Contact our local experts to book your Tamarindo turtle tour and experience magic in Costa Rica!
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