Tourists from all over the world come to the beaches of Playa Grande in Costa Rica to have the awe-inspiring experience of watching giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs after returning to the coast from waters of the Central American Dome Hope Spot offshore.
In addition to the undeniable value of the leatherback within the marine ecosystem, this critically endangered species holds promise as a focal point for sustainable development in the coastal communities surrounding their nesting beaches.
Local leaders have created a Community Association training locals to greet visitors to Marino las Baulas National Park, share a brief educational presentation, and ensure that visitors have a minimal impact on this critical leatherback habitat.
The volunteers reminisced about the old times when “one could barely walk on the beach,” due to the large number of nesting leatherbacks. They are passionate about talking care of the ones that remain, highlighting their environmental and cultural value.
The park ranger in charge of the surveillance post also had much to share. Despite many challenges, including a tiny staff and scarce resources, he described how fulfilled he felt, “watching the first hints of dawn while safeguarding a leatherback, its colors and its beauty.” His dedication was palpable, but we fell short on having a full understanding of what he meant until later that evening.
We were getting ready to leave the rangers’ station, satisfied with the day’s work, but a bit disappointed that this season, only 22 leatherbacks had been seen. Just then, as if on queue, a call came in that a nesting turtle had been sighted!
In a heartbeat, everything changed. The guides rushed to gather the groups, everyone in the area mobilized – the excitement was contagious!
We rushed to the beach with the volunteer guides who were leading the tourists to the nest. The park rangers were already there, making sure the turtle was not disturbed. The research team came to take measurements, count the eggs, and mark the nest for monitoring until the hatchlings emerge.
We were fortunate enough to witness an enormous 650 lb. leatherback digging her nest deep into the sand with her powerful flippers, laying her eggs, covering the nest and hiding the spot to prevent predators from finding it.
Once a turtle begins to lay her eggs, she goes into a kind of trance, and as long as certain procedures are followed, humans can get quite near without disturbing her.
We could hear her breathe, and like any mother giving birth, she sounded exhausted but determined. We couldn’t help but be deeply moved – it was unforgettable!
We remained on the beach watching until the giant matriarch dragged her immense body across the sand and back into the surf, before disappearing offshore into the night … towards the Central American Dome Hope Spot!
By Alejandra Pacheco & Deb Castellana
Feature Photo: ©Kip Evans/Mission Blue-MarViva