Costa Rica: In the Tortuguero Area, I was in a lovely bungalow on the beach but dizzy from a cold and barely breathing around my incessant cough. Still, I had heard there would be a guided walk on the beach leaving at midnight. It was leaving at that hour in hopes of seeing a Leatherback Sea Turtle.
I was awake anyway so I jumped up at the bewitching hour and followed the other half dozen people going toward the waves. We walked along in the dark; the guide had an infra-red flashlight so as not to interfere with wildlife, and he was looking for turtles. We walked for over an hour with no luck. Then on our way back, at 1:20 a.m., he spotted a turtle coming into the shallow waves.
We watched as this huge creature (6 feet in diameter) laboriously propelled itself forward onto the beach away from the waves. The guide estimated the turtle was 60-70 years old and weighed 500 to 600 pounds. You could hear the turtle gasping for air as it lumbered forward in what seemed a monumental effort to move away from the water. The guide explained these turtles only come out of the water to lay eggs so it was a swimmer unused to maneuvering on land.
At about 50 feet from the waves, the turtle stopped and started turning around. Then it seemed to stumble, but what was happening is it was starting to use its back legs to dig a hole. We slowly tiptoed closer to watch. Her eyes watered like tears and we were told that was to keep them moist while on land. Her skin felt like leather and she had a large head and muscular legs (flippers).
After digging a round hole about 3 feet in depth, the turtle moved in front of the hole and started to drop white eggs, about the size of robin eggs, into the hole. We counted 90 eggs drop; it was all very exciting. Again using her back legs, she covered the nest. Then with her front legs, she turned over a circle of sand around the nest for camouflage. We all backed away and she started back toward the waves. Her breathing had become heavier, and I was hoping she would make it. We followed toward the waves.
Then the turtle turned and started moving in our direction. Just about all of us were wearing white t-shirts and the guide said it was confusing the turtle. So we all ran ahead of the turtle toward the waves and thankfully the turtle started back in the right direction. It was sobering to see how quickly that huge creature disappeared into the waves. By then it was 3:10 a.
While that clutch of 90 eggs seemed to portend a huge number of turtles, the guide reminded us that many hatchlings don’t make it to the water and those that do face many more dangers before becoming big enough to defend themselves. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles. They often die from choking on deflated balloons that look much like their favorite food, jelly fish. From that night on, I never let my balloons fly away. (For photos and information on the world’s largest reptile, click Leatherback Sea Turtle.)
And here is another wildlife post from Costa Rica.