Once abundant, only seven species of marine turtles remain. Four of these, from the largest to the smallest, travel to Costa Rica to nest every year, the leatherback, the green turtle, the hawksbill and the olive ridley. The turtle species that nest here all do so at night, crawling onto a safe spot on the beach and using their back flippers to dig and cover the hole where they deposit their eggs. The sex of the turtles will be determined after the eggs have been deposited, with warmer sands usually producing females and colder sands, males.
Most national parks in Costa Rica attract one or more turtle species. Two of these parks represent important turtle nesting sites and are the reason the territory was designated as national park land. Several species come to nest at 77,000-acre Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast, including the infrequently observed loggerhead species. The star attraction at Las Boulas Marine National Park on the northwestern Pacific coast is the leatherback species. Turtles are also found in some of the nation’s other protected areas, including Gandoca-Manzanillo National Refuge on the southern Caribbean coast near the border with Panama and Isla del Cano Biological Refuge off the southern Pacific coast near Corcovado National Park.
Sea turtles are among Earth’s oldest creatures. Modern day turtles lead a precarious life, only a small percentage making it to old age. They must contend with predators on land and sea, shrinking habitat, thanks to human developments, and avoiding fishing nets at sea, not to mention unpredictable natural disasters such as hurricanes that wipe out nesting sites. The status of sea turtles ranges from vulnerable to critically-endangered, depending on the species. Many governments and non-profit organizations are helping to restore the populations of marine turtles and their habitat around the world, among them the U.S. based Sea Turtle Conservancy and the Earthwatch Institute.
Established in 2001, the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles (IAC) stands as the world's only far-reaching international agreement to protect these species and their habitat. Though not all have signed the agreement, twenty-eight countries are named in this comprehensive document with stringent provisions. Costa Rica is among the countries that have signed the IAC agreement. To learn more about sea turtles and efforts to protect them before you travel to Costa Rica, go to www.iacseaturtle.org, one of the sources for this article.
On the verge of extinction a half century ago, green turtles are once again abundant at certain locations in Costa Rica, though the species remains endangered. Besides the usual turtle threats, green turtles appear susceptible to certain kinds of tumors.
More green turtles inhabit the waters and beaches of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, making Costa Rica tours a perfect time to see the species. Divers who travel to Costa Rica will see them foraging at Cocos Island National Park and nesting in several locations. Nesting every two to five years, the green turtle’s most important nesting sites in Costa Rica are on the Caribbean coast. Visitors on Costa Rica tours may want to include Tortuguero National Park in their itinerary since 20,000 or more green turtle eggs hatch here each year.
Nesting season is from July to October, some years a bit earlier and some later. Working from the John H. Phipps Biological Station just north of the park since 1994, volunteers have been tagging and monitoring the turtles under the auspices of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, an organization founded to save the green turtle. Green turtles also nest in Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge further south on the Caribbean coast near the Panama border.
The hawksbill inhabits the coastal waters of Costa Rica where the coral reefs and rocky environments provide their main source of food, sponges. Scuba divers wishing to view the species in its ocean habitat during their Costa Rica tours head to Cocos Island National Park in the seas off the Nicoya Peninsula. The species nests every two to three years, usually three times during the wet season between July and October. Most nesting takes place in August and September. Visitors may have the opportunity to observe hawksbill turtles nesting on both coasts when they travel to Costa Rica. At the northwestern tip of the country, the species nests at Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the Santa Elena Gulf and on beaches off the Pacific coast of Santa Rosa National Park. Further east, the species also comes to nest in Marino Bellena National Park from May to November. Two locations where visitors on Costa Rica tours may observe a few hawksbills nesting on the Caribbean coast are Tortuguero National Park, mostly between July and October, and further south in the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund began a study to determine the effects of climate change on the species. After researching how temperature changes in air, water and sand may alter nesting and feeding habitat, sex ratios and migration patterns of hawksbills, data will be used to design a broader study, encompassing the other marine turtle species.
Olive Ridley Turtles
Though more abundant than any other marine turtle species, the status of the olive ridley is nonetheless endangered on the Pacific coast of Mexico and considered threatened elsewhere. Numbers have diminished dramatically over the past fifty years in many parts of the world. The species is at risk for three reasons: it gets caught in fishing nets; its nesting habit makes killing efficient and its eggs can be collected and sold.
Ecotourism has proven a boon to Costa Rica’s olive ridleys. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, communities in the vicinity of nesting sites are upgrading tourist accommodations and being taught about protection of the species. The same villagers who would otherwise have been making a living by harvesting the eggs and slaughtering the turtles for meat, now earn a higher wage by protecting the species.
Timing your travel to Costa Rica according to the olive ridley schedule is not easy since the species does not arrive at exactly the same date each year, though watching the nesting of olive ridleys somewhere in Costa Rica is a year round activity. Females nest twice a season. Generally speaking, turtle watchers should schedule their Costa Rica tours between July and December, the rainy season.
High season for turtle-watching in northwestern Costa Rica is September and October. In Guanacaste Province, the arribada occurs in two main locations. Furthest north is Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the Santa Elena Gulf near the northern tip of Costa Rica. Santa Rosa National Park contains two beaches favored by the species, the most famous of which is Playa Nancite. When the location became too popular for its own good, the government was forced to establish daily visitor limits.
Though named for the leatherbacks that nest there, the same beaches of Las Boulas Marine National Park also attract olive ridleys in August and September.
Another site further down the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast is the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge. One unique strategy to save the olive ridleys here is to allow the local communities to collect some eggs at the beginning of the arribada. The beaches become so crowded during the event’s first few days that many eggs get destroyed inadvertently by the turtles themselves. This conservation technique helps control poaching by sacrificing eggs that would be destroyed anyway. Hundreds, sometimes thousands and rarely hundreds of thousands of olive ridleys arrive here at least once a month, more often during some moon phases than others. Divers may view the species in the offshore waters of Cocos Island National Park.
On Costa Rica’s central and southern Pacific coast are two sites that protect nesting sites of the olive ridleys, Marino Ballena National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park where arribadas usually occur between May and November. Five of Southern Explorations’ Costa Rica tours travel to Manuel Antonio National Park.
The critically endangered leatherback turtle spends more time submerged than other of the marine turtles, dives deeper and migrates across oceans, feeding just off shore as well as in open water. In Costa Rica, the species goes by the name of "baula" or "canal." The leatherback derives its name from a leather-like ridged black shell with white dots. The leatherback species lives between thirty and fifty years, longer than any other turtle species.
Leatherbacks have much to fear from humans. Though the leatherback’s shell is not hard and its meat is unappetizing, its eggs still make the slaughter worthwhile. The traditional method that poachers use to harvest the eggs is to slice off the turtle’s very long flippers to prevent escape and then turn the female on her back, leaving her to die a slow death after the eggs have been removed. Leatherbacks may also consume discarded plastic bags, mistaking them for jelly fish, the main leatherback diet. Fishing nets have also taken their toll. This magnificent species has managed to exist for a hundred million years, but is on the verge of extinction today.
To protect the world’s most important leatherback nesting site, the Costa Rican government established Leatherback (Las Baulas) Marine National Park in 1991. Ten years later, the government took more drastic measures, establishing the Cocos-Baulas migratory corridor down its entire Pacific coast to protect the leatherback and other species. Conservationists hope that the corridor will become a regional effort beyond the borders of Costa Rica.
Governments and environmental organizations throughout the world are trying to prevent the leatherback’s extinction. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has been tracking their migration as they nest along the coasts of Costa Rica and Panama since 2003. Laws can only do so much to protect the species. One effective way to save the leatherbacks and other species is to convince communities in the vicinity of nesting sites that saving the turtles is in their best interest. Various environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, have been educating communities about the benefits of eco-tourism, poaching prevention and the infrastructure improvements necessary to attract more eco-tourists on Costa Rica tours. In northwest Costa Rica, for instance, these efforts resulted in the elimination of leatherback poaching altogether at the Playa Junquillal, an important nesting beach on the Nicoya Peninsula.
In Marino Las Baulas National Park, visitors on Costa Rica tours will be able to watch all of the country’s marine turtle species, though leatherbacks are the star attraction. Playa Grande, Playa Langosta and Playa Ventanas are the beaches where the species nests in the park. Though populations have diminished, hundreds of leatherbacks still come here each year to lay their eggs between October and March. Females deposit eggs every ten days during their nesting season. Nesting may also be seen further north at Santa Rosa National Park.
One of the world’s largest populations of leatherbacks along the Caribbean coast nests at Tortuguero National Park from February to July. Another location to observe leatherbacks nesting is Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Manzanillo from March to July. Visitors on Costa Rica tours may want to schedule their travel in April or May to increase their chances of seeing more leatherbacks in either location.