Every year, up and down the Pacific coast of Central America, female turtles come to lay their eggs. And later, the resulting baby turtles hatch out of those eggs, crawl up through the sand, and make a dash for the sea. From Leatherbacks and Olive Ridleys to Greens and Hawksbills, and from Guatemala to El Salvador and Nicaragua, there are turtles nesting and hatching every year from July to December. All of these reptiles are either endangered or critically endangered, so seeing them in the wild is quite a coup, whether in the sea or on the land.
So, last December, while in the Nicaraguan surfing mecca of San Juan del Sur, I booked a tour to a famous wildlife sanctuary based at the remote beach of La Flor, near the Costa Rican border.
The turtles lay their eggs at night, so we’re off at 7pm, over a bumpy dirt road that goes south from San Juan for an hour and winds its way almost to the international border. Although it feels like much more than an hour, as I’m sitting next to the driver / guide, who’s obsessed with telling me every detail about his vehicle and its engine and gearbox (he probably thinks that, because I’m a man, I actually know or care about these things). At the reserve, we wait in an ‘information centre’ (which looks more like someone’s house, and seems to be staffed by sleeping men in hammocks), looking at posters of turtles, while the tour guide gives the wildlife rangers (the snoozing dudes) some much-needed supplies for their remote home (bottles of Coke and packets of cigarettes, mainly).
Rather like spawning salmon, sea turtles travel back to the very same beach that they hatched in to lay their eggs – which is great for tourists who want to see the turtles egg-laying and hatching every year; but not so good for the turtles when the people want to eat them or their eggs, or when their natal beach gets developed. And all that egg-eating (many of the locals are convinced that the eggs are a natural aphrodisiac), plus meat-eating (although, to me, it sounds like a gross combination of old fish and rubbery chicken), and shell-taking (for decorating and selling to tourists) is what’s making these poor critters endangered in the first place.
Another things that’s bad news for the baby turtles are the numerous predators, like the birds who pick them off while they’re flapping their way to the sea, or the monkeys who dig up and eat the eggs. So at La Flor (like in other turtle sanctuaries in Central America), the rangers wait for the mother to lay her eggs and swim off, and then they take the eggs from the sand and incubate them in bags for a few months. And every day that there are hatched turtles and tourists (which is pretty much every day during turtle season), the rangers sell the tourists a turtle each to release into the sea (or in our case, they give them to us for free, as we’ve bribed them with fizzy pop and fags).
And so, when the park ranger re-appears with the guide, he’s holding a bowl containing several newly-hatched turtles, slowly crawling over each other. After oohing and aahing over the cute little testudines, we head to the beach to release them.
It’s a full moon, so there’s enough natural light to remove the need for a torch. And on the beach, at the water’s edge, each person is given a baby turtle from the bowl, and gently places it on the sand. Where they all just sit there, either flapping about uselessly or moving oh-so-slowly towards the water.
And therein lies the problem with keeping baby turtles after they’ve hatched, in order to give them to tourists to release. As the guide explains, when turtles are born, their metabolism is amped up, so that they have the energy they need to break them out of their egg, dig their way up through the sand, and then get into the sea as quickly as possible – for a baby turtle, the first minutes of its life, as it flaps its way across the beach to the relative safety of the water, are the most dangerous, and most of them get eaten before they make it to the sea. Keeping the hatchlings until the tourists arrive may well protect them from their first perilous journey, but it also means that all that congenital energy is used up by the time they’re released. So, although us tourists have the cute and heart-warming experience of sending the turtles off into the wild, maybe we’re also responsible for making life even harder for them. And their lack of energy means that, instead of being able to dash into the sea as soon as they hit the beach, we have to pick them up off the sand, take them into the sea, and physically deposit them into the water. Where they swim off into what, statistically-speaking, is probably a very short life…
After seeing off the newborns (and hoping that they have enough energy to swim for the next 24 hours, which is apparently what they need to do in order to get out into the deeper waters and finally be free from most of their predators – it’s a tough life being a turtle), we take a walk along the beach looking for any nesting females. It’s December, the end of the season, so the tens (and occasionally hundreds) of turtles that turn up every night in September and October won’t be here, but there should be at least one.
And sure enough, at the end of a trail through the sand (that looks like it was made by someone pushing a heavily-laden wheelbarrow) is a female turtle in her nest. She’s over a metre long, around 50 years old, and is slowly using her back flippers to cover up her clutch of freshly-laid eggs. We can take photos, as the guide has covered our camera flashes with orange-coloured, transparent tape, which apparently doesn’t disturb the turtle as much as white light (which can cause her to stop everything and head straight back into the sea, and which can also confuse the baby turtles, as they need to head in the direction of the brightest light, which is normally the horizon over the sea). Although, even without bright, flashing lights, I would’ve thought that any female who’d just given birth, or newborn baby, would be annoyed by a horde of lollygagging gawkers staring at them.
The hole is about half a metre deep and over a metre round; and not only will the turtle cover it all up with sand, but she’ll probably make several fake nests nearby, to fool potential predators. And at her speed, she’ll probably be here for another few hours (she is a turtle after all, not a cheetah). So, after photographing her, wandering around her, and checking out the barnacles that have made a home on her shell (she actually doesn’t seem that bothered by our presence, and keeps on slowly scraping away), we head back along the beach to the car park.
The nesting is an amazing natural spectacle to watch, and it’s a great experience to be part of the hatching / releasing. Although I’m not entirely sure if the human involvement is overall a good thing or a bad thing for the turtles. The huge array of threats that the eggs suffer from means that digging them up and keeping them safe is probably a benefit; but keeping the turtles after hatching for the tourists to release, maybe not so much. Even ‘helping’ them by placing them in the sea may not be such a good idea, as the sensory experience of the beach can be imprinted on them, and this knowledge helps them to find their way back there as mature adults to nest. And photographing the birth? Well, probably not that helpful, although the experience and the information probably helps tourists to be more knowledgeable and aware; and properly-managed ecotourism can benefit the animals and the local people. And at least we’re no longer eating them or their eggs. And to be fair to La Flor, it’s way more professional and ethical than some other places in Central America. But seeing as most of the work that they do is in response to negative human intervention, it’s yet another case of people having to do something good to make up for the bad stuff that other people did before. Like saving the rhinos whose horns we hacked off, protecting the elephants whose ivory we took, helping the tigers whose fur we ripped off, planting the trees that we cut down, or cleaning up the environment that we polluted. The main reason we have to help all these animals is because we’re the species who’ve made them endangered in the first place. Except the panda. That’s going extinct because it’s a picky eater and it won’t have sex.