Tortuguero

Trip Start Aug 08, 2008
1
36
43
Trip End Oct 12, 2008


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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Limon,
Monday, October 6, 2008

I'm finally getting caught up on my blog; this is the first entry in a while I'm writing on the actual day listed. (I am, however, posting it almost a week late. Sorry about that.)
 
Saturday I met my parents in San Jose. I'd been thinking about taking a day trip to Cartago, to see the legendary statue of La Negrita that, according to lore, has been stolen many times but always reappears in its rightful spot at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. Or maybe I'd take in a museum or two in San Jose. I had a free ride in the morning with Alex to the Hotel LeBergerac, where I was to meet my parents that night, and I figured I could drop my luggage and go do something productive with the day. But when I got there, it was threatening rain, and to my surprise I was able to get into the room almost right away. Since I'd had so much fun doing nothing the previous weekend, I decided to do it again.
 
We're on the tour with a couple my parents' age from Texas, and for the first leg of the tour in Tortuguero we're also with a (literal) boatload of other tourists, many of them from Spain. There's one particularly obnoxious couple that can't seem to go twenty minutes without a cigarette; they lit up at the breakfast table yesterday morning (right under the bilingual-with-a-picture "No Smoking" sign) while I was still eating, and again on the riverboat through the wildlife preserve known as the Biological Corridor, which recently linked the once segregated ecosystems of separate national parks in an effort to minimize inbreeding (but which has become a delicate ecosystem of its own as species encounter each other for the first time in many generations.) When reminded by the guide that smoking was not permitted (duh!) they grudgingly pitched their butts into the water. I would have liked to do the same.
 
It seems nature can take out the Eurotrash itself, though; this morning, on the jungle walk I skipped, I hear a wasp got into her hair. It was a non-stinging variety, and the guide told her so, but she was still pretty freaked out. Apparently he remarked that "it is said they only attack people with bad thoughts." I'm a little sorry I missed that.
 
I decided to skip the walk because I was exhausted after getting up at five a.m. the last two mornings (Sunday was the drive up to Tortuguero, and this morning was an asscrack of dawn wildlife boat tour) and I needed a nap more than I needed another slog through the jungle. We did a lot more nothing this afternoon, mostly hanging out in the pool, and tonight we went down to the beach in search of sea turtles.
 
We were warned to keep our expectations low. The thirty-dollar per-person price tag did not guarantee us a turtle sighting, they said. Also, it was raining shortly before we left, so I was bracing myself for two hours of sitting on the beach getting wet and seeing nothing.
 
They've recently implemented a spotter program, however, that increases the odds. Instead of leading a long line of tourists in a blind search that scares away most of the turtles thinking about nesting on the beach, they now have a network of trained locals who explore the beach with dim red flashlights and radio back to the central area when they spot a turtle digging. Once she's chosen a spot, a turtle is less likely to abandon the nest, and will only do so if she feels the threat is imminent. Through good fortune and this ingenious program, we were able to see just about everything there is to see in the whole process.
 
We observed, in silence and in shifts by the dim glow of a flashlight, a turtle laying eggs into the hole she'd dug. The eggs looked like soft, slimy ping-pong balls, and she was dropping them at a rate of about one every five or ten seconds. Our guide tells us that each turtle lays between 80 and 120 eggs in each nest, and nests about five times per season. Ninety-nine percent of eggs hatch and make it to the water, but only one or two out of every five hundred survives to adulthood, so that's about one reproducing individual per female per season. It takes about thirty years for a turtle to reach reproductive age, and no one knows exactly how long they breed or live after that.
 
The turtles hatch about sixty days after the eggs are laid, but the season is long enough that, in one night, we were able to see eggs being laid and hatching. Well, we didn't actually see them hatch, but we did catch one baby turtle scuttling back to the sea. They usually go together; the first ones wait for the rest before they all climb out of the nest and journey en masse to the ocean, so this one must have been a straggler.
 
It was tiny. The normal dimpling of the sand made for a mountainous trek, but the baby turtle scampered over it with surprising speed. At one point, after it had reached the sand smoothed by the receding tide, it appeared to be home free, until it hit the heel impression of a footprint running parallel to the shore. The little turtle fit entirely within the width of the heel, and struggled mightily to climb back out; for a second, it looked like it wasn't going to make it. But with its flippers spinning like toy propellers, it heaved itself out of the hole and into the waves.
 
We were then herded over to another mama turtle, who had finished laying her eggs and was in the process of camouflaging and aerating the nest. They like to cover the eggs with lots of loose soil so oxygen can still get in, and they typically dig them right where the sand meets the fertile soil, so they're partially in the shade. First they cover the nest with sand using their hind flippers, then they smooth and fluff the whole area using their longer, stronger, more flexible front flippers. We were warned not to stand directly behind them, lest we get a faceful of dirt. As it was, I had clumps of it hit my legs up to my knees. It was pretty cool, actually. How many people can say they've been hit with dirt thrown by a green sea turtle?
 
Satisfied with her nest, the turtle began the trek back to the ocean. At 300 pounds, she had a tougher time of it than the baby; she would push herself forward with her flippers for about ten feet, then stop to rest for a few seconds before continuing. We crept behind her, our eyes straining into the near-darkness as the guide kept the faint red light trained on her backside and I caught an occasional glimpse of her head bobbing in the moonlight. She had to keep on like that even after she reached the first shallow lick of waves, until the water was deep enough to submerge her. Then she disappeared.
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