Parts of the road from Montezuma to Ostional, further north on the Pacific Coast, are fairly rugged in places and the rain doesn’t help. There are so many potholes in Costa Rican roads that you are forced with the choice to either drive very slowly and carefully or drive as fast as possible in the hope that you might just skip over all of them. Roger chooses the latter and I wish I had invested in a sports bra for the trip.
As we near the Pacific Coast again, having gone on a big loop further inland in order to avoid a number of river crossings on the coastal road, we come to a river crossing anyway, coming from the other direction. Because it has been raining for much of the day, the river is fairly high. We ring the owner of the guesthouse where we are staying and she suggests that we stay somewhere else for the night or hang out in a nearby town until the tide goes out and the river goes down.
We’re pretty determined to get to our destination before dark and having watched a couple of locals traversing the stream fairly successfully, we decide to give it a go.
Roger, who is normally quite confident at river crossings, seems to have lost some of his nerve and spends quite some time reversing back and forwards before taking the crossing at a ridiculously high speed. In order to save money on our rental, we have minimal insurance which probably doesn’t cover being stuck in a swollen waterway. The car however, is momentarily invisible but we all cheer as he comes through the other side.
Ostional Beach is the main nesting beach for the Olive Ridley turtle, with lesser numbers of Green Turtles and Leatherbacks nesting here too. A few times a year, the adult turtles arrive on the beach in enormous numbers of around 100,000. This is called the Arribadas or Arrival. I didn’t know much about Ostional before we came but I had hoped that we had timed our stay with the hatching of the baby turtles.
As it turns out, there are adult turtles nesting here regularly over this time and babies hatching too.
Stella and I head to the beach just before dark and excitedly bring back a hatched turtle egg to show Louie. In actual fact, the beach is littered with egg shells that we can’t see in the fading light, but this being our first experience of turtle nesting, we are very exited.
We have a bit if a situation later at dinner, at Ostional’s only restaurant. When we were in Egypt, staying at the crazy Red Sea resort with the free food and alcohol and unlimited slushies and ice-cream, we all had to wear a plastic bracelet as proof that we were guests and therefore entitled to all the free stuff. This being one of Louie’s absolute favourite places; he has treasured his red plastic bracelet for months and vowed that he would only cut it off once he gets back home. Louie particularly, clings on to memories from the past months of places that he has enjoyed and attaches huge importance to the little pieces of memorabilia that he has taken with him. Perhaps it is about finding familiarity in his constantly changing environment.
The significance of this, seems to have been a bit lost on Roger, who gives it a good tug at dinner, to see if it will come off. It breaks, and Louie, after hitting Roger over the head and swearing at him loudly and publicly, walks home in the dark.
Roger wants to go home.
The owner of the restaurant takes us down to the beach to show us a nest that his dog discovered earlier. There are babies crawling out of the hole in the sand and it is a magic moment, except that Louie, who has been looking forward to the turtle beach for such a long time, is not here to share the experience. From out of the dark, a guide appears and asks us if we’d like to watch an adult turtle further down the beach, who has just come out of the sea to nest.
We decide that tonight is not the best night for a tour and we go home to try and rectify the situation with Louie who is thankfully, pretending to be asleep.
The old saying, never go to sleep on an argument, is a thing of the past for this family.
The next morning we head down to the beach before it gets too hot, to see the babies heading in to the water. A lot of them hatch during the night and have made their way into the sea by morning, but for many others, their arrival is badly timed.
Crawling out of their nests into the sun and being picked off by vultures is a fate that meets many who hatch too close to sunrise.
In order for the turtles to develop their lungs and establish a sense of direction, they must be left to walk most of the distance between their nest and the water, on their own.
However, as they start to dry out in the sun on the way down and get caught up in drift wood and sticks, it seems that unless they are carried further down the beach towards the tide line, they will die.
There are vultures everywhere, waiting to pick off the turtles who are left unprotected on the beach so we take turns scaring off the birds and shepherding the individual turtles into the sea.
That night we pay a local to take us to see a nesting turtle on the beach. We are not allowed on the beach at night without a local guide. It is quite stressful in the dark with just a red light torch as there are newly hatching turtles everywhere and we are terrified of standing on them as we make your way across the beach.
The adult turtle has almost finished digging it’s nest by the time we arrive and we are able to watch from behind as the eggs pop out.
We are joined by another group of tourists who seem less concerned about standing on turtles and more focused on getting the hatching on video.
Nearby there is a whole nest hatching.
Locals are actively encouraged to come out and assist the baby turtles in the morning. Scaring away the vultures is an important job.
We spend at least two hours carrying babies from the water line back into the sea, only to have them washed back up on the beach, floundering around in the sun. We each work in a fifty metre area which seems to be close enough to put off the vultures. However, they still swoop down and make quick work of any that we haven’t spotted, and in the end, Stella is in tears from the pointlessness of our efforts.
The odds of the turtles surviving their first years is about one in five hundred. I convince the kids that if we are able to get five hundred turtles into the sea, perhaps at least one adult turtle will make it back to Ostional in the future, to lay it’s eggs.
When we walk further down the beach and find an adult turtle dead on the sand, with what looks like a length of nylon wrapped around it’s flipper we are rather discouraged.
All the same, it is very special watching them move their way down the beach and if they do hit the sucking out of the wave, and are not too exhausted from their trip across the sand, their little flippers paddle frantically and they swim out of sight.
The groups of sea birds waiting further out are another story, but we have done our part on land at least.
Behind the scenes of our conservation work, is the crazy family dynamic that is the five of us sharing a small, fairly dark room.
While we can spend parts of each day out exploring, it is important for us all to have a home base where we can relax; but unfortunately, the concept of relaxing in a room is not one that we have been familiar with for quite some time.
We decide, in our desperation, to grant Jasper’s wish of unlimited computer time. He has a theory that if given more freedom, he will feel more relaxed and in control of his behavior.
Who knows, perhaps reverse psychology will work. We urge him and Louie to get straight on the computer and we head out to the beach. Louie, who really enjoys the turtle interactions, is still keen to spend some time at the beach but Jasper passes an entire day playing mind craft. The next day is fairly much the same. Hmmm.. when do the positive results of this experiment kick in? NEVER is the answer.
It is quiet and relaxing but underlying the peace is a sense of tragedy that if given a choice, the computer wins every time. Not baby turtles.
We go for an explore to a nearby beach where we have to traverse another three river crossings and a reggae bridge.
Costa Rica is an interesting mix of progressive and third world meets plastic product, in their environmental practices.
The cool thing about Costa Rica are some really ingenuitive practices around environmental management. In the 1940s, over 75% of the country was covered in indigenous woodland, mostly tropical rainforest.In the following decades, extensive logging ensued as the nation’s valuable forest resources were transformed into cash profits. By 1983, only 26% of the country retained forest cover.
Today forest cover has increased to 52% and the government has set a goal of further increasing this figure to 70% and achieving carbon neutrality by 2021.
Twenty five percent of the country is National Park land and there appears to be a big focus on the discarding of rubbish responsibly.
So it’s really surprising, the amount of plastic all over the beaches here. There is every kind of plastic imaginable and much of it is washed up as tiny little fragments. Obviously, a lot of it comes from out at sea, but being rainy season, much of it is washing down the rivers.
Locally grown produce here, is much cheaper than imported packaged goods, but still, most of what we see is non biodegradable inorganic waste.
Back at Ostional that evening, we do some more turtle rescue and spend quite some time picking up rubbish. Here, the locals clean the debris into big piles and remove most of the rubbish as it impeded the progress of the turtles up and down the beach.
We have a very disturbed sleep on our last night, punctuated by a car driving up and down the road with a siren and loud speaker at about 4am
There has been talk about the turtles being due for another arribadas in the next week or so but we thought that was perhaps what they tell the tourists to make the place seem more exciting.
Whilst the announcement on the loudspeaker is in Spanish, I think I hear the word Arribadas. It’s either that or a tsunami. Soon, there is a knock on the door and we all rush down to the beach as it’s getting light, to see the first turtles coming onto the beach
Ostional is the only place in Costa Rica where the harvesting of turtle eggs is legal. For the first day of the Arribadas, the locals are permitted to dig up the fresh nests and collect the eggs, which in theory, would be damaged by the onslaught of turtles who come in the days following
How wonderful, we think, that the eggs are perhaps relocated to other beaches where they can hatch safely.
It turns out that they are sold to restaurants!
This is the trade off for the locals protection of the beach for the rest of the year. Clearing debris and rubbish, guarding the beach day and night and protecting the newly hatched babies on their journey to the sea.
Down on the beach, there are already many people several hundred metres away, where we can also see several adult turtles on the beach.
Having read about an Arribadas here last year where so many people came to watch that the turtles couldn’t even come up the beach, and the horror story of a couple of people getting their children to pose on top of a turtle, we decide to sit down quietly where we are and wait.
Out in the waves we can see dozens of heads popping up out of the water. There are turtles in the shallows too, looking as if they’re coming in, then disappearing again.
Right next to us, a nest of babies start climbing out of the sand. As there are so many people on the beach, we stay near them while they make their way to the water as they camouflage with the dark sand. An American family come past and their daughter is so busy filming with her phone that she stands right on top of a baby that I’m sitting next too. She looks distraught as we both wait for it to move. It doesn’t.
Another busybody American comes along and says to Louie and Jasper who having been aiding the turtles for four days now, and have a system for helping them down the beach. “Oh Sweedie, Sweedie, down’t touch the baby turtles honey, you have to let them walk all the way down to the owcean.
We all look at her and say “piss off” in our minds. The sun is already out and the turtles are tired.
Then we meet this guy, from Taiwan.
We’re quite intrigued by people with enormous lenses and find that invariably, their photos are terrible because their lense is so heavy that it wobbles around while they’re using it.
He looks terribly professional in his safari suit. We call him and his adult son over to see the babies hatching as there are not many nests to see after the sun is up. He turns out to be a bit of an environmental disaster zone, standing on a couple and then throwing his drink bottle over to his son, only for it to land on top of a baby and crush it instantly.
We sit in stunned silence. He looks surprised to find the turtle dead.
When we’ve seen all the surviving babies from the nest, safely into the sea, we walk up the beach where there is a larger concentration of adult turtles already up in the dry sand, digging or covering their nests. There are people everywhere, many carrying sacks back down the beach which we presume is a coordinated rubbish clean up. We watch one turtle for at least fifteen minutes and are so impressed with the amount of care she takes in covering the whole area in dry sand so as to create the illusion of an undesturbed patch of sand. As she turns and heads back down towards the water, a local moves over to the nest and starts digging it up.
We are horrified. We hadn’t really put two and two together with the large sacks coming down the beach, but suddenly it clicks; they’re chocka full of eggs, not rubbish. Louie looks like he wants to cry.
There don’t seem to be enough turtles to justify taking all the eggs lain this morning.
We hear a couple of days later, that there were around 98,000 turtles on the beach during the arribadas .
It is still a mixed bag of emotions over our four days in Ostional. Obviously custodial rights over the turtle breeding grounds are beneficial for the locals and the turtles but still, our time in Ostional is a mixed bag, spending so many hours assisting a few tiny little lives.
As we are leaving the beach, we see the Taiwanese safari man wreaking more havoc. If the locals weren’t so busy harvesting eggs, someone would probably stop him but he’s having a national geographic moment so close to the turtle that it’s a wonder she keeps moving up the beach.
Eco tourism is a funny concept.
We got a nice review as guests at the airbnb …………“Jude and family are described by local people as real angels, people out of this world, visitors who dedicated their vacation to really care for the locals, to save the baby turtles, and picking up the plastics. For people like Judes is that we operate our lodge . For the marine turtle lovers who care for nature. Also they visited our neightbords San Juanillo fishers beach and Nosara Surfers beach. Thank you we really like the friends like you who understand our work as guardians of the sanctuary with community that we are. ”