Turtle Patrol: Searching the Osa beaches for sea turtles

By Jamie Cone

Photo: Claudio Giovenzana

An anticipatory rumble of thunder sounds far away, off shore. It has an almost calming sound as we make our way through the dark squishy forest path, the sky patterned with silhouettes of tree leaves. The jungle is alive with night sounds, from the echoing song of the nightjar to the almost space-invader beep of frogs on Las Rocas trail. A silky white two-toed sloth is spotted, high up in a tree, taking the night off. I envy its slow slumber for just a moment before I remember that this trail is taking me down to the beach, down to witness a spectacular and sacred event, one that only a few people in the world have the chance to be a part of. Tonight, I am walking a stretch of beach along which nesting mother sea turtles will, with great care and diligence, lay their precious eggs in the sand.

I pause for a moment as the trail ends and gives way to the soft sand of the beach. Our 25-minute hike from the station seems like a second in the journey of a mother turtle who has migrated thousands of miles for the sole purpose of depositing her clutch here. My red lamp is not needed quite yet, as my eyes adjust to the darkness of the beach, and the grey tones of sand, sky and water become crisper. I catch my breath as my eyes drift upward to the brilliance of the stars, undisturbed by artificial light. The enormity of the universe settles upon me like a treasured memory, unabashed in its pure beauty. In this moment, it is impossible to feel alone.

The sand bunches between my toes as we begin our nightly patrol. My trained eye seeks out the tell-tale black stripe on the horizon, signifying a turtle’s presence on the beach. There, ahead, I can barely start to make out the tracks. I signal my team to stop, and then slowly walk alongside the track in the sand. I can hear the faint sound of flippers in sand, flinging to and fro. Perfect. The turtle is in the first stage of laying, when she digs a pit for her body to rest while depositing her clutch. I can tell by the tracks that this is an Olive Ridley sea turtle, the most commonly found on Pejeperro Beach. I slowly walk back to my team and tell them the good news. We approach the turtle silently from behind, and kneel down in the damp sand to watch the process unfold.

Photo: Oliver Neumann

Her silvery body gleams with an inner glow in the starlight, and with every precise movement she displays millions of years of evolutionary development, for sea turtles are a truly ancient lineage. Her back flippers move alternately, each one shiny and patterned with a beautiful mosaic of scales. Her right, and then her left rear flipper gently scoops sand to form a round and deep egg chamber. As she moves the sand, she cups it carefully in her flipper before “flinging” it to the side. She gently smoothes the sides of the chamber, until she is content that the sand is neither too wet or dry, too hot or cold, and that there are no debris that could obstruct her egg-laying. She plants her back flippers on the ground, and gulps a huge breath of air. Suddenly, she is still. I gently smooth sand away from the end of the turtle’s carapace until I can barely see the pure white, perfectly round glistening eggs dropping from her into the chamber. Her back flippers lift up slightly each time she releases the eggs, sometimes two or three at a time. The mother turtle is in a trance, unaware of our presence, even as we start touching her to check for wounds, deformities, to measure her carapace length, place metal flipper tags with her ID, and count her costal scutes and prefrontal scales. “She’s beautiful,” Emily whispers, one of the dedicated volunteers who have spent countless hours protecting nests and working with mother turtles. Gaby, another volunteer, documents the data diligently as we all work to collect the information in a short gap of time.

Our mother turtle stretches her neck and gasps with exertion as she lays her last remaining eggs. She must be exhausted. After the last egg has dropped into the chamber, she starts to “wake up” and move her back flippers, pushing sand into the nest. Then, she packs the sand, pounding it down with her plastron in a side-to-side motion. When the sand is packed to her satisfaction, she flings sand all over the entire area, even taking the time to fully camouflage an area close to the nest. Finally, our dedicated mother starts to make her way back to her ocean, her home. She has to take many breaks along the way, heaving her heavy body down the beach. Feelings of wonderment and respect at the hardship of this mother turtle fill me to the brim.

We take the last remaining data and ensure that the nest is protected for the time being. Throughout the night, we encounter many more tracks and nests and one more turtle on the beach, this time a Pacific Green turtle. Larger, more skittish, with tracks like a tractor, this species is the second most commonly seen on Osa shores. We also manage to spot tiny mass tracks from two hatchling emergences of both species. Both nests had remaining hatchlings that needed help out of the nest. To hold one of these tiny creatures in my hand restores in me a powerful hope in the fate of the planet.

I turn and look back on the long stretch of beach that I walked for the last six hours. My feet are sore, my legs feel like jelly, but my heart is flying and my mind is truly content. To know that one hatchling made it into the warm Pacific waters of Costa Rica tonight makes it all worthwhile. I look at the kind people on my team with gratitude, because without them none of this would be possible. The hope that their enthusiasm is equal to the bouncy energy of a newly hatched baby sea turtle, the strength and trust of a mother climbing up the steep beach, and the brilliant moon and stars that light their path.

Jamie Cone is a Research Field Assistant for Osa Conservation’s Sea Turtle Program at our Piro Biological Station in the Osa Peninsula. 

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