Ostional: land of turtles and vultures.

6 November 2011 § Leave a comment

I might as well do this now. I’m exhausted from a seven-hour bus ride, and the hours of traffic it took to get back into San José were as slow as they were mildly entertaining. People sold foot-long bags of almonds on the highway in the relative dark. Cars crossed perpendicular lanes in attempts to move over. No one was more than a few feet apart. A sign above the road advised drivers to avoid accidents. Do they really need to be told?

Hundreds of miniature turtles, none of them bigger than half the palm of my hand, shuffled their way to the surf. We humans had to keep a keen eye out for them in the dark, for a step from a sandal was more than enough to kill one.

In the darkness they were safe. No vultures patrolled the beach, no dogs dug up nests of eggs in the midst of night. Such dangers came with the sun, and would arrive soon enough, in troves.

The last arribada ended about two weeks ago, according to Rodrigo, the biologist who’d been working at the lifeabundant beach along Ostional for nearly 30 years. So don’t expect to find too many nesting turtles tonight, he said. Red flashlights and loud voices scoured the sand nevertheless.

(The arribada is the ‘arrival,’ during which thousands of turtles go to the 7-kilometer-long beach to lay millions of eggs, some of which are harvested for consumption in Costa Rica (which provides the economical backbone of the small village in Guanacaste), and others will fall prey to poachers and vultures and dogs and crabs, among other things). Ostional is one of eight beaches in the world where this phenomena occurs, and far and wide has the largest concentration of turtles arriving every month to lay eggs. It’s important to note the apparent paradox that though the locals harvest some of the eggs (about .05% of those laid), this is the only said beach in the world where the Olive Ridley populations are growing – in part because the locals, as well as volunteers, protect the eggs and the hatchlings on their way to the sea from predators. In other places, the turtles are increasingly more endangered every year. Ostional’s growing populations, however, eclipse the decreases elsewhere, though the Costa Rican government, corrupt officials (now on sabbatical leave to relieve tension), and developers, all have severely conflicting interests with the community and the harvesting of the eggs (the beach being part of a wildlife refuge, where harvesting is technically illegal, though the community has been doing it for decades longer than the refuge existed), and it seems that any situation but the present one would have devastating effects on Ostional, which could easily turn into a ridiculous photocopy of the touristic, hotel-laden Nosara, just down the road, or Tamarindo to the north.)

Hours later, after the moon had sunk, the stars mirrored the bioluminescent plankton sparkling in the wet sand, and a few of us took to the search again, for turtles hundreds of times larger than the four-day-old reptiles marching to the sea at a less obscene hour. Someone in a shack on the beach told us to walk ten minutes further. Hay una tortuga allé. I got the feeling he just wanted to get rid of the gringos knocking on his door at 2 a.m.

Two minutes later we descended upon the Olive Ridley with red lights and cameras. It stopped moving immediately. It was massive: If I had curled into the fetal position, I could fit inside its shell. I’m six-foot-three. Its shell was chipped, and back right fin was either missing or severely damaged. Heading back out to sea, for it had just laid its eggs, it had only a few meters to go. humans surrounded it, zooming in, green light sensors from digital cameras, starshine, and voices. All in the way.

I sensed fear in it, and thought that if that fear was real I would feel it too. How could I convey to a giant turtle that such behaviors in my species were indicative of adoration and attention, and perhaps, but not necessarily, respect? It would guess the latter, to be sure.

At dawn, Aly and I found another turtle digging its nest amongst a battalion of vultures. Not long after it began, the ancient reptile absondoned the project, turned around toward the water, and crawled bak to the surf. The vultures kept ominous watch, and moments later they and their canine cohorts swarmed the would-have-been nest for fresh fast food.

The turtles know better.

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