Protecting the gentle giants, one nest at a time.
Gliding through pristine Costa Rican water, a mother turtle stops on the shore to examine the beach. This is where she was born, so she hoists herself out of the water, onto the beach and digs a nest to lay her own eggs, renewing the cycle.
“Turtles are often referred to as gentle giants, because even though they're rather large, they're relatively harmless,” Stephen Secor, biological sciences professor at The University of Alabama, said.
Because of this relative harmlessness, sea turtles are susceptible to harm on a variety of levels. Humans hunt turtles for their rumored healing powers, and other larger animals see them as easy food sources, Michael Gutierrez, owner and operator of Tortuga Surf School, said. They are also unintentionally killed by humans who accidentally step on the nests, crushing many of the eggs.
Turtles can also often get stuck in trash thrown in the ocean, such as the plastic rings that hold together canned beverages, Secor said. Young turtles can swim into them and get stuck, causing their bodies to then develop around the plastic, shortening their life span dramatically.
Marco Vinicius Garcia Marin stands along the edge of the newly built turtle nursery at Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge. The original Wildlife Refuge, farther down the beaches of Playa Hermosa, was destroyed by hurricane Nate in October of 2017, and the nursery was the last part to be rebuilt. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
However, Costa Ricans such as Gutierrez are working to help protect the sea turtle eggs that are laid on their beaches, to ensure they are able to hatch and make it to the sea, where they can grow to adulthood.
Though not a turtle expert, Gutierrez said he has tasked himself with protecting the turtles of his beaches, because no one else will.
Gutierrez said he has three different methods of handling sea turtle nests: relocating the nest, taking the eggs away or leaving the nest. When turtles lay their eggs at night or when the beach is not that crowded, he relocates them to a nest he digs under the trees in his garden. Gutierrez said that he relocates eggs mostly to prevent them from being discovered by poachers, who will see the turtles’ prints in the sand and dig up the nest.
However, sometimes turtles lay their eggs during the day, when people are still on the beach. In these cases, Gutierrez takes the eggs to the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge because poachers will hear of the eggs and come looking for them.
An information sign is located right outside of the turtle nursery at Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
In other cases, when turtles lay their eggs, and Gutierrez’s team is not able to relocate them until the morning, the nest must be left alone because the life cycle has already begun. Gutierrez said when this happens he and his team clean the beach to cover up the tracks leading to the nest.
Marco Vinicius Garcia Marin is one of the park rangers at the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge. Marin said there are three main types of sea turtles they encounter on their beaches: green, hawksbill and leatherback. The eggs that he and other rangers discover on the beaches of Playa Hermosa are moved into their newly finished nursery, while the eggs that Gutierrez and others bring are reburied along the edge of the beaches. The nursery has a gate that locks at night to prevent poachers, and all of the nests are covered with mesh to prevent them from being attacked by other animals.
“The [eggs] that people like Michael, the police, or anybody else brings are not put in the nursery,” Marin said. “They’re put on the beach, and they’re monitored from the house because if you put them here, they don’t really know what kind of manipulation happened, if the bag was contaminated, it could pass on to the other animals.”
Michael Gutierrez holds up the shell of a hatched turtle egg along the beaches of Playa Jacó. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
The refuge also does research and data collection, sizing and weighing the turtles that frequent their beaches, Marin said. Turtles come two to three times every season, laying around 300 eggs total. One of the crazy things the rangers have discovered about turtle nests is that no matter what species, they always dig nests that are exactly 45 centimeters deep, Marin said.
Marin also said it is important to not rush newborn turtles into the water. They stumble around when they first hatch not because they are lost, but because they are taking in their surroundings, so that 10 to 50 years later they can return to the same beach where they were born to make their nests.
Turtles are not yet endangered, but if humans continue to carelessly harm their nests, they soon will be. The best way people can be mindful of turtle nests is to look where they walk, and avoid any large dips in the sand that could potentially be nests. Also, it is important for people to remember that turtle eggs are not meant to be eaten and any eggs obtained for food purposes were not legally obtained.