Sea turtles are some of the most mesmerizing animals I think I’ve ever had the pleasure and luck of encountering. They cruise gracefully through the waves, some as big as cars, spending a mere 10% of their entire lives on land. Very little is still known about the secret underwater lives of these jellyfish eating ocean patrollers, but they manage to capture the hearts of anyone privileged enough to have experienced them up close.
Sasha and I had been incredibly lucky during our trip to the Galapagos, where we had the chance to snorkel with not one, but several of these amazing flippered reptiles. They cruised through the waves nonchalantly, taking on the harsh ocean currents with ease, unlike us! They eyed us with interest or indifference, happy to allow us close enough to appreciate their beautiful mottled colouration, inquisitive eyes and sturdy, streamlined bodies. Swimming with a sea turtle is honestly an experience you will never forget! However, Tortuguero in Costa Rica was in a whole other league when it came to getting up close and personal with these fantastic creatures and one I encourage you all to try and experience in your lifetime!
There are seven different species of sea turtle, and four of these can be found nesting in Costa Rica. In fact, Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast is home to the largest number of nesting Green Sea Turtles in the Western Hemisphere. Tortuguero, meaning ‘Land of the Turtles’ is completely water-locked and the only way to access this turtle haven is by boat. It is in this odd little turtle paradise (officially made a protected national park in 1975) that the Sea Turtle Conservancy has been operating since 1959, making it the oldest conservation and research facility for sea turtles in the world. It is also one of the best places to witness sea turtle nesting and hatching.
Interested? Of course, you are!! Swimming with or witnessing the miracle of turtle nesting is the experience of a lifetime and because of this people flock to Costa Rica during the nesting season in hopes of taking part in this terrific natural spectacle. However, almost all of the sea turtle species are threatened due to loss of nesting sites, the perils of plastic in the ocean and the illegal meat and shell trade. Even with the best will in the world tourism to see these phenomenal creatures can have it’s risks to their well-being. So, here I am writing a blog post based on our experience and what we learned in one of the Turtle capitals of Costa Rica on how you can be a turtle-friendly tourist on your next trip. Want to help protect the future generations of sea turtles? Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your experience without conservation consequences ….
Like My Mother Always Used To Say; Look But DON’T Touch!
I am a strong believer that experiencing something first hand is without a shadow of a doubt the best way of forming emotional and lasting connections. I think it’s important for the public to be allowed to witness these amazing creatures in their natural environment. Having these magical moments with sea turtles, be it by swimming with them in the ocean, watching them nest or seeing them hatch and make their awe-inspiring journey to the sea, is the best way to create ambassadors for their cause. Society’s vested interest in protecting turtles is what drives research and provides the necessary funding for the much-needed projects and means to conserve these fantastic creatures. However, I also believe barriers have to be put in place for all involved. Now, I know turtles are mesmerizing and your inner child will scream at you to just reach out to see what those amazing flippers feel like, or persuade you into thinking how cute it would be to hold and take pictures with the tiny hatchlings. Heck, you may even be able to justify to yourself that you’re assisting the baby’s return to the sea, you’re helping conservation right? I know all these feelings, with the best will in the world, even as a vet, God I want to touch them. Unfortunately guys, those decisions about contact should be left to nature and the people with the clipboards who know how to handle the turtles sensitively and who are aware of what impact that may have. So whether you’re swimming with turtles in the ocean or being a witness to the phenomenal breeding spectacle on land, look but don’t touch however hard that may be, and remember to keep a respectable distance.
Take A Visit To The Research Centre
In Tortuguero, a short walk along the sensational Caribbean beach will take you to the Sea Turtle Conservancy Research Centre. It is one of the cheapest things you will do in Costa Rica ( I will warn you now if you’re planning a visit, it ain’t the cheapest country for a holiday…Well not on a backpacking budget anyway!), and for a great cause at a mere $5 entry! There’s a beautiful video to watch about the history of the centre, their research and the breeding and hatching process. This is followed by a wander around the centre which is brightly painted and decorated with photos and models, exhibiting some of the centre’s research, up to date stats from the current hatching season and the threats the sea turtles face. They also have a little on-site shop for you to purchase souvenirs, again at surprisingly decent prices!
The centre is open from 10am – 12pm and from 2pm – 5pm daily and is a perfect way to while away some time and learn a thing or two, happy in the knowledge that your donation is going towards helping our flippered friends.
DON’T Go On Turtle HATCHING Tours
While we were out there we asked our guide why there were plenty of turtle nesting tours but no turtle hatching tours. Like many tourists, we were keen to see the babies scuttle back to the ocean but there seemed to be very few companies that offered it. Interestingly we found out that hatching tours had been banned because some guides in order to get their money and encourage tourism were digging up nests and planting hatchling turtles in order to guarantee sightings. This had a big knock-on effect on the turtle’s well-being so was banned to prevent any further impact. It’s something that hadn’t even occurred to us until we got there and asked and I will hold my hands up and say I’d love to see hatching turtles and if someone offered me a tour to see it, I’d be there hands down without questioning it. So I am passing on this bit of acquired knowledge to you guys so you know not to support these tours as they are going on without permission and are potentially damaging. So, long story short, turtle nesting tours with a registered guide are a big YES, knock yourself out, I would encourage you all to see this amazing part of nature, but turtle hatching tours are a big no.
Respect The Rules; They Are There For A Reason
Now, I know I sound like a school teacher, but really guys there are rules in place for a reason so please respect them. No one is allowed on the beach after 4pm until 6am in the morning as this is prime nesting and hatching time so the turtles can do their thing with as little disruption as possible.
Additionally, if you go on a tour you are told to wear dark clothing and there are no phones, flashlights or recording devices allowed and only red light is permitted as this disrupts the turtles the least. Following this rule not only protects the turtles, but a guide can be banned for up to 6 months if one of his or her tourists pulls out a phone or shines white light during a tour, that is their livelihood. So, before you think “well it’s ok if I do it, what’s the worst that could happen” think of the consequences, not only to the turtles. Besides, watching a turtle nest is an awe-inspiring experience that you’ll really benefit from being present in the moment for, not stuck behind a phone or camera trying to capture it….And if you really want to try and get a photo for the holiday album you can get up at first light and take a walk on the beach at 6am and with any luck, you may catch some of the stragglers returning to the sea after nesting. Remember just because you aren’t under supervision to still behave respectfully; keep your distance, keep quiet and if they’re nesting, stand around the back of them so you aren’t as threatening. Remember to have a little respect for a woman in labour!
Go Out With A licensed Guide
Like many places where there is a key tourist attraction, there is lots of competition for custom. This can be daunting to travellers and you don’t always know what you are paying for or how reputable each company is. My advice would be to ask the turtle conservancy what companies they recommend as they work with all of the licensed guides in the area. We booked through our hostel who were very eco-friendly and strict about who they hired and ensured they worked with the research centre so we were safe in the knowledge our tour was legitimate and wouldn’t be at all damaging. We paid $25 dollars for the tour which seemed to be the going rate. The guides working with the conservancy are all given an allotted time for their group between 8pm and midnight which will be told to you on the day of your tour. You then go out for two hours and experience the miracle of turtle nesting first hand. It is truly an amazing and unmissable experience I encourage anyone who visits Costa Rica to partake in!
If You Want To Get Up Close And Personal; Volunteer!
The Sea Turtle Conservancy offer volunteer holiday programs where you get the once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about and help undertake research and will get the up-close and personal experience with the turtles that everyone desires. We didn’t have time on our whirlwind visit to volunteer but I would love to go back one day for this purpose.
If you don’t have the time to dedicate to volunteer like us, if you are out on the beach early, the researchers are often kind enough to let you tag along on their morning patrol and grill them with questions. You may be lucky enough to see some turtle related activity, after all, you are with the experts who will know where to look!
Other ways you can support the project include adopting a turtle or shop their products. More information is on the website so check it out here… https://conserveturtles.org
And Finally, Think About Your Impact
During your visit, and also at home of course! Think about your impact on the environment. Don’t litter, especially on beaches, your coke can may end up stuck on a baby turtle’s head and that plastic bag you toss aside may be mistaken for a jellyfish by one of the adults and ultimately cause it’s death. Not to be dramatic but our waste, especially our plastic waste has a huge impact on our environment and is causing one of the most significant problems in our wildlife. It’s not hard to keep hold of it until you find a bin to dispose of it properly.
Speaking of plastic, try to avoid it as much as possible, both at home and in Costa Rica. Plastic is EVERYWHERE and it can be really hard to avoid entirely but if everyone made a few small changes, the impact could be hugely positive! Take a reusable bottle with you so you can avoid buying water in plastic bottles. Buy loose fruit and veggies rather than packaged, say no to plastic cutlery and straws and pack a tote bag to carry shopping rather than getting a plastic bag each time. These items don’t take up much room in your suitcase but can make a big difference in terms of your plastic usage.
Something else to consider is what establishments you are supporting. There is a huge push for eco-tourism in Costa Rica so it isn’t hard to find hotels, restaurants and tour companies who are making the effort to reduce their impact. Try to choose and support these organisations when planning your trip, not only will you feel good about yourself but it will help push for change in other establishments.
Two establishments I would wholeheartedly recommend in Tortuguero would be Aracari Garden Hostel – A really chilled out, eco-friendly hostel with airy rooms, lots of greenery and a strong sense of turtle protection. Check out their website here for more info: http://www.aracarigarden.com On site there was a little cafe, Aracari Bistro, who served excellent food at decent prices and whose products were all eco-friendly and sustainably sourced, what more could you want!?
So those are my tips for being a turtle-savvy tourist, I hope this has given you all some food for thought on your up and coming adventures and has inspired you to head to Tortuguero to witness the astounding turtle-tastic spectacles for yourselves!!