Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 2: Wildlife Viewing and Green Sea Turtles

Destination: Tortuguero

After yesterday's power nap and a solid night's sleep, I woke up at dawn and walked along the beach. Turtle Beach is one of few Tortuguero lodges with its own beachfront, and I wanted to take advantage of every minute in this perfect location. The sun was a soft yellow and the volcanic sand was already warm beneath my feet. I'm an early riser, but rarely do I get a chance to walk along a deserted beach just after sunrise -- I decided that this was the ideal beginning to the day.

Fifteen minutes and a dose of caffeine later, I was seated in an open boat, ready for the morning's canal tour. We drifted out into the black canal, and again I could do nothing but gape at the obsidian-colored water -- the best way to describe it is darker and more opaque than Italy's strongest espresso.

turtle beach at dawn

As we meandered down the canal, I kept my eyes alert to any movement around us. It would be an exaggeration to call myself a naturalist -- it's not that I lack interest, but rather that I am unskilled at spotting animals in the wild. To be honest, if I don't have a guide with me, I'm lucky to see a bird perched at eye level on a branch two feet in front of me. This morning, however, it wasn't just me: we all wondered if the animals had gone on strike without notice.

We needn't have worried. Less than 10 minutes into our trip, we spotted our first animal -- a black hawk -- followed by another and another. All of a sudden, it seemed that wildlife was all around us and I looked this way and that to glimpse everything our guide pointed out: green ibis, yellow-crowned night heron, black river turtles, long-nosed bats, and even two aracari toucanettes. Howlers howled in the branches above and we stopped to watch a troop of capuchin monkeys frolic in the trees.

black canal reflections

Now, I'm the first one to jump on the monkeys-are-cute bandwagon, but take it from me that they're not all sunshine and buttercups. When provoked -- and your quiet, respectful presence is provocation enough -- the aforementioned howler monkeys take great pleasure in urinating on your head and lobbing huge, still-warm dung cakes at you. Capuchin monkeys, also known as white-faced monkeys, bear their teeth, hiss, and hurl heavy fruit, branches, and anything else within arm's reach. Needless to say, I was happy to be watching the monkey antics from the safety of our motor boat.

After a hearty breakfast, I donned some rubber boots and lined up for a hike through Turtle Beach's nature trails. My fellow travelers hoped to see blue jean poison dart frogs and I added spider monkeys to the list -- I'd never seen one in the wild before, but knew they lived in this part of Costa Rica. Just a few steps into the jungle and we had identified our first dart frog -- bright orange against the foliage, he was hard to miss. Then, suddenly, a rustling above and a whispered "monkeys!" signaled me to look up.

There, in the trees just above my head, a small troop of spider monkeys foraged for food. Barely containing my excitement, I jumped up and down and weaved through forest foliage to get the best view. The spider monkey is the largest monkey in Costa Rica, but its temperament is much more passive than that of howlers and capuchins. They are shy, and when they spotted us, they instantly swung for cover.

aracari toucanet twosome

Respecting their privacy, we moved on, but I was giddy at having seen my very first spider monkey in the wild.

It wasn't very hot out, but the humidity hovered somewhere around 110%. (I kid you not.) The sweat dripped down my back, and my face looked like a boiled tomato. Nevertheless, my excitement outweighed the discomfort, and we soldiered on -- even the sticky mud was fun to wade through! Before the hike was over, we had seen a golden orb spider, capuchin monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, a damselfly, crabs, and a boat-billed heron. One thing is sure: though you can never guarantee a particular wildlife sighting, you'll get a good variety of amphibians, mammals and reptiles on Turtle Beach's trails.

friendly caiman and black river turtles

That evening, I had scheduled a turtle tour to Tortuguero's protected beaches. October is the tail end of green sea turtle nesting season, and I had crossed my fingers and knocked on wood to bring us luck. Green sea turtles are large -- three to four feet long and weighing between 300 and 400 pounds -- and usually live 80 - 100 years. In general, females nest every two to four years and lay eggs four to seven times per season, usually about 14 days apart. Each turtle lays about 100-125 eggs per nest, and by the end of the season, a healthy green sea turtle will have laid 600-700 eggs.

Green sea turtles are considered endangered, mostly due to commercial harvest of the eggs, which some consider to be a delicacy. However, the eggs also run the risk of being dug up by wild animals or other sea turtles digging nesting holes. After hatching, the tiny babies, at just one to two inches in length, may fall pray to crabs, sharks, and any other beach or sea predators. In fact, only one or two percent of all green sea turtle eggs will mature into healthy adults.

green sea turtle (�� caribbean conservation corporation)

There are less than 90,000 nesting female green sea turtles around the world, and tonight, we saw four of them. Admittedly, we had amazing luck -- the moon was almost full, granting us wonderful visibility, and we arrived at the beach during a most opportune moment. Our first turtle sighting was of a female who had cleaned a spot but decided not to nest, the reason for her decision unknown. We hustled down the beach to watch another mother camouflaging her nest.

Green sea turtle nesting is a four-step process: cleaning, digging, egg-laying, and camouflaging. When a female emerges from the ocean, she looks for the best spot to lay her eggs. This is always on the same beach where she was born. After she identifies her target zone, she uses her flippers to make wide, sweeping motions to clear the area of debris. Then, she enters a trance-like state and lays her eggs, a process which takes 15-20 minutes. After she has finished, she uses her back flippers to cover the eggs and uses her front flippers to displace sand and camouflage the nest. The exhausted turtle then makes her way back to the ocean.

green sea turtle laying eggs (�� caribbean conservation corporation)

Our next turtle spotting led us to a female laying her eggs. Hovering over the freshly-dug hole, her body contracted every few seconds as she dropped one to three eggs. The eggs were soft, akin to a hard-boiled chicken egg, and smelled vaguely fishy. We watched with rapt attention, our gazes trained on the rapidly-filling hole. Though the turtle knew we were there, she was mostly undisturbed by our presence. When taking a turtle tour, cell phones, cameras, video cameras and even flashlights are strictly prohibited; visitors must also wear dark clothing to blend into the background. These restrictions help encourage continued turtle nesting, while profits from the turtle tours help fund turtle tagging, conservation and other important projects.

Leaving the beach, an excited calm washed over us. We felt incredibly lucky to have seen all four phases of turtle nesting, and were in awe at the instinctual processes we had observed. There are few things in life that remind us of nature's raw power, and sea turtle nesting is one of them. I promised myself that I would return next year for leatherback nesting season to observe the world's largest sea turtle in action.

Day 2: Wildlife Viewing and Green Sea Turtles in Pictures