Day 3: Green Sea Turtle Nesting Tour
Over a leisurely breakfast of homemade banana bread, fruit and an omelet, we thanked Dan and his wonderful staff for their warm hospitality. I watched with envy as a few anglers set out for another day of spectacular fishing on the Rio Colorado. As we packed up our things, a handful of new arrivals flew in from Kazakhstan via San Jose. Dan cracked open four large crates of Russian vodka, and I knew that we'd be missing an interesting party.
Vincent and I walked five minutes to the ramshackle but oddly charming village of Barra Sur, the southern half of Barra del Colorado. The community consisted of little more than a few clapboard houses, a tiny airstrip, some scruffy dogs and basic stores. On the other side of the river sits Barra del Norte -- mostly houses and cabins connected by dirt paths and offering even fewer amenities.
We chartered a boat with the lodge and traveled an hour and 45 minutes through the canal system to Tortuguero. The day was bright and hot, and we sat back and enjoyed the tranquil ride. The 113 kilometer Tortuguero canal runs parallel to the shore and connects the Caribbean towns of Limon, Moin, Tortuguero, Parismina and Barra del Colorado.
The canal system was completed by logging companies in 1974 to help transport precious hardwoods from the rugged interior. Thankfully, the logging trade has since abated, and tourism is now the region's top industry.
Along the way we spotted pot-bellied spider monkeys swinging in the trees, a graceful aningha and a lazy crocodile. The fresh waters are also home to large and somewhat aggressive bull sharks which have been known to eat people on occasion. I reminded myself to keep all body parts on board.
We docked our boat at Mawamba Lodge, one of the attractive all-inclusive hotels just north of Tortuguero village. Mawamba is situated between the river and ocean and has beautiful sprawling grounds. A series of trails meander to the beach, as well as to the village and entrance of Tortuguero National Park. Our rooms were large and simple wood affairs with high ceilings, front patios and comfortable beds.
Vincent and I joined a group of 12 travelers from Spain and a nice Californian couple for a filling buffet lunch next to the pool. We were accompanied by naturalist guide Jorge, who would be leading our group's tours for the next two days. I had a brief flashback of being back at summer camp with the scheduled meals and communal tables, but it was a pleasant way to get to know our fellow travelers.
A five-minute stroll down one of the lodge's sandy paths led to the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. The CCC was started by field biologist Dr. Archie Carr in 1959 in response to wide-scale turtle poaching. The organization strives to monitor and protect the region's sea turtle population. In a short video, I learned that Tortuguero's 22 miles of coastline comprise the largest nesting site of green sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. Thanks to volunteer and community efforts, turtles are no longer killed for their eggs and meat and are now tagged and carefully monitored when they come ashore to nest.
Each year, from July through October, Tortuguero visitors can join a guided tour to observe some of the thousands of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) nesting on the beach. I signed up for an evening turtle tour at Mawamba Lodge that departed at 8 p.m. with one of the park's licensed turtle guides.
But first, we toured the lodge's frog garden where Jorge pointed out several red-eyed tree frogs clinging to bromeliad leaves. A little later, Vincent returned and found a pair of common tent-making bats hanging under a wide banana frond. Also known as umbrella bats, these tiny mammals cleverly create their own tents by chewing along the center of a wide leaf until it collapses, forming the perfect water-tight home. Mawamba Lodge also has an enclosed butterfly garden where visitors can walk through shaded trails and glimpse morpho, tiger and monarch butterflies.
The late afternoon sun was sizzling, and guests lounged in the pool or cooled off with a frosty drink. We dined family-style again and loaded up on grilled tilapia, salads, pasta and a nice dessert of creamy flan.
The lodge staff had informed me that cameras, video or any kind of flash photography were prohibited on night turtle tours. Turtles are extremely sensitive to light, and park rangers and biologists want to keep our impact to a minimum. I dressed in dark clothing and met my assigned turtle group of ten in the hotel lobby. Our licensed guide for the evening was a local named William.
William had the build and swagger of an English bulldog and explained in a gruff voice that we'd boat over to the village and wait for a turtle sighting. There were no guarantees, but he'd had success on all of his previous turtle tours that season. William warned us to stick together, as it was dark and throngs of tourists were joining similar tours in our vicinity.
Of course, I immediately managed to follow a crowd from a different boat, attaching myself to this strange group as if I belonged. About ten minutes and a few curious stares later, I realized that these people were not the folks from my lodge. I listened in the dark for William's telltale voice and slunk over to my rightful place.
A fellow guide radioed William, directing us to a part of the beach where a sea turtle had been spotted laying her eggs. As this was the tail end of nesting season with fewer females coming ashore, we were joined by several other tour groups. Fifty or more people clustered on the beach, not exactly the intimate experience the sea turtle or I had anticipated. Each group rotated in five-minute intervals so that we could watch this amazing 250-pound creature lay anywhere from 80 to 120 eggs.
She was massive, as large as my giant square coffee table, and breathed heavily as she diligently covered up the nest with her leathery flippers. The guides used special red flashlights so we could watch her exhausted crawl back to the sea. She had dug two giant cavities in the sand, one the real nest and another fake one to deter potential predators.
Female green sea turtles have an inherent nesting instinct that drives them back to their natal beach to lay eggs. They typically return every two or three years and may nest several times in one season. Due to conservation efforts, their numbers are once again on the rise. I felt lucky to have witnessed such a remarkable animal, one that lived during the time when dinosaurs roamed the planet and would, I hope, continue to thrive.