Day 8: A Night Turtle Tour in Las Baulas Marine Park
I savored the comfort of my king-sized bed and tiled bath, rarities in most mid-range Costa Rican hotels. A throng of white-throated magpie-jays, locally known as urracas provided entertainment during breakfast on the veranda. Perched in almond tree branches, they watched and waited as I finished my toast, then swooped down to devour the remaining crumbs.
The helpful staff at Hotel Las Tortugas arranged a turtle tour for me that evening. My tour would be guided by park rangers from Las Baulas Marine Park, which encompasses the beaches of Playa Grande, Carbon, Ventanas and Langosta, and includes the Tamarindo Estuary.
Every year between October and February, hundreds of leatherback sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. These Jurassic reptiles, the largest of all sea turtles, can weigh upwards of 1500 pounds and measure six feet in length. Although the beaches encompassed by Las Baulas support over 800 nesting sea turtles annually, the leatherback remains highly endangered and at risk of extinction in the Pacific Ocean.
I spent the first part of the day under the cool shade of a palm watching surfers catch the late morning waves. I was mesmerized by their resolve as each approaching swell grew larger and fiercer. Their boards seemed an extension of their agile bodies as they glided over the crashing water.
I ventured to the nearby turtle museum, which I had read so much about. To my disappointment it is now permanently closed and, according to the park ranger, there are no immediate plans to re-open.
At 6 pm, I walked to the Las Baulas ranger station, just a few hundred yards from my hotel. Some twenty tourists had gathered for our evening turtle tour. I was hoping for luck, as word had it that two nights had passed without spotting a leatherback. We milled about for an hour, until a radio call indicated that two turtles were seen nesting on the beach.
There were 30 of us by that time, and the park rangers explained that the turtles were a few kilometers down the shore. We divided into small groups and piled into our own cars, caravanning to the beach. As usual, no cameras, flashlights or video were allowed, so as not to disturb the nesting females.
When we arrived, local biologists were huddled around a previously-tagged leatherback. As we waited our turn to glimpse the turtle, I marveled at an extraordinarily starry sky. In the space of a few minutes, we saw three shooting stars race across the splash of the Milky Way. I felt certain tonight would be a lucky night.
The female had dug two nests but wasn't satisfied and returned to the sea without laying her eggs. Our group watched her slowly lumber back to the sea. Even in the darkness, I could tell she was massive, nearly double the size of the green sea turtles I had observed in Tortuguero.
The rangers' radios crackled as more turtles were seen farther along the beach, but our group had to wait its turn, as another crowd had arrived from Tamarindo. I suddenly felt the onset of a migraine and knew I'd have to cut the evening short. One of the park rangers graciously offered to escort me back to Hotel Las Tortugas, by way of a kilometer walk down the beach.
The shore was pitch-black, but along the way the ranger pointed out three leatherback turtles emerging from the ocean. Their sheer size was staggering to behold. I was in awe to have seen such amazing creatures, especially under the circumstances. In the end, I had my own private tour, not a bad way to spend my last evening in Playa Grande.