Splashing Into the Science of Sea Turtle Conservation
6:00 PM — finally. Time to wake up.
Headlamp. Check. Waterproof shoes. Check. Field journal. Let’s go.
Meeting at the field station, we huddle under the overhang with our trusty stray dog sidekicks. Rocky, a charismatic mutt, greets us, tail wagging, excited for a long night at the beach.
After swatting away what seems like a million mosquitos, we grab our gear and head to the beach. As the lightning strikes light the sky and illuminate our path, we make our way through overgrown grass and scattered driftwood.
Amidst the stark juxtaposition of crashing waves and soft drizzling rain, a round and glistening mass of light emerges from the water, waddling across the sand.
Here, we need to watch our steps. In front of us lie hundreds of sea turtles. Rather, thousands of sea turtles.
Tonight marks the first night of the arribada. Otherwise known as the “arrival.”
Coated in shimmering sprinkles of bioluminescence, these turtles not only bring life to the beach but also life for their species. After many years and many miles, these turtles have returned to the same beach they were born to lay their eggs and nest.
Sea Turtle Arrival
Known for their distinctive green shell color, petite size and shape, and prolific nesting behavior, olive ridley sea turtles are ancient reptiles. In fact, they have roamed this planet for 110 million years. Often called “living fossils,” olive ridleys live in both the open ocean and coastal regions.
Olive ridleys—the smallest sea turtles in the world—are threatened along Costa Rica’s coast. Globally, the population of olive ridleys has decreased 30-50%, posing a myriad of conservation challenges. Various factors contribute to these losses, such as bycatch, poaching, habitat destruction, predation, vessel collisions, environmental pollution, and climate change.
In Ostional, Costa Rica, olive ridleys are one of several different sea turtles who come to nest. The beaches of Ostional host arribadas, which allows scores of turtles to nest under safety in numbers.
Armed with red headlamps, we carefully and methodically navigate the beach. Because red light only emits a small fraction of visible light, we can discreetly light our path without disturbing the turtles.
Thousands of boulder-looking creatures waddle across our path, shoveling sand into the air and letting out big and breathy groans. Amidst the turtle-covered beach, there is an art to finding just the right nesting female to study. We scan the beach for fresh turtle tracks, looking for a female who is about to choose a spot for her nest.
Slowly, but surely, we follow her sandy trail and set up alongside the nest. After she digs a deep and sturdy nest, we measure her shell and flippers. Then, the fun part. We count how many eggs she lays. Each clutch consists of roughly 50 to 200 eggs. For the females on this beach, it may be their first, second, or third time laying eggs this season.
Across every grain of sand, the beach comes to life, and it is our job to document it. These boulder-looking creatures raise many environmental questions and concerns. With our research, we strive to understand the extent of arribada events, whether that be the population density of nesting sea turtles or levels of hatching and mortality. Beyond this, we hope to understand how this beach compares to other beaches in the region, what impact environmental management may have, and the migration patterns of olive ridleys.
In the distance, Rocky and his friends wade through the water and welcome the arriving sea turtles. The eggs these exhausted turtles are about to lay are in store for a world of no guarantees. At the end of the day, living is no guarantee for these young, tireless souls.
Every Sea Turtle Egg
These nests face numerous challenges. Before hatching, these eggs must incubate for 50 to 60 days, and a great deal can happen during this time. Despite the depth of these nests, survival is tenuous because various factors penetrate the safety of the sand.
Following arribada nights, many Ostional locals choose to collect and cook turtle eggs. From personal experience with my host family, sea turtle eggs taste buttery, salty, rich. Something distinctive, unique, and different from your everyday chicken egg.
Now, at first glance, this may seem like a conservation nightmare. However, eating sea turtle eggs is one of many environmentally-friendly and governmentally-sanctioned activities in this community. Because of how many sea turtles frequent the beach during the arribada, many sea turtles end up destroying nests. As new sea turtles arrive, sea turtles dig up old nests to lay their own eggs. As a result, these old eggs gradually decompose, creating a breeding ground for fungus, bacteria, and disease.
In an effort to improve nesting success and survival odds, the locals collect eggs early on in the arribada, limiting how many eggs get destroyed. In turn, this limits the spread of disease amongst clutches.
Not only does egg harvesting benefit the community ecologically, but it also benefits the community economically. Because collecting excess eggs provides income for many locals, egg harvesting helps stimulate the economy.
For the eggs on this beach, the babies face not only the risk of disease, but also the threat of vultures, jaguars, and stray dogs. It is not uncommon to see a jaguar roaming Costa Rica’s beaches, looking for fresh eggs and unlucky sea turtles.
At every turn, sea turtles must be keenly aware of their surroundings. For there are many dangers awaiting them.
Off to Sea (Hopefully)
With one swift crack, a small, leathery flipper punches through the pure white shell. Wiggling and squirming, the baby pushes its way through the sand. This one brave soul invigorates the rest of the clutch, and soon all the babies start wiggling their way to freedom.
Now, for the run of their life. Whether this run marks the beginning or end of their life depends almost entirely on luck. Sadly and surprisingly, only one in a thousand babies will reach adulthood.
And, only 1 to 8 percent of eggs will even hatch. You may ask, why is that? More on that later. A particular predator is the star of that story.
For these baby sea turtles, the path to the ocean is a minefield.
First, the vultures. The vultures have patiently been waiting for the arrival of these young ones. Slow and vulnerable, these babies are an easy and nutritious treat for birds of prey.
However, these vultures are not the only predators lurking on the beach. Costa Rica is home to wild populations of stray dogs who are both opportunists and strategists.
Just as we methodically navigate the beach in search of nests, the strays are the real pros. In small packs, these dogs prowl the beach, sniffing out nests and digging up food. And, when the babies hatch, these dogs know just when to strike.
When—rather, if—these babies reach the water, they must swim for their life. The ocean can spell trouble for turtles who are already feeling exhausted from their long, awkward, and stress-inducing trip across the beach.
At this age, the turtles are not yet masters of their domain. While some turtles manage to make it through towering, tumbling waves, others get swallowed up, succumbing to the ocean’s beautiful and dangerous nature. For those who narrowly escape death’s grip, they still must be on the lookout for danger above and below. No matter where they go, predators are still on the lookout for a quick, tasty treat.
Now, for the most dangerous predator of all—people.
In the history of Earth, there has never been a stronger, faster, and smarter species than homo sapiens. Perhaps, the human is not built like a cheetah or a falcon or a killer whale, but our brainpower has propelled us to the role of the ultimate apex predator. We are not just masters of land, we are masters of water and air. No matter where you go, humans are always seemingly present and in control.
Where our physicality limits us, we turn to technology. And, this technology, without mindfulness and intention, can be astonishingly destructive. Despite this, that same technology is what can help us clean up oceans, curb diseases, and re-invigorate ecosystems.
Concerns in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, poaching is a major concern. These poachers are not only on the search for the eggs but the turtles as well. Illegal egg and turtle harvesting can be lucrative for criminals who are looking to profit from commodities, like shell jewelry or turtle meat.
Beyond the threat of poaching, there is a great deal of bycatch happening in our oceans. Bycatch kills 250,000 sea turtles per year. When animals other than the intended prey end up in nets and traps, this leads to what scientists call bycatch.
Even boats, themselves, are threats to sea turtles. Vessel collisions cause hundreds to thousands of sea turtle deaths. Because sea turtles rely on air to breathe and because they tend to feed at the surface, they are at particular risk of vessel collisions.
One threat many overlook is light pollution. Sea turtles rely on moonlight to guide their path to and from the ocean. Therefore, when hotel and condominium lights flood beaches, newly hatched sea turtles must navigate through a disorienting light show. In Ostional, regulations limit when homeowners can light their homes along nesting beaches.
For sea turtles, the world around them is changing. Humans have a great deal to do with that. As the climate changes and pollution wreaks havoc on the environment, sea turtles must adjust the ways they move, eat, and interact with the world. Today, there are only 800,000 nesting females remaining.
At the end of the day, our technology and our humanity may not be inherently evil. If we just take a moment to observe our world and to listen to understand, perhaps we could live in better harmony with our neighbors, like the olive ridleys.
Sea Turtle Departure
In rural communities, like Ostional, sea turtles play an integral role in the community and its culture. Whether it be the art, furniture, music, or food, Costa Rica and its people intertwine sea turtles into every way of life. In this way, sea turtles are always present. No matter whether it’s an arribada or the fateful day young turtles start their tumultuously beautiful journey to sea, sea turtles are the heart and soul of their community.
Slivers of light break through the clouds, and swarms of vultures flood the beach. While some choose to perch in the palm trees, others plop down on the beach, scanning the sand for some scrambled breakfast eggs.
With one last pet, we say goodbye to Rocky, and he and his crew of strays scuttle into the woods. The roar of barks fade, and those last few wagging tails disappear into the brush.
Closing our field journals and shoving all our rain-soaked gear away, we groggily stretch, yearning for our morning/afternoon nap. As the sun rises above the rain clouds brewing in the sky, we zip up our day packs and call it a night. Only a few more hours, and, tonight, we’ll be back.
Ways to Help
For sea turtles to live their most healthy and productive lives, it is imperative to make thoughtful and environmentally-conscious decisions in the world. To help the sea turtles roaming our ocean, consider the following:
1. Limit your single-use items, rather, choose reusable items, like reusable grocery bags, food wrappers, and water bottles.
2. Pick up at least one piece of trash a day. All this gunk and grime ends up in the ocean. Since we all live in one big watershed, consider everything you say and do as part of the ocean’s story. When storms come through, any remaining litter washes into the water. Despite the vastness of the ocean, organized beach cleanups can make real impacts on the lives of sea turtles.
3. Eat responsibly. Some fishing practices pose particular risks to sea turtles. To protect sea turtles, use programs, like Seafood Watch, to evaluate which companies and species are most sustainable. Since sea turtles are victims of bycatch, eating seafood from reputable companies is the way to go.
4. Refrain from feeding wildlife. Allow sea turtles to make their own dietary decisions. This way you encourage natural sea turtle behaviors and reduce the risk of unintentionally hurting wildlife.
5. Consider working on environmental research projects, like those at BIOMA. Eco-oriented projects help curious minds learn more about the world around them responsibly, carefully, and intentionally.
For more ways to get involved with sea turtle conservation, consider the following resources:
Investing in the Future
No matter the ways you get involved, the intention to make the world a better place is profound and impactful. Sea turtle conservation—at its core—is about being a good listener and being present for the best and worst times for the species.
One of the most important ways to curb crises in the ocean is voting with your dollar. For instance, some eco-friendly businesses that give back to the ocean and work to protect ocean animals, like the sea turtle, include:
1. 4Ocean — Removes a pound of trash from the ocean with every purchase.
2. Sand Cloud — Donates a percentage of profits towards ocean conservation efforts.
3. Pela — Makes compostable, sustainable products, such as phone cases.
If you’d like to get more involved in environmental conservation, consider delving into the world of citizen science as well.
Thanks for reading! Have you seen sea turtles in the wild?