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The one million turtle march: An arribada in Costa Rica

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‘Haven’t you heard about the arribada?’ Christina asked us when we remarked how badly we would love to see some sea turtles. We heard it might be possible here, we tell her.

turtles in costa rica‘Hundreds of thousands of turtles will come to lay their eggs on the beach, just a few miles up the road from here,’ she explained. Four times a year, ten days before the new moon from August to November, masses of olive ridley sea turtles simultaneously swim out of the sea and lay millions of turtle eggs on the beach.

Turtle making a nest in OstionalWe couldn’t believe our luck. Of all our time snorkeling in the Caribbean, we have only seen one sea turtle. In just a matter of days, we would be seeing more in one place than most people could ever see in a lifetime during the arribada, a Spanish word roughly meaning ‘arrival into port or harbor’.

Ostional turtle arribada in october 2012The turtles’ arrival is not an exact science, so all we could do was wait it out. We checked Facebook updates from local turtle guides daily and finally a few days later, the start of an arribada was confirmed – for the very day that Jess was set to leave for a quick visit back home to Chicago. This was going to be one amazing experience the two of us would unfortunately not be sharing.

october 2012 turtle arribada ostionalWhen our friend Denise called to say we would head to nearby Ostional beach, I was dressed and ready in five minutes and could barely contain my excitement. The arribada takes place in only a few places in the world, and Ostional beach is the second biggest nesting ground behind India.

turtles costa rica arribada ostionalWe parked the car a mile outside of the village and walked to the black sand beach, where I immediately spotted a lone turtle awkwardly digging her nest with her back flippers. I almost tiptoed over, awestruck at being able to witness this rare moment.

turtle in ostional costa ricaAt first the mothers-to-be arrive in ones and twos, slowly lugging their 40 – 50 kilo (90 to 100 pound) shells up the sandy banks to safe spots to dig their nests. They are not bothered by the onlookers who gather to watch the spectacle. Instead, their one-track minds focus only on digging holes roughly two feet deep. Within thirty minutes the turtles dig their nest and lay 80-100 white, round soft-shell eggs that are the exact size and shape of a ping-pong ball, then hastily fill in the hole and make a beeline back into the ocean.

turtle eggs in ostional costa ricaFrom the moment their backs are turned, the little turtle eggs are in grave danger. Hundreds of vultures hover and circle the nests as she plants the eggs and dive in and pluck out a few eggs the minute she leaves. Then the stray dogs arrive, digging out much of what the scavenger birds leave behind, until being shooed away by the people of the village, who are permitted to collect and sell the eggs on the first two days of the arribada. Despite the fact that olive ridley turtles are an endangered species, the locals are still allowed to collect the turtle eggs and earn well, up to $200,000 from the four arribadas.

turtle enemies in ostionalIn addition to everything stacked against them, the turtles themselves are their own enemy. As thousands flap and flail around the beach at once, I saw countless turtles digging their nest right on top of where others had already laid their eggs, flipping out dozens of the others in the process.

costa rica turtle arribada ostionalEven though 10 million or more eggs are laid on the beach each time, after the vultures, the dogs, the humans and themselves, only a fraction of the baby turtles will make it into the water for the first time.

costa rica turtle arribada ostionalWhen they hatch 45-50 days after an arribada, only one in fifty of the tiny turtles will reach the water. Less than half the size of an adult human hand, the babies are easy prey for vultures and dogs as they wiggle their little white bodies into the sea, where even more predators lay in wait.

turtles coming out of the ocean ostional costa ricadani ostionalAs we walk along the beach, more and more turtles emerge from the waves. When we arrived around 3.30pm, there were only a few turtles out; an hour later, the beach appears to be made of boulders, so full it has become with turtle shells inching up and back down the beach.

turtles costa rica arribada ostionalturtle invasion ostionalBy sunset there are thousands of turtles and it is entirely chaotic, with turtles trampling over each other fighting for the few patches of sand left to make their own nest. I sit down in the middle of a group of turtles, mesmerized by how they dig deeper and deeper into the sand. Their flipper covers me with scoops of sand until the depth of the hole satisfies them. By this time, the turtles are worn out, but rather than rest, eggs drop out from their insides into the hole, one by one.

costa rica turtle arribadaAs soon as the sun sets, we leave the beach already planning our visit the next day. This experience is addictive; I can’t wait to see it again. We find out later that this particular arribada might have been the biggest ever in Ostional. It is the rainy season, however, and on the second day it pours down all day, making rivers uncrossable and standing exposed to whipping winds on the shore unbearable. By day three we are able to go again, the rain stopping just in time for an afternoon visit to Ostional.

Turtle arribada OstionalDenise prepares me, as we are set to see the slow, sick, injured and old turtles that arrive today. I see turtles with three legs, scars and pieces torn out of shells from shark bites, deformed turtles.

Deformed and injured turtles in OstionalIt is painful to watch these sick turtles, which have an even harder time dragging themselves onto the shore so much more slowly than the others. Many don’t have the power to reach safe nesting points out of the way of the tide, digging dangerously close to the shore. I wish there was more I could do, but we can only help by turning over the turtles when a wave crashes in and flips them over.

helping a turtle turn overAs this last batch of turtles limp back into the sea, the arribada comes to an end.

turtle exhausted arribada ostional 2012See a turtle arribada in Ostional

Ostional is located on the Nicoya peninsula; a small, unremarkable village most of the year, but there are a couple of inexpensive hotels such as the Turtle Lodge and a few restaurants.

Located around 90 minutes north of Samara or a six-hour drive from San Jose, the nearest bigger town is Nosara, a popular surf spot, about half an hour south of Ostional. Flights leave occasionally from Nosara to San Jose and Liberia. When renting a car, a 4 x 4 is a necessity to cross several rivers, which, in the rainy season, can be a challenge to cross between Nosara and Ostional.

The majority of turtles come to the beach at night, but on the first three days there are turtles during the day as well. They start to arrive in masses around 4pm. Flash photography is not allowed.

turtle arribada ostional october 2012Help the turtles

Ostional is a remote beach and arribadas take place in the low season. This combination means that there are never enough volunteers to help the hatchlings.

If you would like to help the turtles, you can do this by visiting the Asociason de Guias Locales de Ostional (Association of local guides – Ostional) Facebook Page for current information about arribada start times and when hatchlings need assistance with their epic journey to the sea.

ostional turtleIf you’d like to see more turtle photos, check out our Flickr Photo album:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157631840770588″]

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Tags : costa ricawildlife

36 Comments

  1. I have chills from reading this… and I am holding tears back, no joke. Wow… just wow, how freaking amazing that you got to see this. I mean really this is something I think I have only see on the Discovery Channel, I don’t even think I have ever met someone who has seen something like this. I’ve seen many natural wonders, but nothing like this. I am just in awe at how nature works… so many eggs will never make for many reason and yet some do and I guess that is the beauty of the world… everything happens for one reason or another. Mother nature know what she is doing & we just follow along. I’m still just looking at the photos and thinking WOW. Ahh so damn beautiful.

  2. Wow! What an amazing experience! We’ve been dying to do this for some time, and had hoped to do so when we house-sat in Honduras, but no one knew anything about it there (or, wouldn’t tell us).

    It’s so sad that locals are allowed to come and take the eggs. Their chances are so slim to begin with.

    And the old or injured turtles? That would have broken my heart into a million pieces…

    1. Thanks Dalene 🙂 I hope that Costa Rica is going to introduce stricter laws with regards to the turtle eggs – this country is usually so protective of their wildlife and national parks – seeing thousands of these eggs bagged up in a big storage room behind the beach was shocking.

      1. Please follow this link to get an explanation of the Ostional Sustainable Egg Program
        http://seaturtles.org/article.php?id=1830
        This may appear to be a shocking site but it has been working since 1989 to improve the chances of survival for these beautiful creatures. Nature can appear at times to be cruel and brutal on the surface. Without the hard work and dedication of the people who live in Ostional the chances of natural survival for the turtles would be greatly reduced.

      2. For those who didn’t follow Don’s link, the article points to why harvesting of the eggs from the first two days is allowed: the survival of those eggs is very small because of the digging and movement from the rest of the arribada, which digs up and crushes the eggs earlier. Since they are unlikely to survive this harvesting has a much lower impact on the population than impacts on the eggs laid later

    1. It definitely felt surreal, Cam! And it happened so quickly that after seeing only a few turtles along the beach at first, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of them just a little bit later.

  3. Wow, your photos are really really stunning. Really like something from National Geographic.

    You’re so lucky to have experienced something as beautiful as this. I’d have been moved to tears.

    But it’s so sad that many of them will never make it and crazy that locals are allowed to plunder the eggs. Hope the government will step in to do more someday!

    1. Thanks so much, Cheryl! I know how lucky I am – there is just such a rare chance for people to be in that area when an arribada happens. The November arribada in Ostional has actually just started today!! I too hope that the government will change the rules about the eggs – I could never eat one, but all the restaurants there are serving turtle eggs 🙁

    1. Hi Hannah, the big arribadas happen four times a year – once a month in August, September, October and November. The last arribada of the year is actually happening right now! It is always around 10 days before New Moon. I’ve found this Facebook page to be a great source for the exact dates since the guides post about the arribadas as they happen: https://www.facebook.com/Asociacion.Guias.Ostional.

  4. What an emotional roller coaster this post is. I went from melting over their cute faces to wanting to cry over their struggles. Sea turtles are such beautiful, incredible animals. Their egg laying struggles break my heart!

    1. Thanks, ladies! It was simply incredible. We missed the turtle hatch by only a few days – it would’ve been amazing to help bringing the little baby turtles into the water! Akumal is a great place for turtle watching, too! 🙂

  5. We spent six months house sitting in Costa Rica in 2011 and didn’t find the time to pop over to Ostional. Reading your report it appears we really missed out. It looks just breathtaking. I can’t imagine seeing that many animals in such an intimate setting.

    Costa Rica provided us with our first experience of tropical living and we’ll never forget the weird and wonderful flora and fauna we encountered.

    We’ve linked back to this post from a round up of our favourite 5 Costa Rican natural wonders 🙂
    Charli l Wanderlusters recently posted..Costa Rica: Top 5 Natural Wonders

    1. Charli, if you ever return to Costa Rica during turtle nesting season, you have to head to Ostional for sure! The experience was simply mind-blowing. Thanks for linking to it in your awesome Natural Wonders post. The wildlife in Costa Rica is just like no other – we can’t get enough of it and never got tired of the monkeys hanging out in our backyard 🙂

  6. I would love to see this and also have my kids experience this natural wonder. I am going to Costa Rica this winter (Dec 25th thru Jan 3rd) . Where can I experience this ? Any ideas ???

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