The only place on the itinerary that I’d actually been to before and it ended up at the top of my list. Again. Since my family went to Costa Rica in the mid-2000’s, I’ve loved it and longed to go back, so when I found out that it was the last port of the voyage, I couldn’t wait.
On our first day in port, we went on a field program to go zip-lining! We went up into the mountains and arrived at one of the prettiest places I had ever seen. The course was 12 lines through the forest with some of the most incredible views! Zip-lining really takes it out of you, so by the time we got back we all were exhausted, so we ate dinner and passed out. Little did I know that the next day would start the most incredible experience of my life…
Before all of the field programs were out, I had heard of a potential program where we went to a wildlife refuge and worked alongside biologists to help turtles, take measurements, and learn all about the species. I never felt especially strongly towards turtles but I did read The Last Song and had always dreamed about helping little baby hatchlings make their way to the ocean, so I knew I had to do it. While I recognize now that that was probably a weird reason to be attracted to the program, I’ve never been so thankful for Nicholas Sparks. This experience honestly changed my life and educated me on so much, which is more than I could have ever hoped for.
To begin with, I should say that we were insanely lucky on our timing. Only about 0.001% of the population will get to experience all that we did over those 3 days, so I feel extremely fortunate for the experience and I think about it every single day.
We left Puntarenas in the morning and drove about 3 1/2 hours to get to Ostional, one of the main nesting beaches for turtles in the entire world. When we got there, we met Andres, who boarded the bus with the biggest smile on his face welcoming us to the center. He told us immediately how lucky we all were to have gotten there when we did and said he had a surprise for us all, but wouldn’t tell us until later. With that on our minds, we all went into the center and met Yeudy, who we would also be working closely with over the next few days. We were also introduced to our host families and immediately taken back to our homes and fed. A lot. We had the classic Costa Rican meal of rice and beans, along with plantain chips and so much juice. We all then headed back down to the station and had a presentation where we met some of the other staff or others we would be working with for the following days. During the presentation, Yeudi let the surprise slip: the previous night had been the start of the arribada, or the arrival of thousands of turtles to the beach. We all couldn’t believe it. Most of us had come just hoping to see maybe a few turtles, not thousands! After the introductions, we all headed out to the beach were we saw hundreds of turtles, and the sun hadn’t even set yet! (Turtles usually nest at night because the sand is cooler) We learned how to take measurements and record them as well as just getting to spend some time around the animals. After we went back to our houses for dinner and came back to the station about 7:30 pm to start our very first night shift. This is where it all really hit me.
That night, 71,000 turtles arrived at the beach. There were so many that you had to constantly watch where you were stepping to make sure not to trample one, which wasn’t easy with only red lights (they don’t disturb the turtles as much as pure white lights). We had night patrol from 8pm until 12am, but the time flew by. Each turtle laid on average 100 eggs and usually took about 10-15 minutes, with one exception… saggy tail. We had one turtle whose bottom part of her shell had been hit by a propeller or taken off some other way and left her tail saggy, thus the name seemed fitting. For saggy tail, it took about an hour for her to lay her eggs. It didn’t help that she fell asleep in the middle, but to each their own, it must be pretty exhausting to lay that many eggs…
We only got about 6 hours of sleep that night because the next morning we woke up early to go to the beach to see the harvesting of the eggs. In Ostional, there is about 250 families that are allowed to harvest eggs. I know this is confusing, I didn’t get it in the beginning either. They’re harvesting turtle eggs? Why?? What does that do? There’s many reasons for the harvesting of these eggs and for only a limited amount of people who are allowed to. Since there is such a mass number of turtles that show up over the course of 3 days, they end up laying eggs in the same spot eggs were previously laid, causing the others to break and release different bacterias into the sand which could potentially destroy other eggs. Other turtles can also dig up and break eggs below. The limited number of people who are allowed to harvest the eggs also reduces the amount of poaching / makes it illegal. The eggs that are harvested then go to markets and are sold to be eaten, usually in sangria. Sooo, the harvesting of these eggs actually increases the potential of more eggs hatching and more turtles living! I’ll try and link some articles about egg harvesting at the end of the post so you can read up on it if you want, I found them super informative!
Later in the day we walked down the beach and went to the home of one of the volunteers Dennis who taught us how to make turtle necklaces out of coconuts! They turned out amazing and are such an amazing reminder of the time we spent in Ostional! After that, we learned how to make corn tortillas from scratch. We ate them with cheese and I don’t know that I’ve ever had a more delicious meal. We all walked back to the station and had an information session about turtles and the beach, which was very interesting and explained a lot about the species! We walked the beach after which happened to be right at sunset, and was such an amazing sight. That night at 8, we had our second and last night patrol, which was much calmer this time. There was thousands less turtles, so we didn’t need to have a turtle bouncer on the clock the whole time (someone who literally lifted turtles and moved them if they were headed straight at us). While I did miss turtles running into my butt, it was nice to be able to just enjoy the moment and talk with our group more than the previous night. The highlight of this night for our group was finding a baby hatchling! We were able to walk it all the way to the ocean and watch it disappear into the waves.
The next morning we got up and walked the beach around sunrise, and the difference in the amount of turtles from the previous days was insane. This morning there was only about 50 turtles covering the entire beach, drastically different from the day we arrived. We then met up with the whole group and did a beach clean up where along with a lot of trash, we stumbled upon another hatchling. We tried to take it to the ocean, but with the sand being so hot, we don’t know if it made it or not, but we have hope! After the beach clean up, we all went to our houses and got our things and left Ostional for Puntarenas. This trip was one of, if not the most incredible things I have ever done in my life. I didn’t expect much out of it, but I gained so much knowledge and respect for all the efforts of the refuge and a new love for these amazing animals, I hope to go back and stay longer!
When I got back to Puntarenas, we went out to dinner to half celebrate / half sulk about the fact that it was our last night in port. We walked a few blocks to a restaurant called Don Mario’s, butt on the way it started pouring rain. At first we tried to hide out and avoid it, but it was more fun to just accept it and run through the rain. We were so soaked when we got to Don Mario’s that they gave us paper towels to dry off with, but we loved every minute of it! After dinner we walked along the beach and looked at the ship from port for the last night. The next day we all just did some final souvenir shopping and then headed back up the ship for the last time.
I couldn’t have asked for a better last port and Costa Rica will forever have my heart. I can’t wait to explore more of Central and South America in the years to come!!
This is a post written when we were in Ostional with him, super cool and very important!!: http://razaverde.com/2015/12/24/ostional-refugio-para-quien/