Evening falls and the horizon becomes dotted with round figures drawing closer to the coast with help from the motion of the waves. In a matter of minutes, greenish flippers and shells appear, slowly touching the wet sand and starting to dig deep holes with their rear flippers. One after another, Olive Ridley turtles come home and that’s how the “arribada” (Spanish for arrival), or “flota” (fleet), of turtles in Playa Ostional begins.
After leaving the water, the female crawls through the sand to choose a place to dig a hole and deposit; it must be a place with no vegetation and distance from the coast to protect the eggs from the high tide. The turtles dig a hole the size of their body; then, with their hind flippers, take the sand to make a deep hole and elongated shape where they drop their eggs.
After about 60 days of incubation, little turtles move from the sand to the top of the nest with their flippers. They come to the surface when the temperature has dropped, usually at night, as a way to evade predators and the hot sun. The baby turtles wait for the rest to join the group to go out to sea.
Why would a small village tucked away in Guanacaste, Costa Rica receive that visit? It’s difficult for science to explain it. What we do know is that Playa Ostional is one of the last hopes for protecting the Olive Ridley turtle, one of the most endangered species in the world. According to managing biologist for the Ostional Development Association (ADIO), the town is working to avoid their extinction, which would be tragic. Because the beach is not part of a National Park, but a Wildlife Refuge, the community itself prepares the beach to make it a safe place where the turtles can arrive. They have an agreement with the Ministry of Environment to manage the turtle habitat and the legal sale of 1% of the eggs they produce. It is also a huge tourist attraction which provides income for the community as well.
More turtles visit Ostional every year. However, factors beyond the community’s control, such as ocean temperatures and coastal drought, can affect the turtles continuing to come to the community. Climate temperature directly affects these species. The sand needs to be a certain temperature for an equal number of male and female turtles to hatch. If it exceeds 30° C (86° F), only females might hatch or the egg might not hatch altogether. When no males are born, the species population begins to decline due to lack of mating.
The community is confident that their conservation and education efforts will be successful so that these sea turtles will continue to return to the beach where they were hatched, year after year. If you are interested in witnessing this natural phenomenon, Ostional is located about an hour’s drive south of our beach house in Playa Flamingo. They nest throughout the year, but on the Pacific coast it is concentrated from July to November.