Onboard Online - Costa Rica, The Story behind The Photo

Costa Rica's Sea Turtle Arribada
Written by Christelle Holler - 11th April 2017

Three years ago, after a dive trip led by Superyacht Private Expeditions on a 60m motor yacht, we decided to take the time to explore Costa Rica a little further.

Our trip had previously taken us to Cocos Island, a reserve where we had had some of our most vibrant underwater encounters in a world which seemed safe from poaching and illegal fishing. Even though, we were constantly aware that the threat for sharks, in particular, was never far, despite the strict regulations in place.

It felt like we were part of the happy few witnessing marine wildlife absolutely untouched by human activity.

By chance we were there in November during one of the most important turtle 'arribadas' (mass nesting) of the year, so we were recommended to head north of the Pacific coast in an attempt to watch sea turtles nest and hatch.

We drove to the remote area close to the Nicaraguan border and looked for a small fishermen's village called Ostional located on a black sandy beach on the Nicoya Peninsula. This is also one of the world’s most important nesting sites for olive ridley sea turtles gathering by the thousands, nesting while baby turtles hatched from an older nest. The area became a national wildlife refuge in 1984 when the government made the decision to put an end to sea turtle egg poaching to protect the endangered species. 

Getting to Ostional from the capital, San José, was an adventure in itself. After hours of driving, we finally arrived at the end of a dirt road and there it was, amidst the sound of strong waves breaking nearby. You are only allowed on the beach after having registered at the national park office and paying a small fee, and then you are allocated a naturalist guide to walk on the beach and see the turtles. It was sunset. Hundreds of turtles were struggling to dig a nest, lay their eggs or go back to the ocean. It was so moving and impressive! 

Our guide was a young man from the village who explained that the community had been empowered by the authorities to look after the beach and the turtles at a time when the local economy was very bad. Indeed, the beach was spotless, with no rubbish in sight and no visitors walking without a guide. We even saw a few baby turtles moving hesitantly towards the ocean, a bit disoriented and turning in circles but eventually finding their way for a challenging and hopefully long journey, coming back someday to the place they were born. 

We returned to the beach early the next morning with the same guide and the beach was full of turtles everywhere. Some were even digging a nest where another had dug her own before, destroying the other eggs.

We began discussing poaching with the guide when villagers started arriving on the beach with huge bags, looking for eggs. I had seen a photo of this on social media before. It had created a huge outcry on the internet condemning people for harvesting turtle eggs. I was only just realising that this was the same place and that I was witnessing the situation first hand. Very surprised, I turned to the guide and asked for an explanation. 

Before 1987, the turtle eggs were worth a lot and poachers would come from all over the country to get them, sometimes while the turtles were still laying. Turtles started visiting the area less as they need a very quiet environment to lay, but they wouldn't visit anywhere other than the beach where they were born. This is when the national park authorities approached the villagers to work on a sustainable project with the support of the government. 

The demand for eggs was difficult to stop but the poachers themselves could be deterred. The community was tasked with looking after the beach, keeping it clean and reporting any poaching activity. They were to make sure the turtles were protected and not disturbed and that visitors could only walk to the area with local guides trained by the national park. 

After having worked with scientists, the decision was made to harvest some of the eggs laid during the first three days of major 'arribadas' for a very limited time, roughly an hour each day. Many of the eggs used to be destroyed by the turtles themselves as they flocked on mass to the same area at the same time.

These eggs are now sold at a very low price controlled by the authorities (and many have not been fertilised), meeting a demand but removing any financial interest for poachers. As a result, more baby turtles started hatching and finding their way to the ocean. The village has become an eco-place, attracting visitors who would never have heard of Ostional without this programme. 

Thanks to the economic growth generated, the kids in the village are now able to leave the village to study and go to university. Most of them also volunteer during the school breaks to look after their beach and guide tourists. Our young guide was extremely proud of his village and what he was doing for the environment and given the development in the area he planned to return for good after graduating. Several other villages in the region are now under the same programme. 

However, the authorities are putting measures in place to prevent unauthorised visitors to go on the beach as it disturbs the turtles. 

The reality behind the photo I had seen on social media was therefore a very different story and I realised how crucial it was that any photo published carries a proper caption in order not to be taken out of context. Without the action of the Costa Rican government, this small fishermen’s village would have disappeared from the map, wrecked by an economic crisis and the beach would have been robbed of its beautiful treasure, triggering the already challenging future of these turtles.