On turtle watch in Tortuguero National Park

Every travel day I have in Costa Rica,  I ask why? Why you make my life so hard you crazy bus system!

The 6am bus I was to catch to Limon didn’t arrive until 6:30am. Because I arrived at 5:30am, I was stuck talking to some random guy for an hour. He was way too interested in me, where I was going etc. Maybe just curious but too curious for my liking.

To cut it short, five buses and a boat later (including a three hour layover at one point), I got to Tortuguero.

I met a couple on the last bus, Steve and Sandra. Steve is from WA and Sandra is French, but they met when Sandra was working in Australia. They had been travelling all over the world for fifteen months and had three months to go. They’d already been through a lot of Central America including Mexico and Cuba. I picked their brains on everything & they proved to be a great source of info.
On the boat trip to Tortuguero itself, we were treated with crocodile and huge iguana spottings.

Exhausted from a long travel day and with a big day ahead, I didn’t do much else except get some dinner and read before bed.

As seems to be the theme of my mornings, I had an early rise, 5am. This was in order to join a canoe trip of the canals and rivers to spot some wildlife.I was in a group with a French family who were extremely lovely. They made an effort to chat with me in English. The mum offered me a snack when the rest of the family were eating & offered for me to use their binoculars.
Our guide was quite good, pretty funny and kept referring to me as Australia and the family, Family from French. He is trying to learn French and had fun practicing with the family.

The morning was hot, the sun had a decent sting in it by 6:30am. Having a small canoe, we were able to navigate a few tight spots. This got us up nice and close to some caimans, a juvenile and a big adult. We spotted a sloth, sleeping super high at the top of a tree. We also saw two toucans flying above, a pair of Jesus Christ lizards (they get the name from their ability to walk on water. Very cool to watch!), plenty of birds and monkeys.

After a few hours we made our way back to Tortuguero village. I desperately needed more sleep so took a two hour nap (does this cross the line from nap to sleep?). Feeling a bit more rested, I grabbed some lunch then went exploring by foot in the national park.

It reminded me a lot of Cahuita NP as the trail winded through the jungle alongside the beach. Intermittently there were small paths that lead to the beach. These were numbered. My guess is that these points are used as reference when observing sea turtles laying their eggs and hatching. Along the beach were many large shallow holes. These are all turtle nests, with the eggs siting almost a metre below.

As I continues along the trail I saw lizards and geckos galore. They make quote a loud sound for the size they are. I also saw plenty of cheeky monkeys, including two that were pushing each other off beaches then grabbing hold of either a branch or the other monkey at the last second. They’re pretty cool to watch. Very strong and nimble. I saw one holding them self up with just their tail and a back foot (or hand? Their feet look and operate like hands).
After about 5km I saw what looked to be jaguar paw prints. I knew there were many in the park and had wide ranges of territory. As I went on, I saw more prints and heard some very loud sounds in the jungle, about 10 metres from me. I thought through some possible responses should a jaguar present them self. These included: running as fast as I could in the opposite direction, running onto the beach and into the water (can Jaguars swim?), climbing a tree or just screaming really loudly. Unfortunately (or thankfully) I didn’t see the elusive cat so there was no need for any escape strategies. Mainly because I had walked a decent way and also 3% because I was scared of a jaguar, I turned back. I bumped into another trekker who was checking out the jaguar prints. I told her that I saw more prints and heard sounds of a big animal. She told me she didn’t think Jaguars were dangerous and would probably shy away from a human. She set off to find her jaguar and I continued back to Tortuguero village.

As much as I just wanted to sleep, I had booked in for the turtle tour which was setting off at 9:30pm. With low energy I joined the group, reminding myself that this is why I came all the way to Tortuguero. We met up with Steve & Sandra who I met the previous day.
Our guide for the turtle tour was a random cookie indeed. His attention kept shifting between telling a story, introducing the group to each other and explaining the turtle nesting process.
We walked about 20 mins to the turtle base. Here there were many other tour groups. The idea is that a group of scouts find a turtle coming from the sea, ready to make her best and lay her eggs. When the time is right, groups are ushered to a spot on the beach where the turtle is. Lights, other than red lights, were not to be used. No photos could be taken either as the flash scares the turtle and they may leave the nest during the process. Apparently that had happened just two nights before.
I didn’t expect to be so close to the turtle. If I reached out I would have touched her. The guide moved the flipper a couple of times so that we could see the eggs coming out. This was really gross bit intriguing at the same time.
We would look, then retreat to let another group look, and did this a few times. Next we saw the turtle covering the eggs, moving sand with her flippers. She had a breather (it looked like hard work) then shuffled out of the nest and toward the sea. This was the best part to see. She had an epic migration, made her nest, laid all those eggs then covered the nest. Now she could relax a bit and cruise in the water.


I feel quite conflicted about this experience.I felt uncomfortable being so close to the turtle. I don’t think humans should be so close to a wild animal, especially during such a special and intimate process. It felt to me like the turtles were exploited by tourism. I know Costa Rica are the gold standard in conservation & especially turtle conservation, but I didn’t feel right about it.
In saying that, it was an honour to see such a beautiful creature. There is something very tranquil and mysterious about them.

Some fun turtle facts:

– Adults usually weigh 250kg and are able 1 metre 20cm long.

– They migrate from wherever then mate for 10-12 hours. 2 months later they lay their eggs.

– They lay as many as 120 eggs at one time.

– They estimate one of every thousand eggs laid hatch and survive.

– Predators: humans taking eggs, dogs, monkeys, big fish

– The mother never meets her children, she doesn’t come back to see them hatch. She’s outta there once the job is done

– When the babies hatch, they climb out one by one and run to the beach to catch a current which will take them to their home. They start with a tiny bit of energy in their bellies, enough to get ten from the nest to the sea.

– They eat plankton as babies then sea grasses as adults

I made it back to my room just before midnight. After an epic day of wildlife watching, I don’t think it took more than sixty seconds before I fell asleep.

My last stop for Costa Rica is La Fortuna!

Cheers, Mel 🙂


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