Come Out of Your Shell and Meet the Turtles of Tortuguero

Located near the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, surrounded by rain forest on one side and Caribbean beach on the other, is Tortuguero National Park, whose name means “The Place of Turtles.”

Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.
Costa Rica's Tortuguero National Park is the easiest place in the world for viewing sea turtles.

Tortuguero’s 22-mile long beach is the main nesting area for Green Turtles in the Caribbean. It is also the easiest place in the world to view sea turtles.

Green Turtles mate and nest several times during a season. In mating, an amorous male holds onto a female with the sharp hook on his front flippers. If he can’t locate a female, he will improvise and substitute anything that floats, whether it be a piece of driftwood, another male turtle, or a skin diver.

An impregnated female will wait offshore until dark and then head for the beach and a nesting site. During her crawl up the beach, noise or lights will cause her to return to the safety of the sea. Once she has begun digging her nest, however, nothing will distract her. She uses her rear flippers to scoop out a hole about two-feet deep, deposits around one hundred leathery, golf-ball-sized eggs, covers the nest, tamps down the sand, and returns to the sea.

Many of the buried eggs are dug up by coatimundis, dogs, raccoons, and even humans. The remaining eggs hatch in a couple of months. The baby turtles use a temporary egg tooth to tear open their egg shell. It takes the combined power of about 100 cooperating turtles to excavate the two feet of sand which covers them.

The little turtles appear on the beach, usually before dawn, then scramble for the water. On the way many are eaten by hungry crabs and birds. If they do reach the water they stand a high chance of becoming dinner to an eagerly waiting fish. Of the hundreds of thousands who race for the sea, probably fewer than three percent survive. For the next half-century the turtles live nomadic lives, migrating over vast distances of ocean. After fifty years they reach sexual-maturity and return to the beach where they were born, to mate, nest and produce another generation.

In addition to the Green turtles, Tortuguero is also a nesting place for Leatherback, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Loggerhead turtles.

For would-be turtle watchers, the best time to see Green turtles is between July and October. At this time you can also see Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. The Leatherback turtles return to Tortuguero during the months of February through July. Of course there is no guarantee that you’ll see the turtles at any time, as the weather, the tides, activity on the beach, and other factors can discourage them from landing on any given night.

With or without the turtles, Tortuguero is well worth visiting, as it is a wonderful place to view countless animals and birds. Getting there is half of the fun. There are no roads, just rivers and canals, so we travel by boat. Birds fly overhead, monkeys and sloths hang in the trees, and crocodiles rest along the river banks. Traveling up the jungle waterways one can easily imagine himself as Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn on The African Queen.