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Leatherback Turtles at Playa Grande


Deep in the inky depths of the world’s oceans, one hardy species has remained unchanged for nearly 120 million years: the great leatherback turtle, so named because in place of the traditional turtle shell they have five bony plates held together with fat and skin.

Once a year, the females crawl up onto the beach to lay their eggs on beaches distributed among the shores of South America, Panama, the Antilles and Costa Rica, including Playa Grande (and adjacent Tamarindo) in Costa Rica. As the females lay the eggs, the males circle tirelessly 100 metres offshore until it’s time to move on.

The tiny community of Playa Grande consists of a hotel, a turtle museum and a pizza parlor, while larger Tamarindo to the south has an airstrip and considerably more amenities. Both are surf Meccas, but after moonrise the only people on the beach are there for the turtles. The beaches are part of the Las Baulas National Marine Park (which extends far into the sea), created to provide a protected area for the nesting turtles. Park rangers patrol the beaches, protecting the turtles and their nests from poachers and any potentially threatening obstacles.

The Earthwatch Group is also established in the area to aid in ongoing research about the turtles and to help in conservation efforts. Through education, the Playa Grande community has turned from poaching to conservation and is eager to pass that message on to visitors.

A good first stop is the turtle museum, where you can learn of the many dangers and horrors facing the leatherback. Also of interest is Hotel Las Tortugas, where guests are invited to eat their dinner by very dim candlelight, as a consideration to the turtles that are easily distracted by bright lights.

The nesting season is from October to February with the turtles being particularly active during high tides. However —early risers beware—the turtles only come ashore at night and the tours don’t get underway until well after 10 p.m. Tourists are not allowed on the beach by themselves; they must go with a ranger and attend an information session beforehand. Here guides give a brief lesson, in a schoolhouse crawling with cicadas, of what can be expected on the excursion. They also outline the rules: no touching the turtles, no walking in front of the turtles, no talking, no flashlights, no cameras with flashes, no wandering away from the group.

Even with all the restrictions (or perhaps because of them), it is a truly powerful and reverential experience. The leatherback turtles are in danger from discarded plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods, as well as fishing nets, motorboats and environmental destruction due to condo developments. The Earthwatch Group predicts that if these destructive, careless behaviors continue, the leatherback turtles could become extinct in our lifetime.

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