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Visiting Costa Rica's Turtle Maternity Ward (PHOTOS)

Posted: 11/15/11 08:30 AM ET

She came from the sea some time after dusk. Four and a half feet long from nose tip to tail, she heaved herself out of the Caribbean and laboriously made her way across the gray sand toward the perceived safety of the tall palm trees that fringe the 22-mile long beach. There she dug her back paddles into the sand.

We hadn't seen her yet.

From 9 p.m. we had been waiting on the small path cutting through the thick vegetation that shielded the beach from the faint lights of Tortuguero, a small town on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Green Sea Turtles like their privacy. The faintest noise or the glimpse of a flashlight and they might retreat into the sea.

It was around 11 p.m. when our guide got the radio call from the turtle spotter: She has finished digging her hole. She's about the start. "Come on," our guide whispered and danced his red-filtered flashlight on the path in front of us. "Let's go." Feeling our way in the dark we reached the beach -- along with 30 other tourists who had paid $20 each to watch the miracle of turtle life. The guides, four in total, whispered instructions to their groups: "Wait here, single file." Then, one by one, they motioned us over to the turtle's tail end.

I felt a slight embarrassment, like you do when you see something in a window at night that you weren't supposed to see. I averted my eyes. Then, curiosity took over. From her backside dropped a stream of sticky ping pong balls into the two foot-deep hole.

"She's in trance," our guide whispered. "She doesn't notice you."

We had reached Tortuguero from the capital, San José, a few days before. Only accessible by air or water, Tortuguero sits approximately 50 miles north of Port of Limon in a nature reserve on a narrow peninsula. We had taken an early morning bus from San José to Cariari and on to La Pavona, where we had climbed into a motorboat to begin the trip through a network of narrow, shallow canals and rivers, where we spotting several crocodiles and iguanas. In Tortuguero we had settled into Casa Marbella, a small hotel with a large deck facing the canal and ten rooms in peaceful pastels.

It's not just turtles that thrive in the nature reserve: The animal and plant diversity in Tortuguero National Park is among the highest in Costa Rica with over 400 kinds of birds and 60 species of frogs. It seemed like we saw 398 of those bird species, along with Caimans, monkeys, lizards and a very slow-moving Three-Toed Sloth, on an early-morning boat tour through the network of canals and creeks that wind through the palm swamps and mixed rainforest.

Today, however, it was all about turtles. Of the eight species of marine turtles in the world, six nest in Costa Rica. Of those, four nest in Tortuguero -- the Green Sea Turtle, the Giant Leatherback, the Hawksbill, and the Loggerhead Turtle. It is the most important nesting site of the endangered Green Sea Turtle in the Western Hemisphere and every season 40,000 females make their way out of the sea to bury their eggs in the dark sand. Visitors are allowed to visit the beach together with a licensed guide from March until October, and the peak nesting season is in July and August.

The nesting is monitored by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which has been studying the reproductive ecology and migratory habits of turtles in Tortuguero for 50 years. The organization is continuing the mission of sea turtle expert Dr. Archie Carr, and its main goals are to collect information on the sea turtles, reverse the decline of Green Turtles in the Caribbean and conserve the area's nesting Green and Leatherback turtle populations.

After the turtle in front of us finished laying her eggs, a volunteer from the Sea Turtle Conservancy recorded her biometric and physical data and tagged her in two places.

Tortuguego was first settled by islanders from the Caribbean, and its Afro-Carribean roots are still strong. Our guide's grandfather was among the first settlers in Tortuguero, a hundred years ago. His reason to come to Tortuguero was simple: to hunt turtles. "Hunt" might be a poor choice of words. Agile in water, the turtles move slowly on land, becoming easy prey for hunters who could prevent their escape by simply flipping them over. Our guide, who was in his forties, also used to hunt turtles, before he went through the Sea Turtle Conservancy's program to become a certified guide.

"People around here used to live until they were 100 years old, sometimes even 120," he told us as we walked back in the dark. "People were much taller and stronger back then, because of the turtle meat." Then he realized the political incorrectness of those statements and with slight embarrassment he added, "But that was wrong. We don't do that anymore. Now we work to preserve the turtles."

Legend, it turns out, dies hard, even among turtle guides.

A whole business has grown up around the turtles by design: By showing that live sea turtles have greater monetary value for the villagers than dead turtles, the Sea Turtle Conservancy's program has managed to grow the local economy while preserving the turtles. The Green Turtle population is believed to have come dangerously close to extinction in the 1960s. Then, in 1970, Tortuguero National Park was established. Over the next decade, the Sea Turtle Conservancy recruited and educated research assistants and local tour guides, as well as park guards. Somewhere along the way came the tipping point when guiding tourists became more profitable than poaching. Lucky for the turtles, that tipping point came before extinction.

Costa Rica has been much better than its neighbors at capitalizing on its natural beauty and abundant animal life. Every year, around 50,000 tourists visit Tortuguero to see the nesting turtles of inside the national park. That many tourists could have destroyed the character of the village, but as we walked back to our hotel along the dark path from the beach contemplating what we had just seen, "tourist trap" were not the words we were searching for.

What we had seen was the miracle of life in the form of 100 sticky ping pong balls.

Karin Palmquist is a writer, designer and photographer. She is a contributing editor to several travel guidebooks.

Tortuguero National Park
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Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast protects 22 miles of turtle nesting beach from the mouth of the Tortuguero River in the north to Parisimina in the south. Every season, as many as 40,000 turtles make their way out of the sea to bury their eggs in the dark sand.
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