Costa Rica's Endangered Sea Turtles Released in Matapalo

12/17/2010 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's virtually impossible to spend any time in Costa Rica -- much less live here -- and not be awed by its natural wonders. Each day as I am awakened by a symphony of choral birds, and often as not, a motley crew of titi or whiteface monkeys carousing outside my window, I forget that humanity sometimes besmirches the natural order of things. Even here. Perhaps especially here.

Then some minor miracle of the universe unfolds and I am reminded. About the natural order of things, that is. Such was the case recently when I journeyed the 20 minutes from Manuel Antonio to the less touristic coastal enclave of Matapalo to witness the annual liberation of newborn endangered sea turtles. Although the release will continue until the end of the year, the small beach community chose mid December to host its annual Turtle Festival, celebrating the circle of life before a backdrop of live reggae, traditional (and not so traditional) street food, kite flying and surfing contests.

As the descending sun painted the sky in kaleidoscopic hues of orange and pink, hordes of voyeurs encircled the release site, awed to silence as the nascent creatures made their fatalistic journey from the shoreline back to the womb of the ocean's warm waters. A few got turned around, washed up by the tide, only to be redirected to their life spring. As a childless parent of all God's creatures, I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of this spectacle, yet saddened by the global statistics: marine turtles are declining at an alarming rate, with six of the seven species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. And while females can lay hundreds of eggs in one nesting season, relatively few juveniles survive to adulthood, falling prey to both human and natural predators. Since it takes decades before she reaches maturity and begins to breed, a minority live long enough to reproduce.

While Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica's Caribbean side is more renowned as a turtle nesting habitat (tortuga means turtle in Spanish, after all), each year between June and December, the vulnerable marine creatures likewise return to Matapalo Beach to breed. Prior to the formation of the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project in the 1990s, however, too many succumbed to the vagaries of the elements.

Under the aegis of The ASVO (Association of Volunteers), a not-for-profit NGO that promotes environmental preservation throughout Costa Rica, the Sea Turtle Conservation Project is successfully helping to protect and propagate this endangered group by maintaining a hospitable and safe breeding environment, operating hatcheries, and observing and documenting species -- which include Green, Olive Ridley, Carey, Hawksbill and the occasional Leatherback. Further, and equally critically, they have waged an aggressive campaign towards community awareness, education and participation.

Volunteers are welcome and there's plenty to do throughout the year. For more information contact AVSO directly at or visit such sites as