I still remember, very clearly, the first time I got to Ostional, one of four places in the world that hosts the amazing, massive arrival of nesting olive-ridley turtles.
After almost ten hours traveling on two different buses, I found it really hard to believe that anybody would like to come to this hidden place of the world. But well, that was until I saw my first turtle. Then I understood.
It was in January 2005, and I took route number 1 to get there. First I took the bus from San José to Santa Cruz, on the Nicoya Península in Guanacaste. The bus to Ostional left at noon from the main bus station in Santa Cruz. This last “step” took three and a half hours, driving along Junquillal beach, passing Marbella and San Juanillo.
I spent all that time watching the people that where there with me. The road was 30 some kilometers of endless dust, and there was people on the bus with groceries that got covered with a tanned-colored layer of fine powdery material, as we all did.
By the time I got to Ostional it was already time to wash and pack the turtle eggs. But before I get to this complicated subject, let me tell you a bit about the wonders of Ostional.
Ostional is one of four places in the world that hosts the amazing, massive arrival of nesting olive ridley turtles. Once almost every last quarter moon, tens of thousands of olive ridley females drag themselves ashore to nest. The event normally lasts three days, but between the months of September and December it could last up to nine days, when hundreds of thousands of turtles nest all day and night.
The olive ridley, like all sea turtles, is an endangered species, at risk because it is killed by fishing boats and fishing nets, its nesting habitat is eroded by beach development and its eggs are dug up, sold and eaten for their supposed aphrodisiacal qualities.
Consequently, I imagine you wouldn’t be surprise if I told you that this beach is a wildlife refuge, officially created in 1984. The refuge extends 15 km along the shoreline, including the beaches of Ostional, Nosara and Guiones, in a narrow, 200 meter wide swath of beach. It also extends inland along the estuaries of the rivers and mangrove swamps, protecting large colonies of birds. Offshore, the reserve incorporates another three miles of maritime zone.
What might surprise you is to know that Ostional is the only nesting beach in the world where harvesting the turtle’s eggs is legal and very well organized by the community.
The turtles that laid the golden eggs?
In 1987, a project was initiated to allow local people to collect and sell a percentage of the eggs of each “arribada,” as the mass nestings are called. I know it sounds irrational, and to tell you the truth, after 4 visits in 3 years I still haven’t decided whether is good or bad. So, don’t make up your mind before I tell you some of the facts.
During an arribada, the turtles start arriving around 4 p.m. and keep coming until 7 a.m. the next morning.
Made for a life in the ocean, the turtles painfully drag their heavy bodies over the beach until they get over the high tide line. There, flicking clouds of sand, they dig a nest with their flippers to deposit an average of 100 white eggs, shaped like flat ping pong balls.
Over the course of a five-day arribada, nesting turtles will leave up to 10 million eggs on the beach of Ostional.
According to studies done by biologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), so many turtles come onto the beach in a short time span that most of the first nests are destroyed by later turtles. Therefore, nor the first nest or the second will result in new baby turtles; once the eggs are opened, bacteria will act, decomposing everything around it.
UCR studies, carried out before the start of the Ostional program, found that as many as 90-93% of the eggs laid in an arribada were ruined.
Based on these studies, and trying to find a solution to many years of illegal and indiscriminate poaching, the government approved a program that allows members of the community of Ostional to take a portion of eggs every arribada and sell them.
An annual permit issued by the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) allows the community to harvest all the eggs they want for the first 36 hours of an arribada.
In return, the community got organized to take meticulous care of the beaches and the turtles that fill them with life. Community guards watch over the remaining nests and look out for would-be poachers. They also regularly clean the Ostional beach and an additional six kilometers of neighboring beaches. And when the turtles are born, the members of the community stand guard and protect the hatchlings from the vultures, stray dogs and other predators that would eat them before they make it to the sea.
The hours of work put in from the community are estimated to be worth around $750,000 a year.
Most of the earnings from the sale of the eggs – 70% – is split evenly among the approximately 240 “benefit members” of the association who worked during the arribada. But before getting the money, all the members have to work digging up the eggs, washing them, packing them and then getting them shipped out in trucks. The sales are expected to produce between $10 and $100 for each benefit member a month.
The other 30% goes to various community projects, such as road improvements, gutters and sewers, scholarships for students, building and maintaining schools and other community buildings in the town.
The eggs of contention
While olive ridleys are diminishing at many other beaches around the world, at Ostional, and neighboring beaches, their numbers have been steadily increasing. This is the main conclusion of many years of research and control by the UCR biologists.
Gerardo Chavez, Biologist from UCR, believes firmly that the control over the density of eggs on the beach, along with to the constant vigilance over the remaining nests, the beach cleaning and the protection of the hatchlings, has only helped to increase the number of turtles that successfully make it to the ocean after hatching. That is why he has no problem gulping down a couple of their eggs, raw, every morning after a full night of beach guard during an arribada.
Chaves considers himself a conservationist. However, his penchant for the animal’s eggs puts him at odds with many turtle conservation groups, which strongly oppose the harvesting or consumption of any turtle product, especially their eggs.
Because the project promotes the consumption of turtle eggs, it is “antagonistic to the philosophy of almost all the NGOs working in the country,” Chaves says.
Some also question the biologist’s assertion that the number of turtles at Ostional is rising, saying his data is flawed.
But the biggest reproach that is made to this project is that by keeping the eggs in the market legally, it encourages the consumption and consequently the demand, and therefore eggs from other beaches or species that are in even more endangered than the Olive Ridley, can make it to the marked disguised as legal turtle eggs.
In response to that, Ostional community members believe that consumers should ask to see an authorized factura (invoice) before purchasing turtle eggs from a bar or restaurant to be sure they are from Ostional. He firmly believes with their purchase people will help preserve the olive ridley and not diminish the endangered species’ numbers.
The Olive Ridley Turtle
The Olive ridley is the smallest sea turtle there is. An adult could measure around 65 cm long and could weight and average of 38 Kg. The turtle’s shell is circular and its head is triangular.
The other three places where the “arribada” occurs are Nancite beach also on Costa Rica’s northern pacific, in Mexico in Escobilla beach and in India at the Orissa area.
One nest of an Olive ridley could have between 80 and 140 eggs.
The development of the turtle eggs could take between 45 and 58 days, depending on temperature and weather. The eggs are very sensitive to temperature. If the temperature of the sand rises too much, the eggs could cook and never develop, which happens to many eggs every summer, and is a growing threat of global warming.
In general, the baby turtles hatch at night, but it may also happen that you are sitting in the afternoon on the beach and suddenly, next to you the sand becomes alive and small heads pop up.
As soon as the hatchlings have struggled out of the sand, the race to the ocean begins. With eyes barely opened, the mini turtles smell the breeze and instantly know the right direction.
Most hatchlings don’t reach maturity, but those who make it will remember the smell of their beach. After 10 – 15 years they will return to their place of birth and again lay their eggs into the black sand of Ostional.