PLAYA GRANDE, Guanacaste – On the last night before turtle nesting season officially began in Playa Grande this year, the full moon cast a bluish light over the beach, illuminating a team of two researchers on a mission. As many people with many different motives had done before, the researchers were looking for nesting leatherbacks – a gargantuan, prehistoric-looking turtle species that’s been around some 100 million years.
Research volunteer and recent high school graduate Madeleine Poulter had never seen a leatherback, and that was part of why she came from London to work with The Leatherback Trust, a nonprofit organization that researches and conserves the turtles’ nesting area in Playa Grande, one of the last safe havens for leatherbacks on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Poulter had heard plenty of stories what it was like to see a leatherback for the first time. One volunteer had tripped over vegetation while gawking; another had been so awestruck that a wave came from behind and drenched her.
For Poulter’s teammate, lead researcher Nathan Robinson, nesting sea turtles were old hat. Now pursuing a Ph.D. at Purdue University in Indiana, Robinson has studied turtles on three different continents. Beginning in Greece, he later joined the project in Guanacaste, with a stint on South Africa’s beaches before rejoining the Costa Rica team.
With all that practice, Robinson easily identified the tiny trails of turtle hatchlings in the dark, and he told Poulter to get ready. Her task this evening would be to lay face down in the sand and count as many as 100 eggs beneath a nesting leatherback.
They continued their trek north on Playa Grande, where pristine land and treetops were just discernible through accumulating fog. When the two looked back south, they could see the lights of bars, restaurants, casinos and hotels flickering from nearby Tamarindo and obscuring the contours of the natural world.
This was a problem, the researchers knew. This was why 70 percent of leatherbacks that nest in Costa Rica do so on Playa Grande. It was why leatherback populations have dropped from more than 1,000 nesting mothers to only about 40 each year.
When the two turned back north and inspected Playa Grande more closely, though, they could see a few lights twinkling ominously through the vegetation. They belonged to beachfront developments, and soon there could be more.
After two hours of patrolling the beach, Robinson spotted a thick black trail running through the sand perpendicular to the shore and up to the vegetation’s edge. He went to survey the scene as Poulter waited patiently, ready to see her first leatherback.
The leatherbacks of Playa Grande
The kind of turtle Poulter was about to see weighs up to 900 kilograms (approximately 2,000 pounds), accumulated on a diet of mostly jellyfish. That’s heavier than two jaguars combined. The oldest leatherback remains were dated to 100 million years ago, concurrent with dinosaurs that went extinct 65 million years ago.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that leatherbacks could go the way of the dinosaur, listing them as critically endangered in 2000, after researchers observed a 70 percent decline in the population of one generation of turtles. Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has seen a recent increase in leatherbacks, but those conservation projects also have their dangers.
While studying the turtles in 1990, the researchers who started the Leatherback Trust witnessed poaching and selling of turtle eggs by the local community. Just as the researchers now divide up beach to patrol, the poachers once drew lines in the sand up and down Playa Grande, according to Robinson. A kind of lottery was developed, where if a turtle nested on your turf, you had the rights to sell those eggs.
Mercedes Joéra, a native of the nearby town of Matapalo, used to poach the eggs. “People were driven to take the eggs, to sell the eggs in order to survive,” she said.
Joéra never took all the eggs from a nest, because she knew that would be bad for the turtles, she said. She would sell to trucks just outside the beach, earning ₡500 ($1) for every dozen eggs, mainly because of a misguided notion that turtle egg consumption boosts male virility. But eventually there was another way to get by.
Joéra now works as a tour guide, walking Playa Grande only for the chance to see the turtles and their eggs. She hopes the population will bounce back, but that won’t be easy.
Although poaching has largely ceased due to the presence of guards and researchers, the problem, says Robinson, is that the life cycle of a turtle is so long. Leatherbacks reach adulthood at 15 years, and when an entire generation is wiped out, that’s 15 years we must wait for another.
Whether that next generation will come around depends largely on whether Playa Grande will remain undeveloped.
Not becoming Tamarindo
Tour guides in Playa Grande have only to gaze south to see what can happen if development goes unchecked.
“Tamarindo is good for work, but it destroys everything on the beach,” said tour guide Luzgardo Rosales, who has been taking visitors to see the turtles for 22 years. He worries about signs around Playa Grande that indicate the land could be sold to developers, and new construction projects could upset the creatures.
The turtles’ innate sensitivity to light helps them get to the ocean after nesting and hatching, as they are attracted to brightest spot. The lights that come with development trick the turtles into heading in the opposite direction – oftentimes a fatal mistake.
The development of Tamarindo provides one cautionary tale. Leatherbacks were once a prominent sight there, and some area restaurants and hotels still carry the turtle’s Spanish name, “baula.” But nobody’s spotted an actual leatherback in Tamarindo in more than a decade.
Up in Playa Grande, a group of dedicated individuals want to preserve more than just the turtles’ name.
“We’re all one family, and the turtles are our children,” said Laura Jaen, president of the area’s tour guide association, at a recent event celebrating the opening of the park for tourists. The Leatherback Trust, the local guides, Environment Ministry (MINAE) representatives, volunteers and the park rangers were all in attendance.
“We need to work together to give a good show for the tourists,” Jaen announced.
Jaen has been around long enough to remember the days of poaching, and her primary concern now is development. Though Playa Grande does not yet look like Tamarindo, some beachfront houses have gone up, as have properties throughout the park. Empty private lots display signs suggesting they could be developed.
“We are not against development, but we want it to be sustainable,” Jaen said.
Also attendance at the celebration was Bernal Cortés, a park ranger in Playa Grande of 17 years. According to Cortés, the biggest problem is manpower.
The park needs 10 guards to patrol the various areas, he said, particularly in the more remote areas. With what MINAE has now – two active rangers – it cannot even perform boat patrols to prevent commercial fishing in the park’s waters, Cortés said.
Meanwhile, numerous vacant properties, empty lots, and lots with permits pending dot the forests of Las Baulas National Marine Park, which surrounds Playa Grande. Rebecca Clower, a realtor from the largest company in the Playa Grande area, Blue Water Properties Costa Rica, said there has been a long pause on sales in the area. In fact, her company just made the first sale in six years there, she said.
“There’s been this great cloud that hovers over Playa Grande and even local realtors don’t want to get involved,” Clower said. She was referring to a permitting process that can take as long as six months, sometimes involving a groundwater study. Clower said many lots had been developed in the past, but that fewer properties have been constructed in recent years.
“Playa Grande is never going to be Tamarindo,” she said.
Like a godfather for many around Playa Grande, Carlos Enrique Chacón, has run a hotel and restaurant in Playa Grande for 25 years. Chacón credited the rise of infrastructure with changing the mindset of people in Guanacaste.
If you look at the big picture, he said, it’s the rise of electricity, drinkable water, roads and bus service that brought both income and educational opportunities to the communities around Playa Grande, such as the nearby town of Matapalo, where most of the turtle guides now live.
While conceding progress, Chacón bemoaned that parts of Guanacaste seemed forgotten by the rest of the country, a sentiment echoed by Costa Rica’s daily newspaper La Nación, during the province’s recent holiday in July. “The government, in many parks, was not interested in investing,” Chacón said, tapping the table for emphasis.
Chacón also has been disappointed with the small number of Costa Ricans who have become involved in The Leatherback Trust. One of Chacón’s hands was in a cast, thanks to a punch that knocked down a recent abusive patron. He held up the other hand to emphasize his point.
“I’ve been here 25 years, and can count on one hand the number of Tico volunteers,” he said. “For me, there are two Playa Grandes. The one where they ate the eggs, and the one where they are developing.”
He paused and then reassessed.
“There is a third, today, where there is a respect for nature.”
A natural encounter
Back on the beach, Poulter waited quietly as Robinson followed the trail and snuck up behind the nesting turtle. Robinson then gave the signal to approach, and Poulter took a deep breath and crept toward him.
Coming up on the turtle, she saw that it was about 5 feet long and hard at work. To create the nest, the turtle brushed the sand aside with thin broad flippers, her soft shell flexing from her heavy breaths. She seemed unaware of Poulter or anybody else, and continued digging. The turtle was in a “hormonal trance,” Robinson explained.
Poulter got down behind the turtle, as per Robinson’s instructions, and several flashlights cast a red glow on her back. (Turtles’ sensitivity to light does not include the red parts of the spectrum.)
With a clicker in one hand to count eggs dropped and the hand pushing sand to deepen the nest, Poulter remained facedown while Robinson measured the turtle. Poulter had a front row seat for each egg drop, and she even placed her arm under the beast to ensure the eggs’ safety.
“It was a really amazing experience,” she said. “Tourists can come and see them, but they don’t get to touch.”
When Poulter and Robinson left the leatherback to her business, she covered her eggs and headed back for the sea.
Las Baulas National Marine Park opened Playa Grande for tourists during leatherback nesting season, from late October until March. Tourists can arrange tours on site and do not need a reservation. Tourists hoping to see a leatherback are encouraged to plan for multiple nights on the beach, as only around 40 leatherbacks nest per season.