Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), a critically endangered species, are the largest turtles on the planet. Their size is definitely notable as they make their way onto nesting beaches to lay eggs. The turtle tracks left behind look like an SUV drove onto the sand. Reptiles, or at least female reptiles, are tied to land for the egg laying process. With marine turtles, this reproductive obligation seems especially cumbersome as they have evolved to efficiently glide through water and not a terrestrial environment.
Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to visit Estacion Las Tortugas north of Limon on multiple occasions with Ecoteach and groups of college students. The egg laying season is from March through mid-June, but May is an especially good time to watch the spectacle. A couple of weeks ago in addition to Estacion Las Tortugas, I traveled to two different WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network) research stations with the director of Ecoteach – one in Gandoca, Costa Rica and the other at San San Pond Sack, Panama. We had no idea what was in store for us.
Walking down the Gandoca beach by moonlight, I could see the reflective crests of waves crashing onto the beach, a cue used by the females to find their way back to the sea. As our guide walked in front of us, I could also see bioluminescent sand dwellers light up with each footstep. The glimmers of light always remind me of kids’ shoes with lights in the soles that flash with each stride. We slowly approached the first nesting female of the evening and learned that she had already laid her eggs.
The guide asked us to wait by the hatchery for news of another female on the beach. Our wait was less than 10 minutes. Making our way back down the beach, we saw a dark shadow at the intersection of sea and sand. This female was just leaving the water and you could hear her grunts of exertion with each forward motion onto land. I’ve been lucky enough to see more than a dozen nesting leatherbacks, but watching as one appeared from the sea was a first, and a welcome first at that. We watched in awe as she found the perfect site, nestled into the sand and excavated the nest with her hind flippers. This seemed like it was going to be the highlight of our trip.
The next morning, we crossed the border into Panama and met Erick from the WIDECAST project at San San Pond Sak Wetlands. Our goal here was to learn about the manatee monitoring project on site, but the same population of leatherbacks from Gandoca also uses this as a nesting area. We weren’t planning on going out on turtle patrol so leatherbacks weren’t at the forefront of our minds.
After a visit to the manatee observation platform with no luck, we returned to the station for our afternoon cafecito (coffee break). A few moments later, one of the research staff members ran into the dining area shouting an enthusiastic “tortuga, tortuga!” When we realized he was referring to a leatherback on the beach in daylight, everyone moved into action and ran down the beach. I couldn’t believe my eyes – up ahead, a giant leatherback, a species that dates back 100 million years and the last species of their evolutionary lineage, was out in broad daylight. Wow! She had already laid her eggs, but we were able to observe as the team took measurements, snapped a few photos, and as she made her way back to the vast ocean from which she came. Watching as she entered the surf and coming up for air while riding the waves is a sight I’ll never forget and I feel lucky to have been there. My night and day with WIDECAST and Ecoteach are definitely ones to remember.