San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

No Surfing Allowed When Turtles Lay Eggs

“FLOTA! Flota!”came the highpitched and repeatedshouts from someoneoutside in the road. Itwas 3:30 a.m. – mymind desperatelywanted to hold on toits blissful state ofsleep. Then I remembered,I was at PlayaOstional on CostaRica’s Pacific coast,on an ecological pilgrimageof sorts.After 25 years of residence in CostaRica, I thought it was time to witness anearly unique sight on the planet: the adultsea turtles coming to build their nests, laytheir eggs, and (about 40 days later, ifpredators haven’t stolen them) the babieshatching and making their run to the sea.The trip from San José (organized by anenvironmental group) took eight hours, thefirst seven in a very comfortable modernbus. However, when the bus could go nofurther because of a pretty deep river crossingthe road (we’re in the rainy season), thelast hour was spent walking over a flimsypedestrian bridge (carrying one’s luggage)and catching a cattle-truck on the other sideto the next river and repeating the procedureNo, this was no plushy tourist outing!The group consisted of about 20 people,including only two or three foreigners.Ostional, a 7-km (4.3-mile) stretch of beach,happens to be one of few places on the planetwhere Olive Ridley sea turtles, also calledloggerhead turtles, act out their instinctivereproductive drama pitting fecundity againstthe predators. This is the smallest of the seaturtles that use Costa Rica beaches for nesting.The adult female is about 75 cm (29.5inches) long, weighs 40 kg (88 pounds) andhas an olive-green shell.MOST of the time they arrive one at atime or just a few in a day. But during certainmonths, they arrive in massive numbersof hundreds or more – a phenomenonknown as the “arribada.” When the hugenumbers are spotted at night, a few thingshappen: the signs go up on the beach accessroad: “No Surfing, We Have Arribada,” theuniversity researchers have to get up earlierthan usual to start counting turtles and arunner is dispatched to alert the townspeople.He shouts “Flota!” in my ear to wrestlemy consciousness from sleep’s grip.He is informing me to get ready. If Iwere a member in good standing of the areacooperative, my family could, for six hoursafter the end of the arribada, join others todig up a small percentage of the fresh eggsfor commercial purposes. After all, peopleclaim it’s natural Viagra!The co-op collects the eggs and sellsthem, hopefully with a small profit, aftertheir costs. This system is designed toencourage area residents to protect adultand baby turtles, keep the beach clean andassure continuing egg production.The other predators include dogs, raccoons,buzzards or vultures. Although I didn’tsee raccoons on my visit, I did watchdozens of wild dogs and even more buzzards.So how do the turtles manage to survivewith all these predators after them andtheir eggs?WELL, the adults have it easier than inthe recent past, when they were widelyhunted and killed for their meat and theirshells. Mexico, for example, has now outlawedthis habit. In Costa Rica, they aresafe on the Pacific side, but still widelykilled and eaten on the Caribbean side.The babies, if they ever hatch from theireggs, have it almost as rough as ever. Ontheir run to the sea, they are succulent temptationsfor the dogs and the buzzards (theirshells are still fairly soft at this stage). Onlythe occasional human present, with a protectiveinterest will escort the babies to thewater, “riding shotgun” as it were. But don’tthink the baby turtle is home free once itmakes it to the water – other predators arewaiting for them in the waves. And yet,these sea turtles have survived from pre-historictimes.How do they do it? The trick is “fecundity,”producing eggs and offspring in suchhuge quantities (hundreds of thousands ormillions when an arribada arrives) that nomatter how many perish, the species ismaintained, and even expands.I FEEL good for having this turtle experiencebecause it puts me in contact with theprimordial past – kind of like going toWilliamsburg, Virginia, or old medievalcities of Europe, paleotherapy! The otherinteresting and refreshing factor is that in ourworld full of concern for the effectiveness ofteaching/learning, nurturing, education,training, social engineering, pedagogy andguidance, the turtles’ behavior (both mothersand babies) is completely instinctive.(Dr. Alfred Fiks is a retired social scienceresearcher and consultant and longtimeresident of Escazú).

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