San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel Costa Rica: Turtles and the circle of life

Chapter 7 of 8

“The turtles are ready,” said the voice on the hotel phone.

“Where will they be?” I asked.

“Turtle Beach.”

“Duh,” I muttered and hung up.

This was a day we’d waited months for: the release of 150 baby turtles back to the big ol’ blue.

It is a sad thing, and one of the few cultural clashes I had witnessed here, but the fact was many locals in the southern part of Costa Rica still consume turtle eggs as fast as they can dig them up.

I witnessed day after day, while buying fish at the dock, evidence of dozens of small sharks caught on longlines, de-finned and tossed back to die. I saw day after day the shrimp boats slowly plying the river mouth a quarter mile offshore, their dragnets tearing up all life on the bottom of the sea, 40-foot swaths at a pass.

It’s a sad and complicated dilemma. After all, does being a visitor in any culture give you the right to cast judgment on local custom? Probably not. Does being a world citizen make it your and everybody’s responsibility? Probably so.

Costa Rica, after all, is not the only country in the world to harbor these practices. In fact, Costa Rica is one of the few countries that strives to make progress in protection, with more land in parks and stronger environmental agencies than most of the world. But still, destruction of the locals’ own habitat continued on a daily basis, unabated.

I understand it’s pretty hard to look at the future when you and your kids are hungry today, but the reality is that already at the mouth of the Térraba, one of the richest feeding grounds in Costa Rica, the fish are disappearing. The future?

So, in light of this, some of the local folk, both Tico and Gringo, have banded together in Ojochal to protect what they can, and one of their endeavors is digging up turtle eggs before they are consumed, planting them in a protected environment and then releasing the baby turtles into the sea. Only about 2 percent of the young turtles will then survive to make their decade-long circumference of the Pacific, returning to this exact beach to lay their own eggs. Tourists around the world would pay big bucks to watch this miracle of nature, a cash injection to the local community. The future?

A band of 35-40 folks from all walks gathered on Turtle Beach. The sky was brilliant blue, and a slight ocean breeze knocked back the heat just enough. The mood was jubilant. Here was a group of folks, rich and poor, young and old, Tico or Gringo, it mattered not, no one noticed. The common thread was that they were doing something good for the world.

The young turtles, piled 30 to a five-gallon bucket, clawed and clambered over their two-inch siblings in their effort to get on with their lives. When held, they strained against your fingers with tiny flippers, their eyes not only deep with the knowledge of ages but burning with the fire of life, an intense ambition to get on with their fate and future.

A dozen children were allowed to release the babies 50 yards up the beach from the inviting waves. Immediately the tiny creatures headed in the direction of the water, fanning out across the sand. Hundreds of gulls circled overhead, diving on the hapless little reptiles. Many were becoming exhausted.

The children bent to help them on their way, to shelter them from the gulls.

“You mustn’t help,” quietly admonished Johnny, the Tico who had hatched the eggs. “They are imprinting the beach. In this 50-meter crawl, they are learning who they are and where they came from, so they can return to their home.”

Finally, the first tiny turtles reached the sea, only to be picked up and tossed end for end back on the beach by the powerful waves. Again and again they struggled against the waves, finally reaching deeper water, only to be picked off by ravenous fish darting through the gin-clear waves.

In the 20 minutes it had taken to get from where they had been released to the relative safety of deep water, probably 25 percent had lost their lives – and this was with the protection of 35 waving, encouraging humans.

But hope for the remainder made it one of the most incredible days of our lives.

A few months later, we were five miles out to sea, returning from a snorkel adventure on Caño Island. Sitting in the bow of the leaping speedboat, I began to notice hundreds and hundreds of seabirds – gulls, boobies, cormorants – standing on the water! Upon closer inspection, the birds, spread across the ocean as far as one could see, were standing on the backs of TURTLES! Huge, grinning, green-backed turtles inches under the surface, their flippers steadily pushing the water as they made their way toward land, and on each one stood a solitary bird … doing what? Giving directions? Backseat driving? Hitching a free ride? Or welcoming home one of the great circles of life?

To be continued. Find previous chapters at U.S. writer and former humor columnist Steve Church owns El Castillo hotel and villa on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast (

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