Playa Hermosa, the unknown turtle-watching haven

July 19, 2015

PLAYA HERMOSA, Puntarenas — Every morning the tracks tell a story from the night before. How many there were. How long they had to travel. And, tragically, whether their labor was immediately made vain by poachers.

On the black sands of Playa Hermosa, just below Jacó on the central Pacific Coast, turtle-hatching season has begun again. And from an ideal vantage point on the beach, the Sandpiper Hotel on Hermosa’s northern end stands as a symbol for the conservation efforts taken to help get as many baby turtles into the sea as possible.

Hotel owner Greg Miller and his friend Christian Rojas try to minimize the laundry list of variables that can end a turtle’s life just minutes into it. Predators in the waters, or from the air above, can make quick work of the recently hatched creatures. Of more immediate concern are the poachers who scour the beaches to hunt for eggs the night they are birthed.

The life of a turtle is so delicate that it’s said to have a 1 in 1,000 chance to survive from the moment the egg is laid. But Miller says human conservation efforts can quadruple that number, and that evidence may already be appearing.

“Maybe we’re making a difference,” he said. “They say the turtles map the beach where they were at, so they’re always going to come back. It’s a good possibility that some we did a number of years ago are coming back now.”

A former mechanic for Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, Miller has made the advantageous location of his hotel part of the experience for guests. Since opening Sandpiper 11 years ago, the California native has invited guests to both sides of the process – either watching the mother lay her eggs or helping baby sea turtles into the waters.

Miller's dog Cory investigates the momma turtle.

(Courtesy of Greg Miller)

“We’re doing a cesarean on the beach,” he said. “We open up the beach at 48 days and if they’re healthy and ready to come out we bring them out and it’s a controlled release where they do it on their own.”

Though the Caribbean, notably Tortuguero National Park, remains the premier destination for turtle sightings in the country, Playa Hermosa offers a perfect spot for tourists to see turtles while traveling to the more popular beaches of the region. With up to 40 turtles coming ashore per night, opportunity abounds to see one of nature’s most determined creatures. And there may be no better locale on the beach than Sandpiper, which currently has a two-week-old nest circled off in front of its property.

“Right up front here, I’ll wake up in the morning and it looks like military where they came to invade,” he said.

The hotel is slated to enter an agreement with the well-known Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, made famous by the television show “Whale Wars.” Miller said the group came down to meet with him and Rojas two months ago and wants to keep a group of volunteers on site to work around the clock on the turtles’ preservation.

According to their agreement, the hotel will have to “clean up” the sand by rooting up existing vegetation and aerating the sand, which requires digging three feet into the earth. This is meant to give the eggs a more comfortable bedding, so as to avoid being crushed or invaded by worms and other parasites.

As of right now, Miller lets guests watch baby turtles hatch before they put them in a bucket and witness the tiny things come to life. They then take them 100 feet from the tide and let them race toward the water.

Baby turtles race towards the sea at Playa Hermosa.

(Courtesy of Greg Miller)

“If we can get them to the water, then you’ve saved quite a bit,” he said.

Turtle season, which coincides with rainy season and whale watching season, begins around June and stretches on to November each year. During the season’s peak, Miller said there can be 10 to 15 nests on the sands in front of his hotel.

And where there are turtle nests, there are poachers, who are infamous in Costa Rica for their aggressive threats to conservationists, including the 2013 murder of Jairo Mora in Moín. Miller said that in Playa Hermosa, people looking for freshly laid eggs will poke the sand at the U-shaped tracks where the mother turned to come back to the sea.

Twenty-minute-old turtle eggs are taken over to a protected area to nest.

(Courtesy of Greg Miller)

“If we see the tracks and don’t see any holes, we’ll know they missed it or weren’t out that night,” he said. “So we’ll dig up, maybe use the stick to find the eggs and put them in a grocery bag and bring them over here.”

By involving patrons in wildlife conservation on Playa Hermosa, Miller allows guests to see a rare part of nature at work while doing some good for a species constantly under attack. For newly born turtles, a little push in the right direction can go far.

“The wives’ tale they say is that the moms are waiting there 50 days later for the children out in the surf,” he said.

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