Costa Rica: Turtle nesting in Tortuguero

Go with the Flo as you witness a gentle 100kg green turtle — the second largest species after the leatherback — make her speedy dash for the sea.

Published 13 May 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:02 BST
Turtle hatching.

Turtle hatching.

Photograph by Getty

Flo doesn't seem phased by our presence. She's minding her own business and doing her thing. Edging in as close as we can without causing her any distress, we watch as she lays egg after egg at her own pace. Flo (so nicknamed by my daughter) is a giant 100kg green turtle — the second largest species after the leatherback — and she's selected this spot as her nesting ground. Danny, our larger-than-life guide who led the way with his infrared torch, seems as chilled as Flo — if not more so — and is channelling the Caribbean's famous lilt. "I was here earlier," he says. "You're lucky; she's just made her nest."

Still, it's late and we're one of two families having to keep four young children awake long enough to see the turtle nesting, without falling into tantrum territory. We've walked the 10-minute path from our lodge, grass changing to uneven sand underfoot, the dampness in the air a precursor to the crashing waves that awaited. Eyes shift to night vision as an epic scene unfurls: sand meets sea in an almost violent and angry exchange. During the day, this is a picture postcard scene, but at night, a wilder side emerges along the coast. 

As we edge along the shore, a shadow crawls from the sea. A turtle heading inland pauses in its 'false crawl', scared off by something — either by our presence or having sensed something amiss at this particular spot on the beach. Given that they nest for up to two years at a time, it's fair for these creatures to be fussy about the nesting spot they select. Flo seems content with her spot, however. With turtles laying up to 120 eggs, she could be here a while. Nestled in her sandy pit, front flippers flicking back golden grains, it's as if she's plumping her pillows for a long night ahead. 

"See how lucky we are to watch them," I whisper to the children. Danny tells us how turtles nest between June and November, with hatchings between July and December — or 60 days after nesting.

Flo could be anywhere between 25 and 50 years old and, in theory, could grow up to 225kg, reaching 1.2m in length, but she's somewhere closer to a metre. She's a gentle giant; a herbivore and a natural gardener, keeping seagrass beds trim and improving nearby microhabitats as a result. 

After the group's initial 'wows' start to fade, the children grow fidgety, but there's still no rushing Flo, who flicks sand back onto her eggs, unaware of her audience's expectations. Then, rather abruptly, she makes a speedy dash for the sea, leaving her eggs buried in the sand. One blink and she's gone.

Published in the Costa Rica 2017 guide, distributed with the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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