Piro Beach was empty, but not silent.
The darkness swallowed body and mind, until Manuel instructed us to turn on our headlamps. Our heaving breath was drowned out by the strong surf, roaring and crashing against the shore. The sand, in contrast, was soft and silky, sifting through my toes easily.
Minutes before my feet were encased in rubber boots that scraped and pinched my big toes, but now free, I wiggled them, digging in the sand further. We all had to wear these boots, because when something is worth the journey, you walk miles to get there.
We weaved through mucky paths and thick bush, crossed a river that weighed down my boots because water seeped in with alarming speed, only to navigate a muddy embankment, my boots squeaking from water and friction. Looming trees and engorged vines enveloped us, along with the dark.
Manuel has lived in this jungle all 23 years of his life. It’s chirps and squawks and slithers are intimately entwined with his psyche. As our boots splattered in the mud, he pointed out things that none of us could be aware of, with our weak human eyes — a boa constrictor, bats hanging upside down and a baby crocodile slumbering below the surface of the river. What Manuel possessed could not be pinpointed by one explanation — a laser precision sixth sense of jungle rhythms. He is part jungle, part animal, part man. This otherworldly guide was leading us to the sea turtles.
On Piro Beach from September to January at least two species of female sea turtles drag their heavy bodies onto the shore and lay their eggs in rapid frequency. Nests are buried deeply in the sand; one hatching session alone can produce 50 or more babies. The Pacific side of Costa Rica is home to Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles, while the Caribbean side is abundant in Green, Leatherback and Hawksbill turtles.
Dawn was an hour away for a reason. Darkness is when females arrive to lay their eggs and when volunteers at Osa Conservation locate nests that are too near to water. If nests are in danger, they are moved to a nursery at the west end of the beach. This seemingly uninhabited area may not have many human visitors but hawks, water buffalo and crabs make Piro their home.
A trek on Piro means traversing the beach’s length, seeking out tracks, spotting mounds of sand that could be nests, which are located in nesting zones that have been identified and marked off by wooden spikes. In some cases there have been sightings of mother turtles laying their eggs — a discovery that sends jolts of excitement throughout a group of budding scientists. These sightings are rare, but savoured when they happen.
We crossed from one end of the beach to the other. A discovery — the sand’s surface was raked from the tide to the shore in a zig-zag pattern. A mother turtle came under a bright moon to unload her precious cargo.
We found one nest, then two. Dawn began to filter in, the sun rising blood red, to signal life, not death. The pulsing forms of baby turtles were ripe beneath our hands as we dug out the most vulnerable nests to bring them to the nursery.
Turtle eggs are perfectly round, with soft edges that even a single finger can indent. Yet they are durable, able to withstand a move to the nursery. If they weren’t moved, it’s doubtful they would survive.
The nursery is literally a building shell of wood with the “floor” divided into even squares by strings staked into the sand. Each nest must be reburied into a plot. One side of the nursery is where males are bred, the temperature slightly hotter, while the other side is for breeding females — turtles are one of the few species where sex is determined by temperature alone – not a dice of chance.
We dug holes at the same depth to recreate the nests, placing them carefully in, but creation doesn’t rest, a voice from our group cried out, “Look, a nest has hatched!” We rushed towards the netting, seeing female baby turtles squirming on top of each other. Ready to go home, hearing the call of the sea.
Carefully we measured and weighed each baby turtle — they squirmed, peered at us with inquisitive eyes. Some nearly escaped the grip of our rubber gloves, so in a rush to swim, to be where they belonged. In total, the nest birthed 64 female baby turtles.
After collecting them with delicacy and placing them in buckets, we trudged with our treasure to a zone on the beach to release them.
I reluctantly let go of my squirming quarry one by one, until the buckets were empty.
Baby turtles are vulnerable to predators, will fight through obstacles to make it home.
The miracle of birth revealed itself to me, in all its flaws and glory. I knew this experience, this moment, will stay with me long after other ones fade away.
The odds hurt to absorb — only 1 in 100 baby turtles grow to adulthood to enact the cycle of life again. But isn’t that what we all have? This one, unique life to make the most of it?
The sun was high in the sky and a sweet morning was before me, knowing my one, unique life is still unfolding.
They have different patrols you can participate in. I did the night and morning patrol. The night patrol can yield baby turtles hatched in nests, along with sightings of mother turtles, but photography is hard unless you have a very good camera or know how to use yours well. I preferred the morning patrol because the light is simply beautiful. It was magical to discover a full nest as dawn rose in the sky. But as I always say, pick whatever works for you. You’ll have an amazing experience either way.
Osa Conservation also does research on other animal species besides turtles. Ask about their ongoing projects!