© Flickr/FritzF2010
© Flickr/FritzF2010

Sea Turtles: A unique experience in Costa Rica

6 minutes to read

In Costa Rica sea turtles are always nesting somewhere

Although they are not tracked by the Ministry of Tourism in Costa Rica, it is safe to say that the sea turtles are the oldest and most dedicated visitors to Costa Rican shores.  In fact, Costa Rica is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles on the planet.  As such, Costa Rica is one of the best places to see turtles in the world.  Every year the turtles find their way back to the same Costa Rica beaches of their birth.  It’s a unique and wonderful experience almost anywhere on the Costa Rican coasts.

La arribada (Turtle arrival) event

Costa Rica is known for its ecological biodiversity. One of the most fascinating and memorable ecotourism experiences is to witness thousands of turtles slipping out of the ocean in the moonlight.  After swimming hundreds of thousands of miles, these sea turtles slowly and strongly crawl onto the shore to dig their nests and lay their eggs.  This phenomenal event is known as “la arribada” (the arrival) which refers specifically to the annual arrival of hundreds of thousands of sea turtles to lay their eggs usually under a new moon. 

So, while there are definitely “nesting seasons,” the good news is that you will likely be able to see sea turtles nesting somewhere almost any month of the year. During a typical arribada, as many as 300,000 sea turtles can arrive at the beach over a period of just several days. Do not miss this nature experience. Be sure to include a turtle-tour on your itinerary, especially if you are traveling with kids! Participating in a sea turtle tour is sure to be one of the highlights from your trip to Costa Rica.

© Flickr/FritzF2010
© Flickr/FritzF2010
Ostional Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica
Ostional Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica
Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

5 species of turtles nest on Costa Rican coasts

Five species of sea turtles live and nest in Costa Rica: Olive Ridleys, leatherbacks, hawksbills, loggerheads, and (Atlantic and Pacific) green sea turtles. Each species has nesting seasons as well as preferred nesting locations. Often these same locations host several different species of sea turtles.

© PerfectEnglishContent.com/Susan
© PerfectEnglishContent.com/Susan

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Costa Rica is home to two of the only nine locations worldwide where Olive Ridley turtles nest.  There are two arribada locations in Costa Rica:  Ostional and Nancite Beaches (near Nosara), both in the Guanacaste Province on the Pacific coast at Jacó and Playa Ballena.  The Olive Ridely sea turtle has a body size measuring up to 28 inches (70cm), with a weight of between 88-110 pounds (40-50 kg).

© iStock/slavadubrovin
© iStock/slavadubrovin
Nancite Beach (Playa Nancite), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Nancite Beach (Playa Nancite), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Nancite, Provincia de Puntarenas, Chira, Costa Rica
Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica, Guanacaste Province, Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
Santa Rosa National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Santa Rosa National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Santa Rosa National Park, Provincia de Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Naranjo Beach (Playa Naranjo), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Naranjo Beach (Playa Naranjo), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Naranjo Beach, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica
Jacó, Costa Rica
Jacó, Costa Rica
Puntarenas Province, Jaco, Costa Rica
The Whale Tail Park, Costa Rica
The Whale Tail Park, Costa Rica
Marino Ballena National Park, Bahia Ballena, Provincia de Puntarenas, Uvita, 60504, Costa Rica

Leatherback Sea Turtle

These are the world’s largest sea turtles.  They have been seen at 6 feet long (1.82 mtrs) and up to 1,500 pounds (680 kg). They are mostly spotted on the Caribbean coast.  The beaches of Barra de Pacuare in the Tortuguero National Park (Limon Province) are one of the most important nesting areas for leatherback turtles in all of Central America. As many as 800 leatherback turtles nest along the Caribbean coast and around the town of Tortuguero every year. The sad fact is that in spite of this seemingly large number, their population is dwindling worldwide.

© iStock/irin717
© iStock/irin717
Las Baulas National Marine Park  Costa Rica
Las Baulas National Marine Park Costa Rica
Marino Las Baulas National Park, 500 m SO de la Escuela de Playa Grande 933, Provincia de Guanacaste, Santa Cruz, 50308, Costa Rica
Grande Beach (Playa Grande), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Grande Beach (Playa Grande), Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Playa Grande, Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Contrary to leatherbacks, hawksbills are quite small.  The size of a full grown hawksbill is only about 24 to 45 inches long (62.5 to 114 cm), and can weigh between 100-150 pounds (45-68 kg). They feed mainly on sponges, so they prefer coastlines where sponges are plentiful. The fact that they are endangered combined with their small size, makes them difficult to spot. There is resident colony that lives in Golfo Dulce (Dulce Gulf coast) along the Drake Bay area of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica

© Flickr/Hollywoodtb
© Flickr/Hollywoodtb
Osa Peninsula/Drake Bay/Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
Osa Peninsula/Drake Bay/Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica
Osa Peninsula,, Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Green Sea Turtle

As its name suggests, these turtles are very green. This is due to a green-colored fat under their upper shell.  Sometimes they look almost black. An adult green sea turtle can grow up to 5 feet long (1.5 mtrs) with an average weight of 149-419 pounds (68-190 kgs).

© iStock/DavidCarbo
© iStock/DavidCarbo
Tortuguero National Park (Barra de Pacuare), Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica
Tortuguero National Park (Barra de Pacuare), Caribbean Coast, Costa Rica
Tortuguero, Limón Province, Costa Rica

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

As you might guess, loggerheads have big heads! Or at least it looks unproportional to the rest of the body. In Costa Rica they are sometimes called “cabeza grande” (bigheaded) turtles. Nests are mostly seen on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica between July-Oct, but in Bara de Pacurare they are sometimes seen as early as March. Loggerheads typically weigh around 400 pounds (180 kg) and  are about 47 inches long (20 cm).

© iStock/Swimwitdafishes
© iStock/Swimwitdafishes
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, 36, Limón, Costa Rica

Sea turtles, nests, eggs, baby turtles

Sea turtles typically nest every two years and often have several nests during their nesting season. Once the female turtles have reached a suitable site, the turtles use their back flippers to excavate the nest, leaving behind roughly 100 leathery eggs. Eggs are about the size of a ping-pong ball. After the eggs are in the sand, the turtles cover them up with sand.

For good measure, the mother sea turtles sometimes rock back and forth on the nest, making loud thumping sounds. This is known as “dancing” over the nest. It has the important purpose of compacting the sand and camouflaging the turtle nest. About 45 days after incubation, the baby sea turtles begin to hatch. With amazing strength and determination, they make a mad dash toward the ocean, guided by the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean.

© iStock/MykolaIvashchenko
© iStock/MykolaIvashchenko

Turtle protection and guided tours

Certainly Costa Rica welcomes both the sea turtles and the human visitors who come to see them.  In an effort to protect both, Costa Rican turtle nesting sites are protected as sanctuaries. There is even a nationwide campaign against selfies with wild animals, including sea turtles.  Local efforts to protect sea turtles have intensified over the years. Even so, it is still possible to see turtles nesting and babies hatching.  There are authorized access points and many local tours are available.  Going with a guide is especially necessary to protect the turtles and their eggs from unauthorized poachers. Park fees and your donations make the important aid efforts to protect, conserve, and rescue sea turtles.

© iStock/Marc Bruxelle
© iStock/Marc Bruxelle

It is better to go with a guide

Most nesting sites have restricted access and require visitors to be with a guide.  Even remote beaches are seriously patrolled.  It is much better to go with a guide than to venture out on your own.  First, tours and guides know the turtle seasons.  They can help you decide where you are most likely to see turtles nesting or babies hatching in off-season.  Second, turtles nest at night so both you and the turtles are safer with a guide who knows the area, the tides, and how to approach the turtles.  Third, your guide will be able to answer the many questions you or your children are sure to have.  In case you are wondering like I was, the most-asked question turtle guides answer is: “How old is this one?”  

I hope you will go on at least one sea turtle excursion tour.  It is a unique experience to see some of nature’s most phenomenal land-sea creatures.  It is also a great learning experience for kids.  It can be interesting to see videos, but there is nothing that can compare to witnessing nature in person. If you decide to go on a turtle nesting site excursion, please follow your guide’s steps and instructions, stay quiet and do everything you can not to disturb the turtles.     

© Flickr/misapedia
© Flickr/misapedia

The author

Susan Wesley-Vega

Susan Wesley-Vega

My name is Susan and I’m from the U.S., but have been living in Alajuela, Costa Rica for 15 years. I love discovering the specialness in every place I go. By writing about the fun and fabulous ecotourism hotspots in my adopted country, Costa Rica, I hope to inspire you to come and see for yourself!

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