On Turtles, Part I (Tortuguero, Costa Rica)



We sat in a restaurant scarfing noodles and counting lightning flashes as our night beach walk began. There’d been 10. I figured the call coming in was our guide, canceling our walking tour to see the giant green tortoises for which CR’s half island are famous. “How far away are you?,” he said. “2 minutes”, I answered, shoving the last of Toni’s spaghetti into her mouth.

We walked about 20 minutes to “station 3”, in the pitch black and a quickly flooding trail. We,as in V and I; Toni hopped into the carrier on my back at the earliest convenience. The water had collected so quickly even the adults were pouring water out of their boots like wine from a carafe. Eventually Free also had to be held.

It sounded like fun yesterday. By the time we approached the bare concrete pavilion that was station 3, I imagined us getting eaten by jaguars or hacked one by one by a crazy with a machete right there in the middle of a jungle.

The girls fell asleep after 45 minutes and a bunch of complaining. Each group waits at a station as 2 quasi rangers search the beach for tortoises. Groups are only let into the beach as rangers spot them. If they don’t spot any after 2 hours, you don’t go further than that pavilion.

20 years ago we scoured the beach for tortoises ourselves.

Our guide tried entertaining us with stories about this and that and how long his mom lived there and such, but we were too first world for such things. We paid good money to see tortoises. Our entire group contemplated packing it in taking a water taxi back to our hotels. This was ridiculous. (Insert righteous indignation and a few mumbled threats to report the guides to Air BnB. None of us were our best selves.)

Then our guide got a call. There was a tortoise preparing to lay eggs near the hotel beaches. (More eye rolling here, but we follow.)

Fifteen more minutes of waiting and talking, and we’re invited to follow a red flashlight towards a big flowery bush. Beneath it a tortoise drops soft white eggs into a deep hole. We wake Toni. The tortoise is as big as she is. The eggs are small like chicken eggs. The guide keeps moving the tortoise’s hind leg so that we can more clearly see the eggs drop and I want to slap his hand away. Or walk away because this feels sacred.
Only 1 percent of the 125 eggs she lays here will make it to sea two months from now. The rest will be eaten by birds or jaguars. As long as we’re here, those particular predators will not come. I stay.

She starts covering the eggs with black volcano sand, using her hind legs. She pauses every couple minutes and I imagine she’s scared and exhausted. The sand hits us as she flings it furiously. Our tour is over before the process is. We bless the tortoise and head back to our hotel. Dodging street dogs. Wrangling 2 overtired but very excited littles. A bit emotional, because we know what it means to just wanna protect your nest.

Finally the rain lets up.