Tragedy struck Costa Rica as the amazing olive ridley sea turtle nesting period was interrupted by tourists taking selfies and perching their children on the turtles' shells.
Tragedy struck as tourists flooded the beaches of Costa Rica this summer, preventing countless sea turtles from carrying out their mating ritual. According to a report from the New York Times, day-trippers who came to witness hundreds of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand actually discouraged many egg-laying mothers from setting up camp and ushering in the next generation.
As tourists crammed onto Costa Rica’s Ostional Beach on the Pacific Ocean, taking selfies and even perching their children on the backs of these ancient reptiles, the turtles simply turned around and went back into the ocean. “It was a mess,” said tour guide Yamileth Baltodano.
Sea turtles lay their eggs once a year on specific beaches across the world, and it just so happened to be right in the middle of tourist season on this particular Costa Rican beach. The sea turtles are classified as “vulnerable,” and Costa Rican officials are reeling from the unprecedented event.
Olive ridley turtles nest from August to October, lining up with the rainy season in Central America. Under the cover of heavy rainfall, the turtles emerge from the sea and cross the open beach until they reach the dunes and find a suitable spot to build their nest. Ostional Beach is cut off from the flood of the Nosara River, blocking access on bridges and keeping interference from curious humans to a minimum.
Unseasonably low rainfall this year, largely caused by El Niño weather patterns, has kept the water level in the river low. Tourists can easily access the nesting grounds, and their interference could prove disastrous for the next generation of turtles.
According to Mauricio Méndez, the deputy director of the Tempisque Conservation area, including Ostional Beach, officials are still determining the best course of action to prevent future disturbances like the one that occurred this fall. He hopes that conservationists, biologists, and policymakers can come together and beef up protection for the rare turtles before they return to mate again next year.
Further conservation efforts would include doubling the number of police officers and guards on duty, and could even involve the Coast Guard. To limit the disturbance caused by humans, people will only be allowed on the beach on peripheral regions and under the close watch of a trained guide.
It wasn’t all bad news at Ostional Beach, however. Despite the massive human presence, a few sea turtles still managed to lay their eggs under the cover of darkness. Méndez and his team surveyed the area and were relieved to find that there were many more eggs than expected laid on the beach. He remarked about the turtles’ strong resiliency – inclement weather, human interference, and the constant threat of predators still don’t keep the sea turtles from performing their annual mating ritual.
The olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs over a three or four day period one to three times each year. The breeding colony populations on the Pacific Coast of Mexico are listed as endangered, however their numbers are stronger further south. They are named for the olive color of their shell, which is shaped like a heart. One of the smallest species of sea turtles, adults typically reach 2.5 feet in length and weigh up to 110 pounds.
They are found in temperate and warm ocean waters across the globe, and can spend much of their time swimming in open ocean. Each time the turtle nests, it lays up to 110 eggs. It takes the baby sea turtles about 60 days to hatch, and most individuals reach sexual maturity at 13 years of age. They continue to mate for up to 18 years.
The tragic interference from humans can certainly be prevented, and officials hope to have a stronger management plan in place by next year.