As we walked along the black sand of Playa Ostional that Friday night, we had to step lightly. Carefully. For mother nature was hard at work, and we didn’t want to disturb her.
To look down the beach was to see a mist rolling up from the ocean, and hundreds of large stones scattered where the waves meet shore. Except they weren’t stones; they were turtles, heaving themselves onto the beach to lay their eggs.
It’s called the arribada, or arrival, and it happens on only a few beaches around the world. With every lunar cycle, Olive Ridley turtles gather in the ocean around Playa Ostional, about 20 minutes from where we’re living. Then on some cue unseen by us, they begin marching en masse onto the beach at high tide to lay eggs. This happens over the course of 4 or 5 days, and then the beach will be empty again until the hatching, and the next arribada.
When we were here two years ago, we witnessed a summer arribada, which is not traditionally as large as an arribada during the rainy season. We came at sunrise and probably saw 30 or so turtles making their way onto the beach, or heading back into the ocean. It was amazing, and one of the highlights of my life.
So as soon as we arrived in Costa Rica this time, I began following the facebook page of the Ostional National Park guides for news of the next arribada. On Friday, September 4th, they announced that the turtles had begun to arrive, and in large numbers. As luck would have it, high tide would happen around sunset. The arribada often peaks during a night-time high tide, which means fewer people see it at its fullest, and can take fewer photos. But we hoped the timing of this arribada would mean an opportunity to see a large amount of turtles in the daylight.
When we picked Camille up from school that day, we gave her the good news and saw her eyes grow wide with excitement and anticipation. At 4:30 we began to bounce our way along the dirt highway to Ostional, arriving just as a guide was beginning the next tour. During the arribada, you must purchase a ticket and go along with a guide to ensure you don’t disturb the wildlife.
When we emerged onto the beach, I could see a crowd gathered off in the distance. We weren’t the only ones who’d gotten the memo. We walked toward the mass of people, and when I began to see how many turtles were in the sand I had to keep myself from running toward them. Our guide offered several warnings to stay close and not leave the group.
Where last time we saw 30 turtles, I couldn’t begin to tell you how many we saw this time. There were so many, they were literally climbing on top of one another to search for space to dig their nests. I had to watch my step at all times. The turtles are large, but it would have been easy to trip over one if you didn’t walk with care because there were just so many. We tried to give them their space and just watch. Absorb. Be in the moment.
We spent about an hour on the beach before our guide turned us back toward the road. Even walking away, I found myself constantly looking back at the army of turtles and offering stunned laughter because I didn’t know what else to do. Cry?
The sight is one I will never forget. Unfortunately, the weekend also became rather infamous for getting completely out of hand. Once word spread of how large the arribada was, everyone wanted to come see (and who could blame them?). And usually, this time of year the rivers are too swollen with rain water for most people to drive to Ostional. But this rainy season is off to a sputtering, unimpressive start, and the roads were quite passable. So people came in droves, some slipped clear of the guides, and the system was overwhelmed. We hear tales that when the turtles were confronted by the crowds that weekend, some turned and marched back into the sea. It became news around the world, even featured on my former employer’s news page back home at wsav.com.
The national park guides have decided they will no longer announce the hatchings or the arribadas online, which I fully understand. I really want to (respectfully) see the next hatching though, so I will have to look for different sources of information. Undoubtedly things need to be managed differently, but the guides have even considered closing the beach to the public during future arribadas, which I think would be sad. I wish every animal-loving person in the world would have a chance to see this spectacle of nature.
But for now, here are a few more photos so you can share in my joy at witnessing this remarkable event.