The sun had already set when we arrived at Playa Ostional. Our friend Andy had just flown in from New Orleans, and it was the last night of November’s turtle arribada. For several days, female Olive Ridley turtles had been lumbering onto the beach at Ostional to lays eggs as a group like they do each lunar cycle. We wanted Andy to see the wonder of it too.
But this was my first time coming to Ostional after sunset. The beach was enshrouded in an inky darkness, and the only light we were allowed to use was a dim, red beam that wouldn’t disturb the turtles.
We stumbled along in the dark, but thankfully were with a guide more accustomed to finding turtles in the blackness. He did not disappoint. It wasn’t the grand vista we enjoy during the daylight hours, where you can look down the shore and see scores and scores of turtles. But seeing even one is pretty amazing.
Then suddenly, one of the other guides on the beach shouted to us. They’d found a hatchling from a previous arribada! A tiny straggler, alone, making his way to the sea.
I’d always wanted to see a baby turtle on her sea journey – we were all so excited! Our guide shined his red light on the fellow as he waddled along the beach, each ripple or footprint in the sand as challenging to him as a large dune would be to me. He’d rush forward several steps, then stop to catch his breath. He was adorable.
We watched him for a long time, then our guide announced he’d found another turtle laying eggs nearby. He marked the spot of our hatchling with a stick so we could find him again.
But after admiring the nesting turtle just a minute or two, when we returned to our hatchling he was nowhere to be found. Our guide even briefly turned on his full flashlight and scanned the beach.
In Spanish, he announced, “He’s probably been eaten by a crab.”
For once, I secretly hoped Camille couldn’t understand what our guide was saying. But of course, she could.
Sure enough, near the stick we’d used to mark the hatchling’s location, was a deep hole. A crab’s hole. To my surprise, our guide dropped to his knees and began digging.
He dug and dug, then at some point jumped back with a crab in his hand. Had it pinched him? I don’t know, but he quickly flung it to the side and kept digging. A moment later his hand emerged from the hole again, this time gently cradling the baby turtle. Unharmed. Probably terrified. Maybe grateful. I could hardly believe our guide had literally rescued him from the crab’s claws!
“We need to move him a little further down the beach, away from the crab,” he said to us as we headed in the opposite direction of where he’d flung the predator. Then he paused, turned around and asked if Camille would like to carry him.
Even in the darkness I could see the round excitement of her eyes. The brilliance of her smile. She held out her hand and the guide placed the baby turtle in her palm. Carefully and slowly, she walked with him farther away from the crab’s domain.
When the guide felt we’d gone a safe distance, Camille lowered the turtle to the sand. The little guy still had a long way to go, and it was so very dark and getting late, so we bid him goodbye and good luck. Then Camille turned to me and whispered, “That is my favorite thing that has happened to me in Costa Rica so far!”
Determined to see hatchlings in the daylight, we returned a few days later with some friends. We set our alarms for 4:30 a.m., hoping to arrive at Ostional around 5 as the sun began to light the shore.
The kids quickly shook off their sleepiness, excited to be on an early morning adventure. Ostional was simply gorgeous in the morning light, and we slowly walked along the black sand, scanning for baby turtles.
During mass hatching events, you can find hundreds of them streaming from their nests to the sea. But this morning, no mass hatchings were happening on the beach, although the sand was literally covered in empty egg shells. It was also covered in vultures, unfortunately, pecking away at some of the babies who’d probably begun their journey during the night, but did not survive. That was hard to watch.
Then finally, we found four stragglers waddling toward the waves. Our team of kids made a wall around them, bristling like mama bears at any vulture who came near. They squealed. They ooohed and ahhhhed. They were smitten with the baby Olive Ridleys.
It took the turtles a long time to march to the ocean, and it took a lot of work by the moms to convince the kids not to pick them up and carry them. Yes, Camille had carried a baby, but that was to get it away from a crab (and with the permission of a guide). But the turtles need their long journey to gain strength for the ocean, and we had to be patient.
Finally, one by one, the little turtles got close enough for the waves to lap at their faces. After moving so slowly on sand, it was thrilling to watch when a wave would come up high enough to sweep them out to sea. And then they were gone.
We turned and began our long walk back to the car. We knew the kids would be late for school and tired all day.
And we knew it was worth it. 100%.