On Friday afternoon, when I got back from the beach, I saw that the turtle tour sign was outside. I have been waiting and hoping for a good night to see the turtles. As we arrived, the receptionist came out to advertise to the returning beach-goers. She said that the local reserve, La Flor, had called her to say that thousands upon thousands of turtles should be hatching that very night. I practically interrupted her speech to say I wanted to join. I rushed out to have dinner and rinse the sticky sand off of my body before the evening’s event.
Before the long bumpy ride to the reserve, we had a presentation about sea turtles in general, focusing on turtles that are common in Nicaragua. Sea turtles are really amazing, turns out. The endangered turtles here, the Olive Ridley sea turtle (Tortue Olivâtre in espagnol) all come up on shore at the same time to lay their eggs, in an event called an arrabiata. In this way, they hope to minimize losses from predators. The predators can’t get to all of those turtles at once! The mothers dig their holes with their back flippers, then lay their eggs into a nest in the sand. Then the close up the nest by tossing sand onto themselves and the hole as they slow scooch out from over it. There are more females than males and the males fight each other to get a piece of the action. Typically a few males will mate with each female so the eggs in a nest will come from different fathers. The sand temperature affects the gender that the turtles will be. Warm eggs will be female and cold weather eggs will be male. About a month after the eggs are laid, they hatch. They look and feel a bit like ping pong balls. The baby turtles take about 3 days to climb over each other to reach the surface of the sand. They all have to work together to leave the nest or none of them will survive.
So we piled into a van and bumped out into the dark to La Flor. Our guide took us up to the headquarters where they have lots of bags full of sand, all marked with the expected hatching date of the turtles within. The La Flor reserve is government-run and apparently works well with our hostel (my yoga class donations go toward these turtles). The guys at the headquarters handed over a big salad strainer-esque basket with 2 tiny, tiny turtles inside. They were almost as long as my pinkie finger. Our guide was a bit disappointed. She doesn’t like to come out unless there’s at least one turtle for each tourist to “liberate” one. To liberate a turtle, you have to release it 1-2 meters back from the water. It builds strength on the walk up to the sea. Once it gets into the oceanobPacifico, it will swim for 2 days to get past the shore-line predators before it stops to eat and grow.
We took some pictures (with red light only because it’s easier on baby turtle eyes than white light), then set the turtles down on the sand and cheered as they made their way into the water. The tracks their tiny flippers left behind were very cute.
Then we started to comb the beach, looking for turtles emerging from the sand. We spotted a divot in the sand and inspected more closely. One baby turtle was just coming to the surface. We watched it slowly make tiny motions and then a local volunteer in a tank top and chain came and sifted through the sand, pulling out 2 baby turtles with his hands. He put them in a basket from an hour to wait and grow stronger. These two were the last stragglers from the nest.
We all combed the beach, shining our flashlights up and down, looking for more babies fighting their way to the surface. We came upon a few more baskets of hatchlings and eventually, one little nose poking up through the sand.
Our tour circled around and I laid in the sand. We watched as the baby turtle tilted his head back, sending a tiny land slide of sand cascading down around him. Then a minute later, he’d try the move again. Slowly a flipper emerged and some nearby sand started to wiggle with another turtle underneath. After about 20 minutes, we could see about 1/3 each of 3 turtles. Each motion was immensely important, though small. Once the top turtle popped out, it was like the cork had been removed from a bottle and more and more turtles poured out of the now-loosened sand. We watched heads, flippers and shells seemingly coming out of nowhere. Babies got flipped over each other as new ones popped out from underneath. Most took a short breather before starting to slowly paddle their way over the sand toward the sea.
We cheered them on as about 50 made their way from the nest. We watched as they raced in slow motion to the edge of the waves lapping in. Before they reached the end, however, a volunteer came and scooped them all up into a basket. He counted cincuenta and told us we had to wait an hour, minimum 40 minutes before the turtles could finish their slow waddling walk to the sea. In a way it seemed strange. They were almost there, ready for their sweet freedom in the warm waters, where their paddling strokes are more natural. But apparently they get stronger if they wait. And whatever these guys have been doing has been working because there are almost double the number of turtles and nests since they started their project over a decade ago. We strolled up and down the beach, waiting for our babies to be ready.
Lightening lit up the sky, outlining beautiful fluffy clouds with each burst. The sea lapped in, making that soothing sound that gentle waves do. We found a few more baskets full of turtles and eventually, we were allowed to return to our little hatchlings.
We let them all out onto the sand and watched as they propelled themselves forward to the sea, guided by the moonlight shimmering on the back of the waves and turtle-sized mountainous dunes of sand (though tiny for us). We waited until all 50 had made their way, even waiting for the ones that waves washed back in to be sure they all swam off. There’s a sort of sense of hope for the babies, but in truth, only 1 in 1000 turtles survives. That’s about one out of every 10 nests!
We walked slowly through the sand, toes sinking in, back toward the entrance to the beach and the path to our van. Then we spotted a big crowd oohing and aahing and taking photos. We couldn’t help but join. In the center, a mother turtle was in the process of laying her eggs. We considered ourselves lucky, because this wasn’t supposed to happen tonight. We’d been pretty happy just to see the emergence! We watched through a little hole at the back under the turtle’s tail as the round eggs fell into the sand. We’d come just at the end and she spun around, using her front flippers to seal up the hole. She was careful to keep her massive shell over the new nest until it was covered, moving bit by bit to scoop sand onto the hole. Then she rotated around to face the sea and scooted herself along, back to the waves and a trip around the oceans. Turtles are solitary animals that follow the ocean currents on a big loop and come back to the place where they were born to lay their eggs. No one knows how they know where to go.
It was a really cool night. The weather was perfect and the things we saw were truly amazing. As we bumped along back to town, it started to rain, sealing in the experience of the night.