It was June 22nd at eight o'clock in the evening when Juan, the self-proclaimed "predator turned protector" tour guide, introduced himself to me and five other tourists on a dimly lit footpath. We were in Tortuguero. This Costa Rican town, only accessible by boat or air, is on a narrow strip of land nuzzled between the Caribbean Sea and the Tortuguero River. Tortuguero is a popular tourist destination because it is one of few prime sea turtle nesting sites in tropical America.
No cameras, no lights, our tour guide Juan warned us before we took off on a night tour to see nesting sea turtles. Artificial light is a sea turtle's enemy. Artificial light can disorient nesting mothers as well as baby sea turtles, disrupting mothers' ability to nest and the babies' sense of direction. With too much artificial light, the babies cannot find their way to the sea after hatching. So, for decades now, Tortuguero residents have kept their beaches artificial-light free. With our flashlights, cell phones, and cameras off, Juan gestured us to follow him to the beach.
Now I don't have to tell those of you who read this blog that wildlife spotting is never a sure thing. So I walked with no expectation of seeing a turtle and took pleasure just being at a site where these creatures visit. But, to my surprise, we did not even hit the beach path before Juan told us to stop walking.
Our guide Juan worked with beach patrollers that roam the beach to find nesting sea turtles. In addition to finding turtles for tourists, these roaming turtle spotters limit traffic on the beach to prevent scaring nesting turtle mothers. Juan told us to wait because he got word from beach patrol that there was a nesting mother within meters of our group.
Although I was elated at the chance to see a sea turtle nesting for the first time, I understood we had to wait. If we walked over before this awesome creature dug her nest and began the laying process, she was likely to head back into the water before she had finished nesting. But, female turtles go into a trance-like state when they begin to lay. So, if tourists wait and only approach turtles when they are in this trance, females are unlikely to turn back to the sea early.
While we waited for her to begin laying, the six of us sat on a piece of driftwood near her nesting site. The beach was dark and although we were sitting just 10 meters from the turtle, all I could see was a large spot on the sand that was darker than its surroundings. We waited while she diligently pushed sand away from her body with her strong flippers to carve her nest.
During the wait, a fellow on our tour became impatient. He paced back and forth on the small strip of beach that we were allowed to walk on. He scurried to the town road just beyond the shore to have a cigarette or two. He asked our guide countless times how long it would take this female to make her nest. Finally, and surely to his relief, 45 minutes later we were invited to approach her.
A Green Sea Turtle. She was nestled in a cozy spot next to some grass and a sea grape. I was so close to my hotel that I could still see it, yet, I was standing just a meter away from this turtle, closer than I could have hoped to be. But Juan motioned us even closer.
I was speechless. Nothing I was told beforehand, no picture, no video, nothing could have prepared me for what I walked up to. I knelt down right behind her majestic flippers, I could have reached out and touched her huge aged-shell. I sat and watched her tail and cloaca pulsate as eggs dropped deep into a bed of sand that she had excavated.
I too was in a trance. I moved with her as she moved up and down dropping the eggs a few at a time. I inhaled with her heavily as she gasped for energy. Her deep sigh-like exhalations pushed tears from my eyes.
While witnessing something so personal in a female's life, I couldn't help but think of what my birthing experience would be like. The onset of my labour would summon a support team of kin and caregivers. She was doing this alone, with the exception of a gathering few uninvited observers.
Pauses in between her egg laying lengthened. I thought she would stop but she kept on. Then, just when I thought she was energy-drained to the last drop, her flippers began to propel backwards. Sand flew in every direction and her eggs started to disappear under a blanket of sand.
Covering her nest took time and my fellow tour mates were impatiently fidgeting. The same particularly restless fellow, with his eyes glued to his watch, asked our guide how long it would take for her to finish. Juan respectfully replied, "As long as she needs".
When her nest was indistinguishable from the kilometers of sand ahead on each side of her, she maneuvered her body around to make her way back to the dark, rocky, uninviting sea. I could only hope she had enough energy to endure that final push. She did. She pushed the sand back with her flippers to move her land-awkward body down the beach. With each powerful push she inched toward the tide. Her energy was such that all six of us began to follow her. She pushed forward and we marched behind, almost in single file, but never in her tracks. When she braked we stopped as well, tentatively, wavering on the tips of our toes as if we were rooting for her to make it to the finish line.
We were quiet and something was different. That fellow, my overly antsy tour mate, was calm now. I observed as he followed her tracks with a patience I've only seen few people exude. His eyes were wide, watching intently as not to miss any of her movements. His neck was strained as if he was anxiously anticipating her safe arrival into the water. As she approached the water, his stance was still, as still as a statue. And in his statue-like state, he embodied solidarity for her and her journey. In that moment, I felt him say: I'll wait here with you, for as long as you need to make your way home.
This is a guest post by Olivia Sylvester. Olivia researches
ethnobiology and food justice in the tropical forests of Costa Rica. She blogs about her work and you can follow her @farmsforests on Twitter.