Posts tagged: playa junquillal

Turtle trouble in Costa Rica

A leatherback turtle; photo: scienceblogs.com

A leatherback turtle; photo: scienceblogs.com

There was a great article in the New York Times in November about the plight of sea turtles in Costa Rica, home to some of their favorite nesting beaches.

I was recently in Tamarindo, a town just south of Playa Grande and its Las Baulas National Park (a baul is a leatherback turtle, which can be the size of a compact car).

In years past hundreds of leatherbacks came to lay their eggs in the sands of Playa Grande. The Times article says that just 32 leatherbacks were seen on the beach last year. And this year, locals told me, only a handful of turtles have been seen. The park’s ranger station had been shut down and, according to Alvaro Fonseco (quoted in the Times), Playa Grande is no longer being promoted as a place for tourists to see leatherbacks.

Five or six years ago I was part of a midnight turtle tour at Playa Grande, where a ranger led a small group of us, lighting our way with a masked flashlight (light disorients the turtles) to where a few leatherbacks were digging holes in the sand and dropping in their large, white flexible-skinned eggs. At that time, there were almost always a few turtles laying eggs each night. Now there have been only a few spotted this entire season.

Playa Grande and Las Baulas is close to Tamarindo, a burgeoning town where massive condo developments sit cheek by jowl with funky surfer hangouts. There’s been a recent moratorium on certain kinds of highrise building, but some projects seem exempt from the new rules, and enough got in under the wire that development is now encroaching on turtle territory.

And even the national park, already encroached upon, is under further threat. President Oscar Arias has floated a proposal that would protect the first 55 yards from the high tide mark but allow limited development on the next 80 yards. Critics say this would have the effect of making the area not so much a national park as just another zone for development, albeit with stricter rules for where lights can shine.

Expat Stephen Duplantier, a resident of San Ramon, and Alvaro Ugalde, former environment minister of Costa Rica, have put together an excellent online book about the current leatherback turtle situation in Costa Rica.

Many things threaten sea turtle survival, including development and its attendant lights, which can disorient the creatures and cause them to either not come to the beach to lay their eggs or to return to the water without having laid them. Drift net fishing (where there’s a lot of bycatch, or unintended catch, including turtles) is another culprit, as is climate change. Turtles can die in the hotter, more acidic seas caused by global warming, eggs on beaches are washed away by higher tides from more violent storms before they can hatch, and warmer sand can cause more females than males to be born, upsetting the gender balance of the turtle population.

When turtles lay eggs, the gender is not yet determined. Warmer temperatures produce more female eggs.

PLaya Junqillal, where olive ridley turtles nest; photo by David W. Smith

Playa Junqillal, where olive ridley turtles nest

South of Tamarindo is nearly-deserted Playa Junquillal, a favored nesting spot for Olive Ridley turtles. Even there, turtles are in trouble. Markers placed at the high tide mark are now often completely underwater, verifying that the seas, at least here, are indeed rising. Turtle eggs get washed away, eaten by predators, heated up to femalehood, or literally boiled by hot sands. A local crew of young people are paid $2/hour to collect the eggs and keep them safe in a hatchery kept at 85 degrees farenheit, which yields both male and female hatchlings.