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Turtle Beach

March 2, 2016

In Costa Rica there are many beaches along the Pacific where sea turtles go to lay their eggs. It’s a popular tourist activity, and so I went with a friend recently. The beach our local guide took us to was spectacularly beautiful, even in the dark, which is when you must go if you want to see turtles defend against their mortality. Playa Grande’s waves glide evenly onto the golden sand beach spreading white foam that glows in the moonlight. Gigantic rock formations jut out of the sea. The beach is within a cove that stretches a mile or more, yet seems intimate, with nothing but palms and Guanacaste trees as backdrop. It is like walking onto a movie set, but it is real.

We were encouraged to refrain from the current custom of incessantly documenting our lives so as to keep from distracting the turtles from their purpose—laying eggs. At first it was like watching paint dry. After taking inventory of the constellations above us and the waxing moon, we were left to just stand quietly and wait… for what? Would a multitude of huge leatherbacks suddenly emerge from the sea like the Allies on Normandy Beach?

Finally, after conjuring scenarios in our imaginations, our attention was drawn to a lone dark shape on the shoreline. Our guide spoke in a hushed, articulate voice, “That is a turtle coming to dig a nest. Stay here until I tell you to follow me.” A Brit standing next to me jested, it might just be an accomplice hiding in the brush and yanking on a rope to simulate a moving turtle. We hoped he was wrong.

Our patience was rewarded when we were led in a single line down the beach and over a turtle-beaten path in the sand, perpendicular to the shoreline. Grouped in the shade of arching Guanacaste trees, we were urged to stay out of the moonlight. Turtles, we were told, have excellent eyesight. Our guide shown a red light in the sand. Soon, we could see sand flying out of the circle in huge arcs. If this was a hoax, someone was getting buried in sand.

After a while a huge turtle, weighing as much as an average human, emerged from the hole. It was the dark shape we had seen on the beach earlier. I felt humbled to be a witness to this turtle’s destiny unfolding on a remote beach. The crowd of onlookers was silent, unmoving. When the turtle was finished digging, she moved back to the sea and swam away. The small crowd cheered. I was ready to leave, sufficiently awed by what I had seen.

But the night was just beginning and others were eager for more. Someone pointed out a depression in the sand, and a couple of crinkled white orbs, apparently egg sacs. A small turtle lay dead in the hole.