Twilight of the Turtles

Go little turtle, go

There is a reason the leatherback turtle looks so ancient. As a species, she has lived on the earth for more than 65 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. The oldest and largest living reptile, the average leatherback is more than six feet long from head to tail, and weighs up to 1,600 pounds. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback has no hard outer shell, but rather a tough, leathery skin made of oil-saturated tissue raised to seven ridges. Large front flippers – more than eight feet for the biggest turtles – able them to power through the water and to dive as deep as any whale.

It is truly awesome, in the original sense of the word, to witness one of these stately creatures emerge from the sea – a somber messenger from our primeval past. This vision is potentially fleeting, for the leatherback is in imminent danger of extinction. If action isn’t taken to protect the turtles in the ocean and on nesting beaches they could disappear in our lifetime.

After thriving for so many millennia, how did this come to be?

Over the past two decades the leatherbacks have exhibited population declines of up to 90%. These numbers have been driven by various factors, which include:

  • capture and drowning in the swordfish and tuna fisheries
  • loss of nesting habitats due to development
  • commercial exploitation of sea turtle eggs / poaching
  • ingestion of plastic bags and other garbage

But there is hope. The Las Baulas National Park in Guanacaste, approximately 30 miles from Hotel Sugar Beach, is one of the world’s few remaining sites of significant leatherback turtle nesting activity.

Turtle portrait from Hazel Rodriguez's 3rd grade class

Leatherback turtles have undoubtedly been nesting on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica for thousands or millions of years. During the 1980s it was realized that the beaches of Playa Grande, Playa Ventanas and Playa Langosta collectively hosted the largest remaining Pacific leatherback populations in the country. Biologists from Drexel University and Indiana Purdue University began to study the population and quickly discovered that it was declining rapidly. In response, they created the Las Baulas Conservation Project.

The broad aims of the project are:

  • identify the size and status of the nesting leatherback turtle population
  • protect nesting female turtles and their nests from poachers and predators
  • provide scientific information to the Costa Rican authorities to develop effective management and conservation strategies
  • improve understanding of leatherback biology through quality scientific research

These aims are achieved by:

  • patrolling the nesting beach each night and identifying all turtles which nest
  • assisting park guards in control of tourists and other people on the beach
  • meeting with local and government National Park authorities and members of the local communities to distribute information and provide advice in conservation issues
  • undertaking a variety of research projects to investigate reproductive biology, population genetics, physiology and other important areas of biology
Ranger Randall
Turtle artist

In October, our own Sophia accompanied Ranger Randall Ureña from Las Baulus to visit a group of Potrero third graders and talk to them about the plight of the turtles. The children learned about the history of the leatherbacks, their special place in the Costa Rica ecosystem, and the threats they face from the modern world. It was also explained that everyone in the community – even third graders – can do their part to help the turtles, from cleaning the beaches, to avoiding noise and light pollution in nesting areas, and educating friends and neighbors about the high cost of turtle egg poaching. Next month the class will visit the park and name one of the turtles.

While the number of leatherbacks has declined precipitously since the 80s, the trend in the last seven years is typical of a population that is stabilizing. This is due in part to the to night patrolling and the education of the community in the plight of the leatherbacks.

Twilight also means color of night just before dawn