Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.
Our guide, Ciro Marcos Ruiz, picked us up at our Playa Ocotal villa at 5:30 in the evening for an excursion that could last all night. He drove me and my family 40 miles to reach a destination that was 15 miles line of sight down the West coast of Costa Rica. My POI database showed us passing through "small cities" such as Belen and Filidelfia. Notice the spelling of the latter with the letter f. I kept asking him where different cities were as I scrolled through my GPS database. He was amazed at my detailed knowledge of small Costa Rican towns. I didn't fess up. We headed East before then turning south; back West and a bit north.
Along the way, we got quite an education about Costa Rican plant and animal life. Did you know a pineapple is technically not a fruit but a flower? Marcos had a degree in these things but maybe he was pulling our legs or as they say in Spanish, "pulling our hair."
He told us to cross our fingers that we would have success on our adventure. Our destination was one of only 4 beaches in the world where the largest turtle, the Leather Back or Tortuga Baula in Spanish, nests. This time of year, they dig a nest in the sand and bury their eggs. Small groups can watch from a few feet away. They used to allow people to touch the turtles once they were engaged in their nest building but they no longer allow this and they take extraordinary measures not to disturb them.
The turtles lay about 60 fertilized eggs in the nest and then another bunch of unfertilized eggs on top in case predators find the nest. They also dig fake nests nearby to thwart predators. They live to be 60 or more years old but they don't really know for sure because they won't last more than a year in captivity. I got to feel a 3 foot tall Galapagos tortoise in 1982 on one of those islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They live to be 150 years old but aren't as bulky as the Leather Back.
Once we reached the preserve, we had to show our passports and sign documents and then we received an orientation from the ranger. He spoke for 10 minutes in Spanish and then the English translator spoke for 30 seconds. She was really bad. I was grateful to understand enough Spanish to glean most of the information about the Leather Back. He listed all the park rules like: no talking, no cameras, stand behind the turtle not in front and don't touch the turtle. The ranger said the exception was el ciego, me, the blind guy.
At 7 pm, we had dinner and then returned to the van to wait for a turtle sighting. We stretched out, each on our own row in the van. Maybe we would get lucky, maybe not. It was all up to Mother Nature. This wasn't a Disneyland ride after all.
Readings: High tide 11:18 pm, full moon in 6 days, 74 degrees, Very Good 9 satellites, heading Southeast 137 degrees, speed 4 kph. Latitude 10 degrees, 19 minutes, 43.902 seconds North. Longitude 85 degrees, 50 minutes, 34.542 seconds West.
Marcos rousted us from our nap at 11:45 PM and we quickly formed a line to pass through the tight security on to a beautiful white sandy beach, Playa Grande, a good 100 yards across and 4 miles long. We walked briskly along the water's edge the bright moonlight lighting our way and shimmering on the waves with their edges lapping at our feet. After waiting so long, we didn't want the turtle to finish her work and return to the sea before we got there.
We walked, almost jogged, 1.1 kilometers Southeast. My heart was pounding in anticipation as was Grandma Charlotte's. This was an adventure for the young of body and heart. Not too many other people in their 70's anywhere on this trip.
And there the Leather Back was, 100 feet above the water line, digging a nest, as deep as her flippers could reach, about 2.5 feet, and 6 inches wide. She was 144 cm (5 feet) in length. A biologist took measurements and counted the eggs as she pushed them out, 44 in total. I knelt in the sand and gingerly reached out to feel her shell. It was rising and falling, like someone breathing deeply. It was actually her contractions as she pushed out the eggs. I was shown where her pelvis bone was at the back of the shell. Ridges like seams in a cushion ran along her back about 10 inches apart. Her front flippers were long and thin, sticking out about 2 feet on either side 10 inches wide. The back flippers felt very muscular. I was startled when she began scooping sand with her front flippers back over the nest. She was so focused on her work that she didn't seem to care that I was touching her all over.
I felt so privileged to have this special and intimate moment with nature and happy that my family and I could share this experience together.
It was after 2 AM when we reached our Villa, glad that we didn't have to get up at any specific time. When we did, it was down to the beach and the boys and I molded a Leather Back out of sand. Its tactile image was vivid in my memory and it was fun to try and replicate it in sand. After admiring our work, we strolled along the beach, the boys exclaiming every few feet: little crabs, big crabs, cute birds, butterflies, lizards, animal tracks, sea slugs, pelicans and once again, Howler Monkeys, everything part of Mother Nature but nothing quite as rare as the Leather Back. That lat lon reading I gave on a beach in Costa Rica for the Leather Back is like a star is to a sighted person looking through a telescope. It is remote and yet it has an identity. Odd and exciting to think of GPS as a telescope to the world for things that cannot be seen.