By Isabella Alves
OSTIONAL, Costa Rica — Strong ocean waves crashed on Ostional’s beach, in northwest Costa Rica, carrying with them a special delivery: olive ridley sea turtles arriving for their arribada.
Arribada, arrival in English, is a special event for the residents of Ostional. The small Pacific Coast town’s recent history has revolved around the coming of the olive ridleys since the arribadas started in the 1950s.
Residents know when the arribada is about to begin as turtles start trickling in, 40 to 50 a night, before thousands suddenly arrive, according to Jairo Quirós Rosales, a field supervisor at the National System of Conservation Areas, known as SINAC.
The turtles come several times a year for arribadas, laying their eggs in the beach’s black sand, scattered with white dried shells of past eggs and bleached driftwood. At the back of the beach, large piles of debris – mostly larger pieces of driftwood and trash – mark the beach boundary.
The people of Ostional learned to tell when an arribada begins by its musky, powerful smell they learned to recognize, wafting off the beach and descending upon the coast like a heavy blanket. The smell is akin to a muted version of manure, or a bag of moist dirty laundry left too long in the sun.
The thousands of turtles laying their eggs simultaneously cause the smell. When the turtles lay their eggs, they also leave clear mucus excrements that leak over the beach as they drag themselves to and from the ocean, according to Yenifer Ruiz Coba, head guide for the Ostional Integrated Development Association, known in Costa Rica as ADIO.
People, dogs and vultures keep the turtles company. The dogs and vultures circle the turtles – cawing and barking at them, some even pecking or biting at the turtle’s flippers – impatiently waiting for them to lay their eggs, so they can have their next meal.
Accompanying the natural, and not-so-natural predators like the street dogs, the residents of Ostional dig up turtle nests to harvest the eggs. While to an outsider, this may seem like an unseemly practice that goes against the conservation of the endangered species – it’s not.
The people of Ostional only harvest one percent of the eggs lain for consumption and the association controls the legal practice, according to a film and presentation by the association.
The egg harvest started in 1987 and has helped the conservation of the species, Yeimy Cedeño Solis, the coordinator at the conservation in Ostional, said in a presentation.
The turtles nest in close proximity to each other and destroy about 60 percent of their own nests because of the intense concentration. When they drag themselves up the beach and begin digging their nests, they often dig up and destroy the nests of turtles that came before them.
When the turtles pick the spot for their nest, usually at the highest point on the beach, they wait to come during high tide so they don’t have to crawl as far. Their flippers, inept for land, mimic swimming motion they would use to cost the ocean waves as the sand replaces the tides.
The turtles often stop for several breaks along the way, their heads dropping with exhaustion as they spend their energy carrying haul their dark faded-green, heavy shells, to their nesting point.
Only about seven percent of the thousands of eggs laid ever hatch. Of that seven percent, only one out of a hundred make it into adulthood, which leaves millions of eggs about a foot under the sand unused and crowding the beach, according to the conservation’s presentation.
The egg harvesting helps limit this destruction because it reduces the nest concentration and lessens eggs destroyed by other turtles. The association has strict rules for the eggs they harvest. The eggs are checked to make sure the turtles haven’t already started to develop in the shells; if they are the bright-white golf ball sized eggs are returned to the beach.
The harvest occurs on 200 to 300 meters of the most concentrated nesting beach during the first three days of the arribada, but just because there’s an arribada doesn’t mean there’ll be a harvest, Ruiz said. The harvest has to be okayed by the conservation before it can start.
Residents who work the harvest wake up to the loud blare of a megaphone shouting “flota,” meaning fleet in English, around dawn, when the sun hasn’t even risen, so they know to head to the beach.
They work in groups, digging with their hands or shovels, some fashioning little hand-held scoopers out of coconut shells, to get to the eggs. After the eggs are excavated they’re sorted into crinkly white sacks dusty with sand, before being carried away on the shoulders of male volunteers for inspection.
The arribada is integral to the lives of the residents of Ostional. The security on the beach is closely monitored, and many residents with cut-throughs to the beach on their property let the workers use them.
People recognize and know who is working and suppose to be carrying the eggs. If anyone was here that wasn’t suppose to be, they would know, Juan Arrieta, a worker, said.
Back on the beach, Mari Leiva Rodriguez, a resident and worker, has been harvesting eggs for ten years. She said she harvests the eggs because it’s good for her. She doesn’t know what would happen to them if they couldn’t extract the eggs.
She said her daily life is “wonderful because of the turtles” and she worries about the climate and what happened last year at the arribada.
Last year, there wasn’t a wet season in Costa Rica and temperatures remained very hot, which caused many eggs to go bad and not hatch. The temperatures and lack of rain also caused an increase of tourists at the beach because of easier travel conditions, which led to about five thousand people congesting the beach.
This caused a lot of the turtles to immediately turn around and go back into the ocean- without laying their eggs.
Cedeño said the people aren’t really affected now by climate change and shifting turtle arribada patterns, but they understand that changes need to be made. The younger generations are slowly drifting apart from the turtle-centric older generations of the community and the turtles’ behavior is slowly shifting them to different beaches because of climate change.
The conservation is trying to build a plan with the locals to shift their local revenue to something that doesn’t rely on the arribadas: like tourism. Ostional, while a haven for the turtles, needs to diversify its income or they could face devastation if, or when, the turtles stop coming for the arribada.
The tides are changing for Ostional but the problem is most of the young people are leaving and going to Universities instead of staying and working with organizations like the association that could boost their tourism revenue.
Cedeño said the entire community of Ostional is “based on the behavior of the turtles.” All the income and development of Ostional comes from the arribadas and residents have gotten used to living with the rhythm of the turtles.
Everything the community has gained so far has come from the eggs from the arribadas, like their school, buildings and community developments.
“This (the arribada) is the spirit of the community,” Cedeño said. Ostional runs on “a puro huevo,” meaning pure egg in English.
Tomás Chararría, one of the founders of the association, said the arribada has been the reality of the town for generations and for young guides, like Ruiz, who have grown up with the turtles.
“For those of us who have grown up with turtles it shows a great value in nature,” Ruiz said, “we’re able to live from nature.”
Edited by Nadav Soroker