Sea Turtles: Ballena Marine National Park, Costa Rica

As we made our way along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, we had the privilege of visiting the Ballena Marine National Park at Playa Uvita. Here we learned about the Lora sea turtle project, specifically created for the purpose of protecting sea turtle habitat and breeding grounds. Ballena Marine was Latin America's first marine park, officially coming into existence in Feburary 1989.

In the afternoon we spoke with a park ranger, Junior Monje, about the sea turtles. He showed us around the nursery (called a vivero) where two collections of turtle eggs had hatched and were ready to be released that night. In two holes there were 60-80 baby turtles, each of them about half the size of a person's hand and encrusted with sand. The park staff collects the sea turtle eggs (usually laid around 3am), waits 45-55 days for them to hatch in the nursery, and releases them back to the ocean. This action is necessary because dogs and racoons will dig up and eat turtle eggs on the beach. Also, some Ticos dig up the eggs and eat them raw, as a delicacy. The park's education and awareness program is designed to stop this practice from continuing, and the nursery was created to assure that the turtles can hatch safely and make it out to sea.

We returned to Ballena Marine Park for the release of the turtles at 7pm. Junior gathered up the newly hatched turtles in a cardboard box and brought them to the beach. There were 261 turtles squirming in the box, making scratching noises against the side of it. There was a whole crowd of people gathered for the event; families, two policemen, a group of college students and community members. The beach was gorgeous as the full moon reflected off the receding tide. The box of baby turtles was pulsating with life. Junior dumped them out of the box and most of them headed for the ocean. We watched quietly as they crawled toward the water. Some were a bit confused and started going the wrong way, but were soon encouraged in the right direction. Out of a group this size, it is estimated that only one or two turtles will actually make it to adulthood (20 years old) because they have many natural predators. As Junior says - we can help them this far, but once they make it into the ocean it is up to them to survive.

Words of the Day: Tico - (slang) a Costa Rican person, tortuga - turtle, vivero - nursery

Interview with Junior: [Ogg Vorbis Audio|MP3 Audio]