Excited yet drained, I arrived in Tortuguero after a 6:30am start, a three hour drive and a two hour boat journey along the river, spotting soaring toucans, lurking caimans and a soggy sloth clinging to a branch on the way. Once I’d finally made it on solid ground, I could tell that this small village on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica was something special.
Translated to ‘Land of Turtles’, Tortuguero is a world cut-off from the rest of the country as it is separated from the mainland and can only be reached by aeroplane or boat. The day I arrived, I walked along the empty beach with the sea roaring gently in one ear and the jungle whispering with the sounds of wildlife in the other, and it struck me just why everyone says you cannot miss seeing it for yourself.
Watching the turtles laying eggs on the beach is one of the main reasons that tourists visit, and the rugged beaches littered with driftwood are key nesting sites for four species of sea turtles that come to lay their eggs there between July and October every year before swimming back to sea. Apart from the moment they are hatched and make a bid for freedom along the dark volcano sands, this is the only time that these turtles ever go on land.
After a day of trekking through the surrounding jungles and paths of Tortuguero, I put my name down to try and spot the turtles on my second evening. At 10pm, we met our guides at the lodge and were separated into small groups of about eight. We were told to dress in dark or black clothing and to turn our phones off; if any such light was seen during the trip, it would distract the turtles and we would all have to leave. I was a little apprehensive as we were led by torchlight through the lodge grounds and onto the beach, stumbling along and feeling as though we should all be holding hands!
Once we were on the sand, the yellow glow of the torch was switched to a dim red – the turtles cannot see this and it is the only light allowed on the beach when they are there. Our passionate guide immediately led us to a giant Green Sea Turtle who had finished digging out her nesting hole and was laying her perfectly-rounded, pearl-white eggs.
She was relaxed although must have been tired, as we were told she could have been digging for hours, and she seemed completely unaware of our presence. It was an experience that I couldn’t compare to anything I had seen before, and as a gust of warm wind swept over me, I looked up to see the Milky Way sparkling above us as the turtle had just finished laying her eggs, and it felt like I was in a surreal dream.
It wasn’t over yet, as the guide heard from another that a different turtle had just finished covering her eggs with sand and was preparing to set off back to the sea. Just as we got there, she pulled herself up out of the hole and sensed which direction she should go, embarking on the 20 metre journey back home. We walked slowly and silently with her as she dipped her flippers in the rumbling water before the waves submerged her.
Although I love photography, I don’t have a single photo of this moment. I am glad that we weren’t allowed to take photos because I was able to be completely absorbed in the intimate and surreal moment of seeing two separate Green Sea Turtles laying eggs on Tortuguero beach without disturbing them, and so you will just have to take my word for how incredible it is.
Words and photos by Alice Bzowska