Turtle Tourism in Costa Rica

The benefits and dangers of ecotourism and turtle tourism

By Olivia Burton


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the beach at night, rolling waves and the smell of salt water overpowered all other senses as we sat on the cool sand. The Milky Way the only interruption in otherwise total darkness. We were waiting for the three flashes of red light that our guide would use to signal that a Pacific green turtle had lumbered up out of the sea to nest. We were on a secluded beach in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province in mid-March, nearing the end of nesting season for Costa Rica’s Pacific green turtles. At any time of year, at least one of Costa Rica’s sea turtle species — leatherbacks, hawksbills, loggerheads, green sea turtles, black sea turtles, and Olive Ridleys — is in nesting season, making Costa Rica a popular destination for turtle tourism. Tortuguero National Park on the northern Caribbean coast is one of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting sites, and the resulting ecotourism has transformed the remote village of Tortuguero into a popular tourist destination. By earning revenue for conservation programs as well as raising awareness for turtle protection, turtle tourism has the potential to aid conservation efforts for these vulnerable animals.

Facing threats of climate change, poaching, accidental capture in fishing gear, and construction on important nesting beaches, five out of seven marine turtle species are either endangered or critically endangered. It doesn’t help that turtle hatchlings have incredibly slim chances of survival. Depending on the species, mature female sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs per season, burying them under dirt or sand for approximately two months. Once hatched, baby turtles must make it across the beach and into the water, facing predators from the sky, land, and air. They are only safe when they reach the main current, far past the shallows. Unfortunately, our guide told us, only about one out of every 1000 eggs reaches maturity.

Turtle tourism, an offshoot of the broader trend of ecotourism, has become increasingly popular since the late 1980s and continues to grow. Not only have people learned more about the fragility and ecological importance of these species, but in tourism-dependent economies like Costa Rica, regulators and tour operators have begun to recognize sea turtles’ value as educational tools and tourist attractions. In 2009, the World Wildlife Fund released an economic study showing that sea turtles were worth more to local economies as tourist attractions than as material products such as shells, eggs, and meat. “Developers, politicians, and community leaders should start to see marine turtles as a valuable asset, generating revenue and jobs. Tourism and turtle protection may in fact increase their economic value,” the study by Sebastian Troëng and Carlos Drews proposed.

After waiting in the sand for about fifteen minutes, we finally saw the signal from our guide’s red flashlight and walked quickly towards him. Official tours with licensed guides are the only legal way to view sea turtle nesting in Costa Rica. Guides communicate with each other via radio to ensure that the tourists all get to see a turtle. More importantly, they enforce strict rules meant to protect the turtles. Bright clothing, flash photography, and anything else that might disrupt the nesting or hatching process is banned.

Before we saw the turtle herself, her tracks in the wet sand, reminiscent of the tracks of a large tractor tire, hinted at her enormous size. Endangered green sea turtles can live approximately 80 years in the wild and weigh up to 400 pounds. In spite of their vast migratory range, many choose to nest on the same beach where they were hatched. This turtle was returning to the ocean after failing to find a suitable nesting spot. Our group of ten followed about ten feet behind her as she dragged herself to the water, seemingly exhausted. The guide pointed out a large barnacle on her back, indicating her age and poor health.

Nobody spoke as the turtle disappeared into the foam. The silence, broken only by the sound of the waves, was a stark contrast from the noisy beach clubs and surf schools of nearby Tamarindo.

Eco-tourism is not the only way to protect vulnerable species, and if not done carefully, it can do more harm than good. But as a creative solution that could benefit both humans and animals, it might be a good place to start.


Olivia Burton ‘18 is an English major in Morse College. Contact her at olivia.burton@yale.edu.