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In the Newsroom

December 5, 2008
Turtle gazing on Nicaragua’s silky shores

Producer Megan Thompson took some time to turtle gaze during her trip to Nicaragua, where she reported and filmed the story Coffee producers lead fight against cancer in Nicaragua.

A turtle making her way to shore to lay her eggs on the beach. Photo: Jonathan Perez

These turtle eggs are buried in the sand along a beach in Nicaragua. They will hatch in two months, provided poachers don’t get to them first. Photo: Megan Thompson

It’s 10 p.m. on Friday night in San Juan del Sur, a vacation town on the west coast of Nicaragua. While the rest of the city gathers in the streets to kick off a booze-fueled weekend, I’m in a hostel listening to a lecture on turtles.

We are about to climb into a van for an hour-long journey to look for tortugas, the huge sea turtles that arrive every year to lay their eggs along a stretch of silky Nicaraguan beach.

After an hour on a “road” –- more like a long clearing in the woods –- we arrive at Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor, where around 30,000 giant Olive Ridley turtles (and a few Leatherbacks) have climbed ashore in recent weeks.

Development and poaching are threatening sea turtles around the world, and La Flor is one of the few protected places on this stretch of the Pacific Coast. In an extraordinary feat of navigation and instinct, the turtles return to beach where they were born to lay the next generation.

If they find the beach filled with people, buildings or bright lights, they’ll just turn around and leave.  And if they do make it ashore, their nests are threatened by poachers who steal the eggs for food.

We climb out of the van and take the sandy path down to the beach, guided only by a red flashlight, which apparently does not bother the turtles.

Luckily, the white beach is gleaming in the light of a nearly-full moon. And there in the moonlight is what we’ve come for: A hunched, dark lump in the sand. This turtle has already dug her large hole and is poised to deliver.

A man at the scene explains that it appears she’s been injured. Part of her left back leg is missing; maybe an accident with a boat or a net. And then it begins –- dozens of perfectly round eggs descend to the sand.  We are each allowed one photo with flash, but must crouch down and stick the camera practically in the hole to contain the light.

We stand in a silent semi-circle for a good half-hour watching this lone turtle slowly but surely lay her eggs.  A woman comments on how it almost feels embarrassing –- a rather private moment invaded by strangers.

When she’s done, she slowly kicks the sand over her nest and packs it down to protect the nest. The eggs will stay here, alone, for the next two months until the babies hatch, fight their way out and then find the ocean.

The mother turtle turns to the ocean –- our guide says she can hear the low rumble of the waves –- and begins her slow return. Every ten steps, she pauses for a break.

Our circle turns with her and we mimic her journey: Ten steps, pause, then continuing on, until she reaches the edge of the sea, and we bid her farewell.

– Megan Thompson

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Comments

2 comments

#2

I was disgusted to see the egg robberies at Playa La Flor, Nicaragua. While the guards sat up the hill in their office people claimed turtles as they came ashore, followed them and as soon as the eggs were laid loaded them into large sacks to haul away for sale. The turtle was not even allowed to cover the eggs.

#1

I love this article. We at Playa Roca (playaroca.com) on the northern coast of Nicaragua also have tours of the tortuga’s at Isle Juan Venado Wilderness Refuge only 1 km from the resort. Park rangers take tourists every night to see these turtles duplicate themselves. It is a protected reserve, so these turtles have a safe haven for nesting. Every so often a turtle will come ashore near our hotel and the locals can’t wait to steal the eggs, which is against the law. It is amazing to see the baby turtles finally released to go directly into the ocean. The only problem that is humorous is their attempt to get through the crashing waves. They repeatedly get pushed back only to try again and again. The last baby turtle finally swam away after 30 minutes of being denied.

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