TORTUGUERO—January is a swell time to be a mere 10 degrees north of the equator, if for no other reason than the gloat factor. While I am here in shorts and sandals, my husband and daughter are visiting relatives in—could it be more perfect?—Syracuse, N.Y.
Yet right now, I wish it were August in Costa Rica. That way, I would be able to go down to the beach here in Tortuguero and watch endangered green sea turtles, each maybe 60 inches long and weighing 400 or 500 pounds, emerge from the sea and paddle across the sand on their huge muscular flippers to lay their eggs on the same spot where they themselves were born 25 or more years ago. Female sea turtles may not be the sort of maternal role models you’d assign to an education class for teen mothers. They dig holes on the shore, plop in a serving of 100 to 150 eggs at a time, quickly brush sand over the nest like a cat covering its business, and then skedaddle into the sea again without so much as a backward glance.
And yet, how those turtles yearn to lay their eggs! How they fight to return to their natal homes, which were somehow imprinted on them when they first emerged from their shells and found their way waterward, and how they fight to climb up the beach and dig and lay. It was the sight of a turtle’s unslakable drive to build her nest that led to Tortuguero being declared a national park and a refuge for turtle eggs. Back in the mid-1950s, then-President José Figueres Ferrer, aka Don Pepe, was touring the beach to see the annual turtle lay-fest. He and his entourage came upon a female turtle that had been caught by poachers and her belly split open to remove most of the tasty turtle meat inside. But the turtle was still alive, and she had flipped back over and was crawling up the beach, dribbling her intestines and her eggs behind her. Don Pepe said something must done, laws must be passed, and the turtle must survive. A dozen years of political wrangling later, Tortuguero National Park was born, and turtle prenates have been celebrating ever since.
In many other turtle nesting sites around the Atlantic, the number of green turtles that manage to hatch has declined by about 60 percent over the past 30 years, which is why the species is endangered. Not so at Tortuguero, where the annual number of hatchlings since 1970 has soared by 400 percent and now averages about 118,000 per season. And when we visited the Caribbean Conservation Corp. here at Tortuguero, a nonprofit group devoted to the preservation and exaltation of the sea turtle, we may not have seen live turtles—nesting season started in April, peaked in August, and ended in November, and all good turtles are out to sea now—but we met the chatty scientific director and indefatigable turtle ambassador, Sebastian Troeng, and through him we fell deep in turtle love. We behaved as smitten eco-tourists should, pumping money into the turtle preservation business through such virtuous purchases from the CCC gift shop as turtle T-shirts, a turtle running cap, a turtle necklace, and an official “turtle adoption kit.”
You’d have to have a heart of tortoiseshell not to love these great green reptiles. They’re safe, they’re gentle, they eat sea grass. They’ve been around for 100 million years; unlike Raquel Welch, they really did cavort with the dinosaurs. They can live for a couple of hundred years apiece, assuming they don’t end up in a soup pot. And now, at Tortuguero, they rarely do. The name of the town means Turtle Hunter, but these days the town lives on the meat of tourists instead. Turtle nesting season keeps tourists coming to Tortuguero even when it’s off-season elsewhere in Costa Rica.
So what makes Tortuguero a reasonable success story—as judged by satisfyingly concrete measures like a steady uptick in turtle hatchings? For one thing, Troeng said, good and sustained science; and as a science writer, I’ll fetch my pompoms and say rah. The renowned conservationist Archie Carr started studying sea turtles in Costa Rica back in 1956, establishing the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle, which eventually traded in its Sherlockian name for its current New Deal-esque abbrevium. Over the years, scientists have tagged many thousands of turtles, learning enough of their habits to know they had a salmon’s taste for the old homestead. More recently, researchers have begun attaching these admittedly goofy-looking transponders to turtles with epoxy glue, allowing the reptiles to be tracked by satellite throughout their oceanic travels. Few scientific studies have been sustained for so long and so devotedly as has the Carr report. The government has been remarkably cooperative in aiding the turtle. Lately it has strengthened anti-poaching laws by adding guards to patrol the beaches and making the teaching of sea turtle biology and conservation mandatory in all schools. The new Costa Rican president, Dr. Abel Pacheco—a psychiatrist, for what it’s worth—told George W.’s old company, Harken, that no, they could not attempt oil exploration off the coast of Costa Rica; the sea turtle might not approve.
Tortuguero has its glum side. Despite Pollyannaish attempts in the early 1990s to limit development along the canal, hotels keep rising, and so tourist effluvia keeps flowing, mostly into the canals and thence oceanbound. I really began to trust our host Michael Kaye when he admitted that, sure, he would like in theory to keep others from cranking up the construction rate, but he also realizes that it would be in his personal interest, as owner of Tortuga Lodge and Gardens—the first tourist lodge in Tortuguero and my home of the moment—to say as much. He’s a businessman as much as he is a conservationist. When Sebastian said that eco-tourism in Tortuguero is a good thing, after all it brings in $12 million a year, Michael countered: Sure, we know the big number, but what’s the bottom line? That’s harder to calculate, he says.
What are the hidden expenses of eco-tourism, and who pays for them? He cited the case of the Dominican Republic, which subsidizes the tourist industry and has spent huge sums of money trucking sand around to shore up the beaches that excess hotel development has eroded. “So what you see is the ironic outcome that a poor island nation is losing money to support rich tourists,” he said. Sebastian says that as long as people pay to see sea turtles flippering madly across the sands of Tortuguero, the turtles have a shot. The local people have a shot, too, he said. Local businesses are built on the turtle’s hardy back. Local nature guides who once worked for big tour companies have started setting up independent operations. I could swear that Karla’s ears perked up when she heard that. And when the eco-tourism industry can no longer absorb entrepreneurs, there’s always Costa Rica’s other big growth industry: the production and distribution of the most hated garbage of all—spam.