Evening falls and the horizon becomes dotted with round figures drawing closer to the coast with help from the motion of the waves. In a matter of minutes, greenish flippers and shells appear, slowly touching the wet sand and starting to dig deep holes with their rear flippers. One after another, Olive Ridley turtles come home and that’s how the “arribada” (Spanish for arrival), or “flota” (fleet), of turtles in Ostional begins.
One night in November of 1959, Ostional’s history changed. Without warning, a group, or bale, of hundreds of sea turtles arrived to lay their eggs on the coast of a village of farmers and agricultural workers. Instead of a one-time show, it turned out to be the beginning of a tradition.
The community’s seniors, many of whom are now deceased, were the first to witness the phenomenon. Back then, there were no cell phones or cameras to photograph the turtles arriving or hatching, so the villagers spoke of this event as if it were a rumor.
Why would a small village tucked away in Guanacaste receive that visit? It’s difficult for science to explain it. What we do know is that Ostional, as we know it now, is one of the last hopes for protecting the Olive Ridley turtle, one of the most endangered species in the world. According to managing biologist for the Ostional Development Association (ADIO), Hellen Lobo, the town is working to avoid their extinction, which would be tragic.
Countries like Mexico, India and Suriname also documented receiving similar unexpected arribadas during the same time period, but Ostional is the only beach that managed not only to keep this dynamic to the present time, but also to see more turtles arriving each year. Some of the reasons are mysteries that only this species knows about. We can attribute other reasons to the unifying of the people who found a second wind in the turtles, as well as an economic stimulation. It all started in the 70s.
An Ostional That Didn’t Know About Conservation
A decade after the first arrival of turtles to Ostional, in 1970, Douglas Robinson, an American biologist who lived in Costa Rica, came to the beach to verify if the rumors of the arribadas were true. Upon confirming it, Robinson built a biological station there and published several articles on the phenomenon, according to records from the University of Costa Rica’s (UCR) School of Biology.
Unlike other beaches with arribadas that are located within national parks, Ostional was a town full of people whose lifestyle was going to change after the turtles arrived en masse. According to UCR, that’s why Ostional couldn’t become a national park isolated from the world, but rather a conservation refuge. The community had to learn to coexist with the turtles, to protect them and even to take advantage of their arrival for the local economy.
Ostional was a small village with a little more than a dozen families, dedicated to working as farmers and laborers on the farms of Santa Cruz. They didn’t think about tourism or environmental conservation, nor did they know how to treat their new neighbors.
Back then, the villagers would go down to the beach with curiosity to see the droves of turtles that filled the beach. The children straddled the shells of the animals to ride them and played at throwing the largest number of eggs. That’s how Francisco Ortiz, who lives in the community, remembers his childhood.
Francisco visited Ostional beach with his other cousins, holding his grandmother’s hand. While she helped the turtles hatch, they walked up and down the beach playing with the visitors.
“Before, nobody taught us, because our parents didn’t know much either. With my cousins, we had races to see which of us reached a point first riding on a turtle or which of them reached the ocean first. I felt that we were like friends,” he related.
Elmith Molina, a member of the Ostional Association of Local Guides (AGLO) and a native of the town, remembers it differently. Although there were families that didn’t harm the species, she recalls that there were also a lot of nests raided and tourists.
There was no control. Ostional was a no man’s land,” she said.
At that time, the guide related, there were no surveillance posts and the economy depended on people who traveled to work outside of Ostional. There were efforts by the development association, but the problem lay in the lack of conservation education.
A New Sense of Purpose for Ostional
In 1987, ADIO led a project for independent local guides, the Ministry of Environment and UCR to authorize the local population to manage the turtle habitat and the legal sale of 1% of the eggs they produced.
The project is a kind of trade arrangement between the turtles and the community: the people of Ostional take care of the fleets of turtles and prepare the beach to make it a safe place where they can arrive and, in exchange, the locals extract the eggs that are broken or that have fungi that can infect the rest of the beach (which is about 1% of the total amount) to market and consume them.
Since then, the community has charted a new course. The agreement not only allowed families to learn about environmental conservation; it also generated new sources of income from the beach’s greatest tourist attraction.
Elmith, for example, began to give turtle sighting tours independently, taking the necessary measures to not disturb the species. She trained other members of the community to make their economy sustainable.
We realized that it was a mutually-beneficial opportunity. I benefit from the turtles and they from me,” she remarked.
Didiher Chacón Chaverri, the Latin American coordinator for the Wider Carribean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), said Ostional is a community that found the ideal balance between benefiting from turtles and helping to protect them.
Ostional managed to transform the turtles into a sustainable source of money to satisfy the socioeconomic needs of their community. They did a good job of transforming the turtles into sources of food, education, work, without having to exploit them unnecessarily,” the scientist affirmed.
He also explained that the conservation of Olive Ridley turtles in Ostional is linked to the strict monitoring of the local’s protection and surveillance measures, which promotes a safe environment for the reptiles.
“[The people of Ostional] know that the community’s development and the turtles are bound together. They know that if the turtles don’t come one time, many jobs created by them will disappear. They are Ostional’s main workforce,” he emphasized.
The community is organized in groups of women who help with hatchings and collect eggs for consumption, and groups of men who clean the sand to avoid accidents with the turtles and move the eggs away from the coast. There are also teams that monitor the beach all day to defend it from predators such as pigs, dogs, scavenger birds or people from other communities who try to raid the nests illegally.
New generations in the town begin to learn about protecting turtles as children. Just as Francisco, who works as an independent guide, was taken to play with the turtles when he was still in diapers, he now takes his daughter to help clean the beach and protect the eggs from predators. “It’s part of us, of our town,” he affirmed.
A Vulnerable Community
According to Hellen Lobo, ADIO’s managing biologist, more turtles visit Ostional every year. However, factors beyond the community’s control, such as ocean temperatures and coastal drought, can affect the turtles continuing to come to the community.
In fact, last year, there were no arribadas for two months in a row, between March and April, during the pandemic. Biologists attribute what happened to two possible causes. First, due to health restrictions, other beaches in the world were empty, without human presence, and the fleets traveled to those areas. Second, each year, Guanacaste’s dry season is getting drier, which is detrimental to the turtles’ visit.
Climate temperature directly affects these species. The sand needs to be a certain temperature for an equal number of male and female turtles to hatch. If it exceeds 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit), only females might hatch or the egg might not hatch altogether. When no males are born, the species population begins to decline due to lack of mating.
Even so, the community is confident that their conservation and education efforts will be enough so their grandchildren can also see the turtles clumsily arrive on the Guanacaste coast month after month, accompanying the people in their fight. Or as Francisco put it, “An Ostional without turtles is an Ostional without a family, gray. They are part of our lives.”