Everyone wants to get closer with nature, and when done right a bit of time away from civilization can be great. Unfortunately, a horde of tourists in Costa Rica went about their natural excursion in all the wrong ways possible, trampling over a sensitive nesting beach, chasing away countless olive ridley sea turtles, and otherwise treating them as playthings. As a result, many of the turtles headed back to sea, and did not complete their vital egg laying rituals.
It appears that some tourists also took selfies with the animals, and a few even allowed their children to ride them. It is believed that more than 100 tourists flocked to the area, most likely having been led there by local guides who knew about the beach. In the past, boats and ATVs were generally needed to reach the beach, keeping all but the most persistent tourists out.
The incident occurred at the Ostional Wildlife Refuge located in Northwestern Guanacaste. The west coast of Costa Rica is one of the olive ridley turtles’ most important nesting locations, and the refuge is supposed to help ensure their safety. Unfortunately, it appears that the “refuge” fell short of its goals during the recent incident. The refuge is known specifically for protecting olive ridley sea turtles. While the sea turtles use the beach year round for breeding, it’s currently the middle of the most active breeding season.
The Costa Rican government has vowed to investigate the incident, and to figure out why local officials were unable to control the crowd. Going forward the sea turtles should enjoy more protection, but it’s not clear if such efforts will be too little, too late.
The incident happened after a series of droughts caused local water levels to drop. As water levels dropped, parts of the land previously submerged and difficult to pass were dried out, allowing for easy access. Once the tourists and local guides figured this out, they began to flood into a quiet, tucked away beach where the olive ridley sea turtles lay their eggs.
Olive ridley turtles are already considered a vulnerable but not quite endangered species. These smaller sized turtles generally copulate near breeding beaches and lay between about 30 to 160 eggs. Unfortunately, many of the turtles were forced by the tourists to head back to sea without laying their eggs, and it remains unclear if all of them will return now that the beach has been brought back under control.
It does appear that at least some of the turtles returned to the beach to finish their business. Local researchers believe that the turtles used the cover of darkness to slip onto the beach and finish laying eggs, as researchers found more eggs than they expected to.
The disturbance could be a major blow for the already vulnerable sea turtles. It is estimated that the olive ridley sea turtle population has declined by nearly one third over the past few decades. Once, as many as 10 million of these turtles swam through the seas, but scientists now believe that less than one million remain.
Nesting grounds are especially important for animals like sea turtles. Most sea turtles will return to the very same nesting grounds they were born on. Having been chased away, the disruption could disrupt the entire breeding cycle for this group of turtles. Add in other man-made complications, such as over-hunting and pollution, and sea turtles are facing grave threats on numerous fronts.
Olive ridley sea turtles generally stick closer to coastlines than other sea turtles, have have a tendency to avoid deep oceans. Unfortunately, this makes them more vulnerable to human activity. Foraging grounds off the coast of California and elsewhere have been contaminated by pollution.
Sea turtles are among the most ancient animals that still roam the Earth. Sea turtles are believed to be at least 110 million years old, with close relatives of the modern day leatherback turtles once swimming the ancient seas. Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles, and in terms of weight, trail only three crocodilian species. Leatherbacks can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, and can dive more than four thousand feet underwater.
Olive sea turtles tend to be much smaller, rarely weighing more than 110 pounds and usually live for only 50 years or less.
Unfortunately, most species of sea turtles are classified as either endangered or vulnerable. Hunting sea turtles for food and other reasons used to be very common, though recent legal efforts have reduced such activities. Still, sea turtles remain under threat due to pollution, global warming, and other issues.
Pollution is an obvious threat, and sea going animals can be especially vulnerable to pollution because it’s often easier for them to absorb toxins through the skin. Global warming, on the other hand, could cause sea levels to rise, which would destroy beaches like the ones destroyed by the tourists.