I missed Christmas with my family to film tens of thousands of sea turtles come ashore in Costa Rica
I missed Christmas with my family to film tens of thousands of sea turtles come ashore in Costa Rica

By Hugo Kitching, cameraman and presenter of Turtle Beach

Turtles have always fascinated me. As a kid with a passion for nature, I joined Ottawa’s Macoun Field Club and went on many expeditions in search of the small, secretive spotted turtle. Later, I spent some formative years as a young naturalist working on a long-term study of freshwater turtles at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station in the heart of Canada’s oldest provincial park. I spent weeks on end patrolling nesting beaches, waiting for turtles to make an appearance. On a busy night, I saw 40, maybe 50 nesting turtles.

It was an experience that prepared me for the olive ridley sea turtle arribada (Spanish for “arrival”) on the tropical beach of Ostional, Costa Rica. Turtles came ashore in the of tens of thousands, which I filmed for Turtle Beach, a documentary from The Nature of Things.

A chance to witness the remarkable arribada

Among the seven species of sea turtles on Earth, the olive ridley sea turtle (listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) produces some of the largest nesting congregations. Scientists still don’t know for sure what triggers the size and synchronization of these impressive gatherings: meteorological signals (like wind and temperature), lunar cycles, cues from other turtles and the environment — or a combination of them all.

As is often the case with nature, timing is everything. Packing my bags in early October, I knew there would be only a narrow window of opportunity to capture the arribada on film. Then a meteorological phenomenon with its own sense of timing made landfall: tropical storm Nate, the most destructive natural disaster in Costa Rican history. The shoot was postponed — we’d have to try again in a few months.

A waiting game

Given the irregular weather patterns brought on by the tropical storm, there was a fair bit of uncertainty about whether nesting would proceed in numbers large or small — or whether it would happen at all. But we would not miss the opportunity, and, after consulting with local experts, our team set out for Costa Rica in December.

Ostinal Beach

When I finally set foot in Ostional, the anticipation turned into a waiting game. I waited and waited … and waited. I joined nightly local nest patrols along several kilometres of beach in search of turtles, and though we encountered the occasional lone nester, the mass arrival seemed like a distant hope. “When they arrive,” I was repeatedly told, “you’ll know.” But this did little to calm my nerves.

An unforgettable holiday season in Costa Rica

Christmas was fast approaching, and the turtles were still nowhere to be seen. I was starting to doubt if they would ever come. The rest of my team departed just before the holidays, leaving me alone to wait and wonder: had the hurricane completely disrupted their nesting for the year?

Perhaps, but turtles are famously never in much of a rush — slow and steady wins the race, as the proverb goes. And based on their fossil record, this strategy has worked exceptionally well over the past 200 million years.

One week passed: still nothing. I would have to spend Christmas in Costa Rica. My mum, a keen naturalist herself, was graciously understanding of my absence at our family dinner.

Instead, I was fortunate to be hosted by a wonderful local family and to have the support and friendship of Andrey Castillo MacCarthy, a long-time sea turtle researcher. With his many years of experience working with turtles, MacCarthy assured me that we wouldn’t miss the arribada.

Christmas Eve arrived, but the turtles did not. MacCarthy kindly invited me to a Christmas party to take my mind off them for a short while, and, while walking home along the beach that evening, I sensed something in the air. MacCarthy noticed, too, and predicted that the turtles would be coming ashore in short order!

Finally … they arrived

My phone buzzed to life at 4 a.m. on Boxing Day morning. Could it really be? Yep, the researchers were calling to report the first wave of turtles hauling themselves onto the beach to begin nesting.

MacCarthy and I, along with our assistant Roy Rodriquez Vega, arrived at the beach in the dark, loaded with camera gear, and dawn soon followed. I was prepared to see a lot of turtles, but the sheer scale of the arribada didn’t fully set in until the first hint of light spread across the beach and began glimmering off their shells.

Dozens turned into hundreds, thousands, then tens of thousands over the days that followed. I was witness to an absolutely awe-inspiring spectacle of nature.

The next three days were a blur of excitement, bewilderment and sleeplessness as I worked around the clock. The crashing surf; the briny tropical air; the brilliant orange light of dawn and dusk while dust clouds of sand billowed up from all the “digging in the giant sandbox,” as we liked to say; the exasperated sighs of bone-weary female turtles making their way from the sea and back; the booming sound of flippers pummelling sand to pack down the completed nests.

Now, the turtles were the pacesetters, and I was just trying to keep up — so much for slow and steady!

The turtles’ arrival brought a new life to the beach, as predators and scavengers showed up in droves to gorge on the nutritious eggs, and the scene was incredible. Every moment spent with these magnificent animals was more rewarding than the last. And then, just as fast as the turtles had arrived, they completed nesting and returned to the ocean.

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Millions of eggs were now tucked away in the warm sand to incubate for seven or eight weeks, and I would return in time to film the hatchlings grand emergence. Over a few short days, I had seen the beach undergo a complete transformation, but I felt like I, too, had been transformed.

 

With growing concern over the conservation of marine and freshwater turtles around the world, it’s just so encouraging — even inspiring — to see large-scale natural events like the olive ridley sea turtle arribada continue with gusto.

I’m filled with wonder and gratitude for the turtles, who reaffirmed for me the value of patience. Slow and steady has its rewards.

We are very excited to finally share Turtle Beach with the world on The Nature of Things.