Selfie-crazed tourists prevent sea turtles from nesting in Costa Rica

Costa Rican officials say snap-happy visitors are interfering with the nesting habits of a vulnerable sea turtle species.

Mobs of tourists have forced nesting sea turtles to abandon their egg-laying

Costa Rican officials say that snap-happy visitors are interfering with the nesting habits of a vulnerable sea turtle species. (Sindicato de Trabajadores de MINAE/Facebook)

If you're thinking of taking a few days to do some ecotourism in Costa Rica during your next vacation down south, the country's government has a message for you: Please be respectful. 

Officials from the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy have been speaking out in recent weeks against snap-happy visitors who they say are interfering with the nesting habits of a vulnerable sea turtle species by attempting to take selfies with them.

According to San José-based newspaper The Tico Times, hundreds of tourists swarmed a seven-kilometre stretch of Ostional Beach on Costa Rica's Pacific coast earlier this month to watch a large group of olive ridley sea turtles come ashore and lay their eggs.

Ostional, which lies within the nationally-protected Tempisque Conservation Area, is considered one of the most important sites in the world for the nesting of this threatened species. While the turtles arrive each year by the thousands, their nesting season is relatively short, beginning in August and ending in October.

Since the population of olive ridleys continues to decline (there are 50 per cent fewer of these turtles than there were in the 1960s,) conservation officials take any sort of interference with their ability to reproduce seriously.

Mobs of tourists who stomp around, try to take selfies with, and even pick up nesting olive ridley sea turtles are one such type of interference.

The Environment Ministry's workers union reported in a Sept. 8 post on its Facebook page that "hundreds of tourists stood in the way of the turtles" during one of their most recent mass nesting sessions, prompting many turtles to leave the beach without laying any eggs.

Seven photos were included with the post to show what the turtles faced upon their arrival that weekend, but none captured what a refuge administrator told the newspaper La Nación he saw.

"Some tourists touched the turtles, others stood on top of the nests, and parents placed their children on top of the turtles to take photographs," wrote The Tico Times, citing the administrator's comments to La Nación.

Sea turtle biologist Vanessa Bézy recounted a similarly hectic scene in an interview with The New York Times on Friday.

"I almost had a panic attack because it was so crowded," said Bézy, who has been studying olive ridley nesting at Ostional Beach for five years and was in a boat at the time. "It was basically a free-for-all."

As news of this particular incident spreads, supporters of sea turtle conservation have been speaking out against this type of behaviour.

As the workers union assured the public in its Facebook post, officials from Costa Rica's Ministry of Environment are investigating the situation in an attempt to prevent tourism from hampering or limiting "the natural spawning process of turtles" at Ostional Beach in the future.

"We are reassessing the way we work and the way we tackle the issue," said Mauricio Méndez, deputy director of the Tempisque Conservation Area, to the New York Times on Friday.

He hopes to double the number of police officers working the area and restrict access to the beach.

If that doesn't keep tourists at bay, the Coast Guard may be called in to help with security.


Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.