We are standing in the darkness on a Nicaraguan beach, the roar of the surf in our ears, looking at the stars of the northern sky for the first time in quite a while. We point out constellations as if we are greeting old friends. In the distance, a storm lights up the sky with silent lightning.
As our eyes adjust to the darkness and the soft light of the stars, we began to see dark shadows along the beach and in the surf. Sea turtles arriving here to nest. We stand quietly, arm in arm, and watch the shadows of their shells as they emerge from the sea. We count 8 shadows. 8 mama turtles come to lay eggs on the same stretch of beach where they were born so many years ago, compelled to return to this exact spot and continue their families.
A flash of lightning lights up the beach and we realize that our numbers are off. What we thought were only 8 are in fact closer to thirty on this small stretch of beach. As we look around, there are at least another 20 or so already up on the sand. It is one of the nights of the Arribada, the mass nesting, here at La Flor Wildlife Refuge on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. During this period, thousands of Olive Ridley turtles will come to this beach to nest every night, compelled by instinct to return to the same spot where they were born so many years ago. They will leave the surf, climb up the beach to a good spot close to where they themselves hatched, and begin to dig.
We stumble along the bumpy sand of the beach, red flashlights in hand, and suddenly come upon her, our first turtle. Struggling to dig her hole in the sand; scooping dirt away with first one, and then the other back leg. Pausing every so often to take a breath or check her progress, she continues to dig. Satisfied she has dug a hole that is deep enough, she lines herself up to start laying eggs. Our guide digs another small hole so that we can see them being laid. Not bothered by us she continues about her work. She lays her eggs in a pattern, 2 eggs ~ 3 eggs ~ 2 eggs ~ 3 eggs, adding a bit more lubricant to the eggs after every ten of them. The liquid is a strong antibacterial that will protect her babies from infection during their incubation period. Tonight, she will lay 100 eggs in this nest. Chances are that she will return to this beach 2 or 3 more times this season to do the same thing again.
It’s hard work for her and we can see her straining and hear her heavy breathing. She pauses every so often to catch her breath. When all her eggs are laid, she begins to cover the nest back up. Scooping sand back with her front legs, and then using her shell to tamp it down. Thump…Thump…Thump…Thump…we can feel the hollow sound in our chests as she tamps the sand down over her nest. She does this over and over: scooping sand back into place with her legs, then tamping it down with her shell, pausing to catch her breath and rest every few minutes.
Satisfied that her nest is well protected, she pauses for a bit to rest, and then turns back towards the sea. She is exhausted and it is a slow journey back to the water. She crawls a meter or two, then pauses for a minute to rest. Another meter or two and then stops to rest. We follow her, forming a reverential procession as we accompany her back to the surf. The tide is low at this time of night, and it takes her a long time to get there. But we stay with her every step of the way, until she is in water deep enough for her to swim. With the crash of the next big wave, she is gone. As she and many others are headed back out to sea, their task completed, many more are beginning their trek out of the water and up onto the beach.
We repeat this many times over the course of the night, sometimes with 5 or 6 turtles within a few meters of where we stand. There are turtles EVERYWHERE! We spend most of the night in awe and unable to speak. The tired yawns we both had on the long ride here are long gone, replaced by surprise, amazement, and delight.
We end our night talking to our local guide on the beach about how important it is that this has become a protected place. La Flor was named a protected site in 1991. Prior to that, this time of year saw big local parties here. People waiting with refrigerators and coolers in their cars for the turtles to lay their eggs, collecting them from the nests as quickly as they could be laid. A popular local aphrodisiac, turtle eggs can still bring in good money on the black market. Since protecting the site, there has been a marked increase in the turtle population in this area, as turtle eggs are now left to gestate and hatch, rather than being poached on the night they were laid. But poaching is still a big problem here. Military men in camouflage patrol this beach, searching for poachers in the shadows of the jungle at the edge of the sand, and protecting the nests. We stop to dig up a crab in the sand and one of the men in camouflage appears out of nowhere to make sure we aren’t digging up turtle eggs. Satisfied we are not breaking any laws, he vanishes back into the night.
Our guide tells us that the first time he came to this beach it was as a poacher. He poached eggs & turtles from here for 6 months, before having a change of heart and becoming a volunteer, a guide, and then later a ranger. The people of this area are working hard to change the local customs. Responsible tourism, such as the tour we went on, helps encourage this and also provides a better stream of revenue for those who used to make money selling turtle eggs and shells. Turtles need all the help they can get. For every 1000 eggs laid, only one will reach adulthood. The others will fall victim to predators or disease.
Time passes by so quickly and before we know it, it is time to go. We stumble back across the bumpy sands of the beach, even more giddy now than when we arrived. I stop one final time to watch a nesting turtle finish laying her eggs and tamp down her nest. Leaning down close to her, I whisper “Buen suerte, mama,” and then take Kyle’s hand and head for home.