A wide beach on a warm clear evening may be the most relaxing setting on earth. We weren’t likely to come across any nesting turtles on this beautiful evening in the far northwest corner of Nicaragua (the tides weren’t right), but we didn’t mind. The soft sound of surf provided a soundtrack for the brightest Milky Way I’ve seen in years. Just being out on the sand was enough entertainment.
I came to Nicaragua’s Pacific coast to visit two of the country’s most inspiring sea turtle conservation projects – one on the northern coast at Padre Ramos Estuary and the other along the southern coast near the border with Costa Rica. Padre Ramos Estuary is home to one of the world’s endangered sea turtle populations, the Eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle. Led by the staff of Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Nicaragua office and carried out with support from the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known as ICAPO), this turtle project protects one of only two major nesting areas for this population (the other is El Salvador’s Jiquilisco Bay). This project is supported by a committee of 18 local organizations, government agencies, and businesses.
The next day, the local research team brought a captured hawksbill to the town of Padre Ramos to involve community members in the application of the satellite tags. This was one of three hawksbills that the team had caught for a satellite tagging research project. Little is known about these turtles, but these transmitters have been part of a groundbreaking research study that has changed how scientists view the life history of this species. One finding that surprised many turtle experts was the fact that these hawksbills prefer to live in mangrove estuaries; previously most believed they almost exclusively lived in coral reefs.
A few dozen people gathered around as our team worked to clean the turtle’s shell of algae and barnacles. Next, we sanded the shell to provide a rough surface on which to glue the transmitter. After that, we covered a large area of the carapace with layers of epoxy to ensure a tight fit. Once we attached the transmitter, a piece of protective PVC tubing was placed around the antenna to protect it from roots and other debris. The final step was to paint a layer of anti-fouling paint to prevent algae growth and then return the turtle to the water.
Turtle conservation in Padre Ramos, is more than just attaching electronics to shells. Most of the work is done under the cover of darkness, the “careyeros” (the local term for the people who work with these turtles) driving their boats throughout the estuary looking for nesting hawksbills. Once one is found, they call the project staff that attach a metal ID tag to the turtles’ flippers and measure the length and width of their shells. The careyeros then bring the eggs to the hatchery and earn their pay depending on how many eggs they find and how many hatchlings emerge from the nest.
It was only a couple of years ago that these same men sold these eggs illegally, pocketing a few dollars per nest to give men unconfident in their libido an extra boost. Now, most of these eggs are protected; last season more than 90% of the eggs were protected and more than 10,000 hatchlings made it safely to the water. Unfortunately these turtles still face several threats in the Padre Ramos Estuary and throughout their range including the rapid expansion of shrimp farms into mangroves.
One of the tools that FFI and ICAPO hope to use to protect these turtles is to bring volunteers and ecotourists to this beautiful spot. Volunteer programs offer budding biologists the opportunity to spend a week to a few months working with the local team to manage the hatchery, collect data on the turtles, and help to educate the community about these turtles. For tourists, there is no shortage of ways to fill both days and nights, from surfing and swimming to nightly walks on the nesting beach, and kayaking.
On my final morning in Padre Ramos, I woke up early and hired a guide to take me a kayaking through the mangroves. Halfway, we stopped at a spot and walked up a small hill with a panoramic view. From above, the estuary, which is protected as a natural reserve, looked remarkably intact. The one obvious blemish was a large rectangular shrimp farm that stood out from the smooth curves of the natural waterways. Most of the world’s shrimp is now produced this way, grown in developing countries with few regulations to protect the mangrove forests that many creatures and people depend upon.
The next day, I headed south to visit the “Paso del Istmo”, the 12 mile wide stretch of land between Lake Nicaragua and the coast. My visit to this region was organized by staff from Paso Pacifico, an innovative organization with a wide variety of projects helping to restore the area’s natural resources and benefit local communities. Along the way, we made a quick stop in Granada, the beautiful colonial town on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. Strolling through the market in front of the dramatic cathedral, I found more hawksbill turtle jewelry for sale than any other place I’ve been in Latin America. This reminder of how much work remains to be done helped to set my perspective for the visit.
We arrived late morning to the Ostional Beach, where we were staying for two nights. Walking out to the beach, I was stunned by the dramatic view. The rolling rocky coast of Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica stretches across the entire horizon giving the impression of a huge bay. After nightfall, the only visible lights were bright stars and the far off overdeveloped resort area of Papagayo, Costa Rica, a reminder of the type of coastal development that many local residents hope to avoid in this region.
We headed out by boat to explore the spectacular stretch of coast, possibly the most beautiful and dramatic of coastline that I’ve ever seen. Crashing waves batter sloping flat rocks and white sand beaches hide behind rocky-forested outcrops. Moving north along the coast of the wildlife refuge, we stopped in the water in front of the La Flor Wildlife Refuge, one of a handful of beaches in the world that host the arribada, a mass nesting event of olive ridley sea turtles. My years of experience being quiet around turtles on nesting beaches went right out the window as I let out a yell as a small head popped out of the water not far from our boat. The turtle heard me and dropped right back into the water, but there were plenty more bobbing around.
That night, our group hiked through the rainforest to Brasilon Beach, a green sea turtle nesting beach within the wildlife refuge. We hurried along the trail, in the hopes of arriving in time to put a satellite transmitter on a black turtle currently on the beach. This beach is one of several turtle nesting beaches along this stretch of coast protected by Paso Pacifico. The rumble of far-off thunder faded into the sound of crashing waves as we crested a hill near the end of the trail.
Catching our breath upon arrival to the beach, we checked in with the rangers who let us know this turtle wasn’t suitable for a transmitter (her shell was too thin). Before the female turtle headed back to the ocean, we collected her data and let her on her way. As the turtle got wet, so did we as a light rain began to fall and we hurried back along the slick rainforest trail to head back to our cabins for the evening.
The next day, sun shining once again, we visited La Flor beach, one of the few beaches in the world that host the arribada, where thousands of olive ridley turtles nest over a few day period several times a year. Though a small arribada of roughly 1,000 turtles had happened three days before, there was little evidence of turtle nesting on the beach. At its peak, La Flor can host up to fifty thousand turtles during an arribada. Paso Pacifico’s efforts complement the turtle conservation efforts at La Flor by rangers with the government Ministry of Natural Resources by helping to cover smaller beaches that the government can’t protect because of limited resources.
As I headed home, worn out but inspired, I thought about the places I had just visited. The incredible efforts of both FFI and Paso Pacifico have given me hope that, despite large threats and little funding, the sea turtles living along this stretch of Nicaragua’s coast have a chance not only to survive, but to thrive.