Four of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in Costa Rica: olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback and green sea turtles. You can see sea turtles in Costa Rica throughout the year, but some species are far harder to spot than others. So if you want to see a particular species, or witness a special event such as a mass arrival, nesting or hatching, you’ll need to know the best places and the best time of year.
Olive Ridley Turtles
Olive ridley sea turtles are famous for their mass-nesting events, known as arribadas in Costa Rica. These turtles are far more abundant than most other sea turtle species, and quite a bit smaller, typically weighing between 75 and 100 pounds. The arribadas are connected with the tide and the moon cycle, and witnessing one is quite a sight.
You can see olive ridleys nesting throughout the year along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, but September and October are normally the best months to see an arribada. Prime locations to witness this event are the Ostional Wildlife Refuge and the Santa Rosa National Park, although other nesting locations do exist, so check the current situation with knowledgeable locals once you arrive in Costa Rica.
The hawksbill turtle is a beautiful creature, with adults measuring up to 3 feet in length and weighing around 180 pounds. Sadly, they are now critically endangered. For many centuries, humans have hunted hawksbills for their meat and for their shells, which are used as decorations.
Female hawksbills mate twice a year, after which they drag their heavy bodies up to the beach at night. They dig a nesting hole, into which they lay a clutch of some 140 eggs, which they then cover with sand. About two months later, the baby turtles hatch, again at night, and immediately head for the sea.
Hawksbills typically nest on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The best time to see them nesting and hatching is from March to October. The best places to see them nesting are at the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, the Cahuita National Park, and the Tortuguero National Park.
Green Sea Turtles
The endangered green sea turtle is an impressive creature, growing up to 5 feet long and weighing up to 420 pounds. One of the most important green turtle nesting grounds in the world is located on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast, at Tortuguero National Park.
Most of the green sea turtles in the Caribbean were born on a few beaches in Tortuguero. Tortuguero is also home to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which works hard to help protect turtle species in the area. The best time to see green sea turtles nesting and hatching at Tortuguero if from June through October. There are some strict regulations in place to protect the turtles at Tortuguero, and you can only see the females laying their eggs when accompanied by an officially registered guide. The tours normally take place after 8 p.m.
Last but certainly not least is the huge leatherback turtle. Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in the world, weighing between 550 and 2,000 pounds with lengths of up to six feet (which, incidentally, makes leatherbacks the fourth-heaviest modern reptile in the world behind three crocodilians). Apart from their massive size, leatherbacks differ from other sea turtle species in that they don’t have a bony shell. Instead, they have a carapace covered by skin and oily flesh, hence the name “leatherback.”
Leatherback numbers have declined rapidly over recent decades due to human activities, and they are now listed as vulnerable. Seeing them in Costa Rica, therefore, is not always easy, even in peak season, but knowing the right time and place certainly helps.
On Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, leatherbacks typically nest between March and May, and on the Pacific coast between September and March. Two of the best nesting locations on the Caribbean coast are Tortuguero National Park and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. The Pacific coast, meanwhile, is home to one of the prime nesting grounds in the region: Las Baulas National Marine Park in Playa Grande.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.
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