Sea Turtles Return to Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica

Sea Turtles Return to Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica

September 16, 2018 0 By Shannon Farley

Help save the lives of endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica by visiting the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project at Matapalo Beach, when you stay at eco-community Portasol Living.

sea turtles costa ricaCute in their tininess and frantic in action, baby sea turtles are beginning to hatch on Costa Rica’s Matapalo Beach and return to the sea.

Volunteers with the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project, who have painstakingly spent hours over the last few months collecting freshly laid turtle eggs, now help the little reptiles make their way into the frothy surf along this little-known stretch of Pacific Ocean.

South of the very popular Manuel Antonio and north of the laid-back surf town of Dominical, the 12-kilometer-long, palm tree-lined beach of Matapalo feels like a “lost coast” of empty dark sand and endless Pacific Ocean. A small community anchors it to the rest of the world.

Matapalo Beach Costa Rica

Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast between Manuel Antonio and Dominical.

It is here that hundreds of Pacific Black sea turtles (Chelonia mydas agassizi), Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) come every year between June and October to lay their eggs; and where thousands of baby turtles begin their lives.

Little flippers flail crazily in the dark gray sand as dozens of tiny near-black turtles scramble over each other and anything else in their path on their mad dash to the water. Their mothers are long gone. They came ashore 45 to 60 days ago under the cover of a dark night to laboriously heave themselves up the sand to a safe place above the tide line. There, in a deliberate nothing-will-deter-me state, they flung sand backward and forward to dig a nest where they deposited 100 or so eggs in one session, before disappearing once again into the sea.

Turtles at Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica

Baby sea turtles head to the sea at Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica.

These babies will someday do the same thing, returning instinctively to the same beach where they hatched to nest and lay their own eggs. Reports show that between 180 and 250 turtles nest at Matapalo every year. Each turtle deposits on average from 80 to 120 eggs in a nest. The conservation program reports that they save about 17,000 eggs in a season. With a birth rate between 88 and 93 percent, that’s a lot of turtles.

Unfortunately, the average survival rate of baby sea turtles is one percent; hence the large number of eggs deposited by returning turtles – that sometimes nest two or three times during a season.

The world’s sea turtles are declining at an alarming rate

Over the past three decades, the world’s population of sea turtles has declined drastically. The world they have occupied since the time of dinosaurs has become a very dangerous place.

Sea turtles are threatened by rising sea temperatures and climate change, pollution in the oceans, increasing boat traffic, fishing gear and bad fishing practices like long-lining, destruction of their nesting beaches (mostly from construction), and humans poaching their eggs and shells. Nearly all seven sea turtle species on the planet have been classified as endangered or facing extinction.

Pacific Black Sea Turtle

Pacific Black Sea Turtle coming ashore to nest on Matapalo Beach in Costa Rica.

Why is this important? Sea turtles are significant to our oceans’ ecosystems. They maintain marine habitats, help cycle nutrients, and are part of a balanced food web. As turtles disappear, it affects the health of the world’s oceans, which in turn affects us.

Countries like Costa Rica and the U.S. are leading the cause to protect sea turtles, demonstrating that recovery for these ancient reptiles is possible. The United States in 1973 enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) under which all sea turtles are protected in U.S. waters; the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) was just added to the protection list in 2016.

The Matapalo project is important to sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica

A much lesser-known turtle nesting beach than the famous Tortuguero National Park or Ostional National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, Matapalo Beach faces a multitude of challenges to protect sea turtles. Programs like the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project, while critical to save the lives of sea turtles, are drastically underfunded and understaffed.

The small grassroots organization has been quietly working to save sea turtles at Matapalo Beach since the 1990s. It has been affiliated with several nonprofit organizations in the past, and is now run independently. It operates 100% on donations. Volunteers patrol the beach to protect female sea turtles from poachers and predators as they arrive at night to lay their eggs. After the female turtles have left, they collect the eggs and safeguard them in a hatchery with 24-hour care. When the turtles hatch, they release them into the sea.

Turtle babies released to ocean at Playa Matapalo in Costa Rica

Turtle babies that have recently hatched in the nursery at the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project are being carried closer to the ocean to be released.

Eco-community Portasol Living, located 10 minutes from Matapalo Beach by the village of Portalon, helps support the program in its vital work to protect sea turtles in Costa Rica. They also offer people a place to stay to see the turtles in their range of vacation rentals.

Visit the Matapalo Sea Turtle Conservation Project to find out more about how you can help support their program or be a volunteer. Every sea turtle is precious. Help save a life.