A number of species of sea turtles make Costa Rica their nesting grounds, but the Leatherback is notable for a number of reasons. The Leatherback is a massive creature, the biggest of them over 6 feet long and 1500 lbs, or 2 meters and 700 kilos, making them far and away the biggest turtle and one of the biggest reptiles on the planet (some crocodilians are bigger). It is the deepest diving reptile- up to 4000 feet, 1200 meters. It’s the last of it’s kind, a throwback to the age of the dinosaurs, with a striated shell unlike any other living turtle. It lived for hundreds of millions of years with few natural predators, completing massive solitary migrations to feed on jellyfish and then return to the beach on which it hatched. But sea turtles are not doing well in the era of human domination, least of all the Leatherback. It only lays it’s eggs on a handful of beaches worldwide, and those eggs are a sought- after delicacy to many people. This fact, along with indiscriminate fishing practices and other factors, have combined to paint a bleak picture for the future of the Leatherback.
The Leatherback is critically endangered. It’s numbers have dropped by at least two thirds since the 80s, and some populations are almost completely extinct. It so happens that we are very near a major nesting site at Playa Grande, part of Las Baulas National Park. During its nesting season the beach is protected and monitored, and it’s possible to actually watch this amazing animal lay its eggs. Now it may seem at best impolite to observe these shy creatures in their most intimate and vulnerable moment, but it actually serves a dual purpose: it raises awareness about the importance of protecting endangered species, plus it’s bad for the poaching business- the last thing a poacher wants to run into while skulking through the bushes is a roving band of ecotourists. During nesting season, access to Playa Grande at night is restricted to authorized groups.