Female turtle coming up for air off the coast of Tortuguero
Back in 1985, I went to Tortuguero, Costa Rica to tag sea turtles. I really had no idea what that meant. No, I did not swim after them in their water world, like you might think from the photo I have put up. This was taken out in the ocean, while fishing for Kingfish. The turtle is coming up for air, sometimes in a love grip with her mate. They stay right off the coast from June-November, the females making their way to the beaches of Tortuguero and other towns up and down the coast to lay their eggs under the secrecy of the night. Ah, Tortuguero….known as Turtle Bogue by the old timers…Such a wealth of life, hardship, and hidden treasures.
So turtle tagging, was done on the beach. Tortuguero is the biggest nesting beach for the green sea turtles in the Caribbean. I went there at 21 years old, to participate in one of the oldest data collecting researches being conducted at the time. One of the turtles that I tagged had first come up in 1968, making her estimated age in her 60’s. Tagging turtles involved putting a tag on the front flipper, usually while the turtle is laying her eggs. While they are laying their 120 or so eggs, they are focused on what they are doing and we would try to tag them as they were finishing up. Tagging a turtle heading back to the ocean is extremely challenging as they weigh anywhere from 350-500 lbs, can bite, and are not very happy about being clamped with a tag. Their flipper also has a claw on it, and getting swiped with it hurts like a bitch. However, the tagging program has brought clarity to tracking their progress once they leave the beach and understanding their behavior. The turtles are around 35 years old when they reach maturity. For those first 35 years in the ocean, not much is known about where they go. Tagging them helps researchers and scientists track the female turtles movements in the course of their lives.
Tortuguero beach that stretches for 27 miles
When I first went to Tortuguero, the villagers numbered about 100. It was a small community of a few families who had settled in the area because of the turtle. You see, the turtle tastes exquisite. Yes, I said it. And yes, I have eaten plenty of turtle. It was the way of life for the people who lived there. My husband at the time was one of the people who was native born and grew up hunting and fishing to survive. In the mid 80’s, the community was allowed three turtles a week that were divided among the families. With no refrigeration, people salted or smoked the meat for later, and prepared tantalizing stews with fresh yucca, hot peppers, and the stock made from coconut milk.
To. Die. For.
My friends up here get on my case for heading down to Central America as a tree hugging, SAVE THE TURTLE, bright eyed conservationist, only to come back eating turtle, iguana, wild pig, tespisquintle, among other things. But, I lived there 24/7, as the locals did. There were no other North Americans, tourists, supermarkets, restaurants, electricity. You know, when in Rome….do as the Romans did…and all that. So I did, and was given a very rich and in-depth education about jungle life.
Now a days, turtles are NOT given to the villagers, and have been a great source of income in the tourist trade. Not as a meal, but as a tourist attraction to see the turtles come up and lay their eggs. Most people living there work with the now 10 or more hotels, as guides to see the turtles and the inhabitants of the rainforest that comes to the edge of the beach. The village is now over 2500 people, mostly from Nicaragua. There are plenty of restaurants, supermarkets, electricity…There is no need to hunt, but that doesn’t really stop people from doing so. It’s their culture, the old time, the way it was…we all want to remember the good times of precious moments we experience in our lives. The past traditions of Tortuguero are symbols of a lost community and family life style. Preparing and eating turtle stew is a travel log for the people of Tortuguero, that I was very blessed to be able to experience.
Turtle tracks seen from plane