She takes an eternity to crawl up the beach, flippers and beak clawing at the black volcanic sand, her gasps audible over the roar of crashing waves.
When, finally, the female olive ridley turtle has crawled 20 metres from the sea, she begins digging. Slowly, one flipperfull at a time, she flings sand to the side, settling deeper into the sandy nest with each excavation. Black turkey vultures flap and fight over eggs tossed aside with the sand as the turtle disturbs the nest of another.
When the hole is about half a metre deep, she stops, scales occasionally blinking over her eyes. Her shell quivers as she shifts her bulk. Then, job done, she begins shoveling sand back into the hole, covering a clutch of about 100 eggs.
The turtle is not alone. Thousands of fellow olive ridleys are following the same ancient ritual along the length of the eight-kilometre Playa Ostional beach, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Playa Ostional is a small, sleepy village on the Nicoya Peninsula, which is better known for its long, sandy beaches than for its interior, most of which is mountainous and heavily forested. Ostional is accessible only by a drive of several hours down a rough and rutted dirt road that snakes along the coast.
Turtles and surfing are the village’s main attractions, with a row of simple and economical guest houses catering to the few souls who find their way here.
On the beach, under the shade of a coconut palm, a Tico, as the native Costa Ricans like to call themselves, is digging in the sand with his hands, scooping up freshly laid turtle eggs. Each about the size of a table tennis ball, they are white and have leathery, soft skin.
When the nest is empty he slowly walks across the beach, barefoot, testing the sand with the ball of his foot. Where the sand is soft and gives way, he stops and begins digging again, revealing another clutch of eggs. Some were laid only moments earlier.
He tears open one of the shells to give me a look. The bright yellow yolk and clear egg-white quiver in his hand. Then, with a broad smile, he tilts back his head and tosses the egg into his mouth, laughing. “They’re good for you, they’ll make you strong,” Ronal says. “Try one.” He is already peeling open a second egg.
Soon I am holding a turtle egg, runny and sticky, in my palm. I swirl it in my hand once, then throw back my head and slam it, swallowing hard. It has a rich, slightly salty taste to it.
Now, I know what you are thinking – but Ronal and I are not poaching, even though Costa Rica outlawed the taking of marine turtle eggs in 1966. My culinary experience is allowed under an exemption enacted to stabilise the population of olive ridley turtles in Ostional, and accommodate local egg-harvesting traditions.
Olive ridleys are the smallest and most numerous of the sea turtles, and the only ones observed in a reproductive rite little understood by scientists, called arribadas (“arrivals”, in Spanish). Most marine turtles nest individually; ridleys congregate en masse at sea and then swarm the beaches like an army, sometimes numbering in the thousands.
As many as 200,000 ridleys may swarm onto a beach in any one season, many having little option but to dig up the nests of others as they make their own.
Over the course of the nesting season females may leave as many as 10 million eggs in the black volcanic sand of Playa Ostional. The decomposition of broken eggs contaminates some of the eggs that are not destroyed by marauding mothersto- be, leading to a successful hatch rate of just 1 to 2 per cent.
Scientific study led the local government to issue an exemption to Costa Rica’s ban on harvesting turtle eggs in the early 1980s, and permits were issued to between 250 and 300 Ostional residents, who are allowed to dig up nests and consume or sell the eggs, which are also served in bars, mixed in a glass with salsa and lemon and consumed as an aphrodisiac.
Roldan Valverde, an associate professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, in the United States, and a scientist with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, says residents are allowed to collect as many eggs as they can over the first 21⁄2 days of an arribada. In exchange, Valverde says: “They take care of the turtles. This means specifically that they engage in activities to keep the beach clean of debris – no small feat in this region – provide turtle guides for tourists, help protect hatchlings from predators, help reduce poaching.”
Forty-five to 54 days after they are laid, the few eggs that have escaped being smashed, harvested or devoured by vultures and wild dogs will hatch. The hatchlings dig their way to the surface, smell the breeze and instinctively head for the ocean. Ten to 15 years later, the females will return to the beach of their birth to lay their own eggs.
Scientists say bacteria levels have been reduced at Ostional and more eggs are maturing to hatch. Other Costa Rican beaches are reporting a rise in olive ridley populations. Nonetheless, the programme remains controversial.
“As far as we can tell, a good empirical balance between conservation and benefits has been achieved by this programme,” Valverde says. “However, we must remain cautious because many specific studies addressing details regarding the biology of that arribada population must still be worked out.”
Critics say the programme actually encourages, rather than reduces, poaching, as Ostional’s eggs have helped to develop a market. Roadside stands sell turtle eggs by the sackful during nesting season, and not all of them are harvested legally.
It is estimated that poaching destroys more than 80 per cent of olive ridley nests in Costa Rica as a whole.
Although the olive ridley is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which says there has been a 50 per cent reduction in the size of the population since the 1960s, it is considered the most abundant sea turtle in the world, and the least endangered of all the species that nest in Costa Rica.
The leatherback, green sea turtle and hawksbill are far more under threat than the olive ridley, and these are the turtles, nesting on remote and pristine beaches, that draw many of Costa Rica’s tourists.
AS I WALK THROUGH a backyard on my way back to my hotel, I encounter Thomas, stirring a pot balanced on a wood fire, squinting against the smoke and steam rising from the fire. The pot contains about 50 turtle eggs swimming in a bright sauce containing home-grown oregano, chillis and garlic.0 “You can cook them over gas or electric [stoves], but wood fire makes them taste the best,” Thomas says. He slowly scoops them out of the broth, explaining that eating them raw will “help me have many children” but that they taste better boiled.
Thomas hands me a piping hot egg, now bright yellow with spices, and I make a small hole in the shell with my teeth before sucking out the contents. The eggs have a slightly chalky texture when cooked, richer tasting than chicken eggs.
I don’t feel particularly strong, or virile, but I do feel like I’ve walked in the shoes of a Tico.
Getting there: United Airlines (www.united.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Houston via San Francisco, and on to Costa Rica’s capital. It’s five hours from San Jose by bus to La Cruz town, from where there is one bus bound for Playa Ostional daily. A car and driver can be arranged in Nicoya town, a two-hour drive from Ostional.