Where to see turtles in Costa Rica? Sea turtle nesting on the beaches of the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica and a great day trip for anyone staying at the Drift Away Eco-Lodge in Playa Avellanas.
Here is everything you need to know about sea turtle nesting and why Playa Ostional is the best place to see turtles in Costa Rica.
The Arribada: Sea Turtles Nesting in Playa Ostional, Costa Rica
As the sun sets over the Pacific at Playa Ostional, Costa Rica, not dozens, not hundreds, but tens of thousands of turtles emerge from the sea and slowly crawl up the beach. They stumble over each other, so determined to reach their goal.
It’s called the “arribada” in Spanish, or arrival in English. Costa Rica is one of only a handful of destinations in the world where this phenomena occurs.
Nothing can prepare you for the sight. You may have seen the photos or the watched video, but when you are there, on the beach, seeing it first-hand, your jaw drops. You don’t know where to point your camera to capture the spectacle and the scale of what you are witnessing.
How to See Costa Rica Turtles Nesting
Playa Ostional, located just 44 km (27 miles) from Drift Away Eco-Lodge, is one of two beaches in Guanacaste, Costa Rica where tourists can witness this natural phenomena.
The laborious turtle nesting process takes more than an hour. The female turtles dig holes in the sand, deposit a “clutch” of 80 to 100 eggs, then cover them up with sand before dragging themselves back into the sea. Millions of ping-pong ball-sized eggs are buried in the sand – right under your feet.
It takes about 1.5 hours (often less) to drive to Playa Ostional from Drift Away Eco Lodge, depending on the season and road conditions – an easy drive for a memorable day-trip.
When Do Sea Turtles Lay Their Eggs?
The most populous of all the seven species of Costa Rica turtles are the Olive Ridleys. They are the ones that congregate on the beaches here. Leatherback turtles, Pacific green turtles and Hawksbills also nest on Playa Ostional, but in much fewer numbers (and some of these species are perilously endangered).
July through December sees the largest arribadas – and in October and November numbers go into the hundreds of thousands in one night. The arribadas happen seven to 10 days before the new moon, on the darkest of nights. The turtles begin their beach invasion as the sun sets, and will continue until morning.
The largest arribada happened in November of 1995, when an estimated 500,000 turtles – half a million! – came ashore. Now that’s a wildlife sighting like no other.
Ostional National Wildlife Refuge
The Ostional National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984 to protect this area from prolific poaching and to provide a safe haven for Costa Rica turtles to nest and hatch.
Visitors access Playa Ostional to see turtles only with a wrist band and official guide. Guides stop people from handling or touching the turtles or their nests and using camera flashes or flashlights (turtles can get confused by white or bright lights – only red lights can be used).
Guides also regulate the number of people on the beach at any one time during peak tourist seasons. The guides accompany visitors throughout the entire turtle nesting process – from the time the turtles arrive on the beach, dig the nest, deposit the eggs and up until they are ready to then cover the nest back up again.
When do Sea Turtles Hatch in Costa Rica?
Around 55 days after the nesting, the eggs hatch and tiny baby turtles make their way to the ocean. It’s a phenomenon in itself, but less predictable. The eggs usually hatch at night, but the hatchings usually start around sunset. The temperature of the sand determines the baby’s sex.
The chance of survival for each turtle egg is low: poachers and predators lurk around every corner. On land, there are humans, vultures, and dogs – and in the sea, sharks and other large predatory fish loom.
Amazingly enough, females that manage to survive and grow to reproductive maturity (10-15 years) return to Playa Ostional, Costa Rica to lay their eggs despite the fact that their migratory travels may take them thousands of kilometers away.
Staff at Drift Away Eco-Lodge can help you determine the best time to go. Departing our eco-lodge at around 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. can give you enough time to get to Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, buy tickets at the guide office ($10) and witness the arribada as the sun sets (starting around 5 p.m.). Arriving before sunset means you can get some great photos of the turtles without using a flash.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to witness one of nature’s incredible shows – the sea turtles of Playa Ostional, Costa Rica. A great reason to visit Costa Rica on your next vacation!