An amazing journey to see the sea turtles lay their eggs

Turtle tracks on the beach in Costa Rica

DAY 4 — The monkeys are howling right outside my open window, jumping from tree limb to tree limb. They were all around us at the turtle-shaped pool too.

“You won’t find this in Hawaii,” I say to Cathy Purnell, whose three daughters aged 11 to 16 have been giving their parents a rough time today about the heat, the humidity, the bugs and especially for 16-year-old Amy the lack of internet and cell service.

Cathy Purnell says she’s trying very hard not to let their mood ruin her fabulous vacation. And it is indeed fabulous, albeit not totally comfortable. After an arduous day of travel — more than three hours on a bus on bumpy, windy roads — with one stop at a Del Monte banana packing plant (a job the kids agreed they wouldn’t want) watching the mostly Nicaraguan workers wash and then sling big bunches of bananas into crates — we take an hour and a half boat ride on a series of man-made and natural canals to the Pachira Lodge, the newest Lodge in tiny Tortuguero just five minutes from Tortuguero National Park (www.pachiralodge.com). The rooms are comfortable with tiled floors and wooden walkways that connect the individual casitas to the rest of the resort-the awesome turtle-shaped pool overlooking the Tortuguero Lagoon (the kids especially like the waterfall). There is even an open-air spa.

Tortuguero is all about the turtles. The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (www.ccturtle.org) is the oldest sea turtle conservation anywhere and the program here — more than 30 years old — has documented an over 400 per cent increase in green turtle nesting here. For a $25 donation to the Conservation Corporation, I adopt a turtle tag # 105549. I’m told they’ll email me updates of Ertle the Turtle’s ’ whereabouts.

Sea turtles, we learn, were once so numerous that early explorers reported them traveling in fleets. But as a result of over-hunting, habitat destruction, experts estimate that the population is just six per cent what it once was. They play a big role in coastal ecosystems, eating sea grass and algae, depositing their eggs on shore where they transport nutrients from the ocean to coastal and inshore habitats that need them. They are an important strand in the web of ocean life.

But only something like one per cent of the eggs that are hatched will survive to adulthood, we learn today, as we walk along the black sand beach where thousands and thousands of turtle eggs are hatched each year. We are visiting during turtle nesting time and will go out tonight to see if we can see this miraculous process as a turtle comes ashore, digs a nest — some three feet deep — lays and buries her eggs and then leaves. No parenting here! Only 10 percent of these hatchlings will even make it back to the ocean. “Can you turn them around if they go in the wrong direction?” Emily asks.

Our guide Gaston tells us that is against the law — if we were touch the turtles, that might upset the natural order. Still, the kids think that’s sad.

We spend a few minutes in the town (just 1,000 people) in Tortuguero shopping where the girls are thrilled to buy $20 hammocks. I’m thrilled with my $1 ice cream cone. Though the town survives on tourism, it couldn’t be any more removed from a manicured tourist town elsewhere in the Caribbean or the United States — just a few souvenir shops and grocery store. We’re ready to head back to the resort (via boat) and cool out before dinner — and our turtle walk on the beach tonight (plenty of bug spray needed, we’re advised.)

I walk to my cabin craning my neck to see the monkeys in the trees. I think of the kids splashing in the pool, the monkeys all around us. Air conditioning isn’t everything.

“This trip is fabulous,” declares Sally Garrett, who is traveling with her two daughter s and the daughter of a friend. “It’s so different than anyplace we’ve ever been and we’re doing so many different things than we’ve ever done.”

“The kids are having a blast.” So is Sally, because she doesn’t have to worry about anything — the guides have everything from snacks and drinks to ban d aids and a first aid kit for a cut in the pool. We adults acknowledge that the kids may not listen to everything Gaston tells them, but he is supremely knowledgeable. “All of the adventures-the getting out and doing stuff — is what they like,” Garrett continues, “And they make it so stress free that I can enjoy everything too.” Much cooler than a resort.

I can’t believe our luck. The beach is pitch black except for the light from the stars dancing across the sky and the infrared lights from the ranger’s flashlights.

The ocean waves pound. But just few feet away from us is one of the most amazing sights in nature. A huge sea turtle (more than three feet long!) has made a nest and is dropping her eggs into it, one by one but so fast that she’ll drop more than 100 in maybe 10 minutes.

The rangers permit us in groups of 10 to come close, as long as we are quiet. It is an amazing sight. The huge turtle, the round white, wet eggs dropping on top of each other (they are leathery, our guide explains, so they don’t have a hard shell that could break). It’s one o those vacation experiences that will stick in memories for ever without any photos to remind us.

Even the most blasé teens in our group are impressed. We’re all exhausted — it has been a long day — and dripping with sweat because of the humidity. But none of us would have wanted to miss this.

When the turtle is done, she flicks her fins and covers her nest with sand. The kids giggle when she hits some of us with sand. The rangers don’t permit us to stay until she makes her way back to the ocean. That could be another half hour. I think we’re all ready to go anyway.

We troop back down the beach to the boat that brought us here about 10 minutes from the resort. We ask our guide how often she does this. Every day during the four months of nesting season, she says. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years and every day it’s different.”

Eight-year-old Sarah Kate acknowledges it was scary on the dark beach — even holding her mom’s hand-“But it was really cool seeing the turtle lay its eggs because a lot of people don’t get to see that,” she said.

“Fun,” pronounced Sutton, who is entering eighth grade.

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