A guide shows tourists a nesting turtle while Earthwatch team member collects eggs.
Photo courtesy of Earthwatch Institute
Tourists at Playa Grande
by Meg Warren

With the holidays coming, tourists are all over Playa Grande. During the day, the beautiful three-mile stretch of beach is open to everyone. After sunset, the park closes to protect the nesting turtles. The tourists, however, come to Playa Grande specifically to see the turtles, and as you know, you can only see them at night.

The park has special rules for viewing the turtles. At night a limit of 120 people (eight groups of about 15 tourists each) can come on the beach. Each group must be with an authorized guide. The groups wait outside the park with their guides until a turtle is spotted. Sometimes the wait can last forever if there are a lot of groups, or if there are only a few turtles. In October there were nights when there were no turtles. Now there are more turtles, but there are also more tourists.

A radio call from a park official signals the arrival of a turtle. Four groups with guides then head off down the beach. This may mean a long walk in the dark. The turtles could be more than a mile away.

Only one group is allowed to be near the turtle at a time. The group must approach from behind the turtle, after she has started laying the eggs. People watch quietly for five to ten minutes. The group then leaves the beach altogether. Most of the time this procedure works smoothly, without too much noise, light, and movement that might disturb the turtle. However, one night, flashbulbs suddenly popped out of nowhere, interrupting the dark silence. Park officials quickly took away the camera and film. The group had to leave the beach immediately.

I leave the beach at dawn wondering what the future will bring. Signs and billboards everywhere along the road advertise "hotels and lots for sale." This could only mean one thing: more people, and perhaps no more turtles.