Surfers, Birds, & Turtles
Renowned for its steady waves and smooth beaches, Playa Guiones, on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, has become a destination for surfers, yoga enthusiasts, and others in search of a tropical getaway.
It’s a bit remarkable that so many people flock to the area’s beaches through the nearby town of Nosara. It’s not exactly easy to get to.
Nosara is a 6-hour bus ride from Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The final quarter of the journey is on narrow, dusty, and rutted dirt roads. But the dry tropical air, network of walking trails, and easily accessible beaches have made this area a hotspot nonetheless.
A Beach of Birds
While at Playa Guiones, the abundance and variety of birds overwhelmed my ability to capture them on camera! Though, one bird I saw everyday at was the Royal Tern. A gull-like bird, terns specialize in diving for fish in salt water. Interestingly, the terns at Playa Guiones and nearby beaches seemed more active in mid-afternoon, diving in shockingly shallow water for their meals. (You can click on the images in the gallery below to enlarge them.)
Tern are flashier birds, but Brown Pelicans are more conspicuous at Playa Guiones. Often in groups of 5 to 10, the pelicans fly effortlessly over the surf and breaking waves of the Pacific. The pelicans’ patterns mesmerized me as I watched them pull up over breaking waves and then swoop low over calm troughs, weaving in and out of the Pacific surf like they were tied together on a streamer blowing in the wind.
Like the terns, the pelicans plunge headfirst into shallow water near the beach. But where the terns snap at fish underwater with a surgeon’s precision, pelicans instead gulp, expanding the gular pouches on the underside of their bill to swallow fish like feathered whales.
Unlike the terns, the pelicans do not immediately fly back into the sky to consume their catch on the wing. Instead, after diving for prey they sit awkwardly, head erect and long bill pointed downward, surf crashing onto them. Bulky and especially clumsy when soaking wet, it takes the pelicans some moments to gather themselves before they gather the effort to mount a running start to launch back into flight.
A variety of shorebirds feed in the intertidal at Playa Guiones—plovers, sandpipers, willets, whimbrels, and more.
Other Sea Creatures
Playa Guiones is also known for its tidepools. At low tide, the shallow but expansive rocky ledges contain nudibranchs, crabs, urchins, and schools of fish. I even spotted a quick and stealthy octopus gliding in one tidepool at Playa Guiones.
The beach also supports enormous groups of snails. At the margin of the intertidal, where the longest-reaching waves wet the sand, these snails hitch a ride on the half-inch of outgoing tide. Catching the wave to the sea, they abruptly halt their progress and rapidly bury themselves. Anchoring, they stretch their whiskers upward to catch tiny morsels in the receding tide.
A Sea Turtle Sanctuary
Long before these beaches were a destination for foreign tourists, they served as a nesting site for thousands of sea turtles.
A unique adaptation to outnumber predators, Olive Ridley sea turtles will lay their eggs in arribadas, or mass nesting events that occur during the rainy season. Over five nights near a new moon, thousands of turtles come ashore on the beaches of Ostional Wildlife Refuge, which includes the Nosara beaches but is concentrated on Playa Ostional to the north.
So many turtles nest during arribadas that turtles will actually dig up other turtles’ nests. As a result, the refuge allows limited turtle egg harvesting by humans—as is part of local tradition—and in turn, harvesters take responsibility for the nesting site and help fend off poachers.
While in Nosara, we spoke to a turtle biologist about the current state of the sea turtle populations. She wasn’t pessimistic, but for local scientists and volunteers with limited funding, protecting sea turtle nests is an uphill battle.
The turtles face the same persistent threats they have for thousands of years: pesky vultures, crocodile-like caimans, racoons and their tropical cousins coatimundis, and other predators. However, humans are the true threat to these species’ survival.
the Challenges in Sea Turtle conservation
Increasing disturbances on the beaches include campfires, vehicles, and an explosion in the number of stray or off-leash dogs. These disturbances present severe survival challenges that these turtles are not adapted for.
To protect the turtles, Ostional Wildlife Refuge is establishing a hatchery system. Somewhat ironically, the hatchery allows scientists to incubate and hatch the turtle eggs in a safe but completely artificial environment. This measure ensures the young have a fair chance to make it to sea.
As part of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, strict laws govern Playa Guiones and other turtle nesting beaches. New homes and hotels cannot be built within 250 meters of the beach while motor vehicles and off-leash dogs are prohibited. But few if any people on the beach seem aware of these rules.
Despite the laws, the turtle biologist told us that stray or off-leash dogs, which are abundant on the beaches, cause around 15% of turtle nest casualties. She is also worried about increasing development near the beach and on the surrounding hills.
Usually hatching during night, baby turtles often use the shimmering reflection of the ocean as one cue to find the ocean. With more tourists visiting the beach and more development in the surrounding villages, scientists sometimes find baby turtles dead in smoldering campfires; or, if the turtles go toward the light of new inland developments, they’re easy prey.
Taking Action to protect sea turtles
Unless local leaders take action—like establishing new zoning, light ordinances, or conservation areas—and enforce and educate the local and visiting populations about existing laws, the situation for turtles and other wildlife at Playa Guiones and surrounding beaches may only get worse.
Turtle hatcheries should only be a temporary stop-gap measure. Easier and less expensive than building hatcheries, collecting eggs, and paying staff to monitor and release baby turtles: regulating land development and enforcing current laws aimed at protecting these turtles’ nesting sites to diminish human impact on their survival.
A possible solution is a tax on the lavish million dollar resorts or private vacation homes popping up near the beaches. Funds could support more rangers to monitor the refuge, enforce wildlife laws, and fund campaigns to educate visitors on turtle-safe practices, like keeping dogs on leash and keeping campfires off the beach.
Playa Guiones is gorgeous, full of animal life, and the perfect place to relax, swim, or practice surfing and snorkeling. Despite the increasing push to appease foreign tourists, changes that make parts of the town seem fake and exclusive, the laid back community is welcoming and largely authentic.
When I left Costa Rica, I flew back to Boston in freezing rain and snow. It made me realize that I’ll long for the warm temperatures and wide open, sandy beaches of Playa Guiones for the next 4 months (or longer). Until next time!
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All the best,
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