In Costa Rica, Slow and Steady Wins the Conservation Race

Tortuguero National Park has been the site of a sea turtle preservation program for over half a century.

If you’re happy and you know it, you might be in Costa Rica. Global happiness experts rank the ecologically rich nation as one of the planet’s top spots to live a long, happy life. One population that follows its bliss to these shores are the sea turtles of Tortuguero National Park.

Stretching along some 20 miles of the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero’s rugged black-sand beach is the Western Hemisphere’s most important nesting site for endangered green sea turtles, which weigh upwards of 300 pounds. During nesting season between July and October, thousands of these mammoth turtles return to nest on this isolated beach.

A happy ending hasn’t always been imaginable for green turtles, which are believed to have gravitated to the area since at least 1592, along with leatherback, hawksbill, Olive Ridley, and loggerhead turtles. By the 1960s, the Caribbean green sea turtle population had reached the brink of extinction due to exploitative poaching of adult turtles and their eggs.

In the 1970s the Costa Rican government established this remote area as a national park in order to protect these turtle nesting grounds, thanks to the scientific discoveries and efforts of pioneering conservationist and National Geographic grantee Archie Carr. During the 1950s, Carr documented the green sea turtle’s migratory patterns, which takes them all over the Caribbean, and then back to Tortuguero to reproduce. He began tagging, tracking, and counting green turtles, a program that continues to this day and now counts more than 85,000 adult female green turtles in its records. Green sea turtles are still classified as endangered but have rebounded significantly over the past several decades.

On select National Geographic trips, travelers can learn about the fascinating nesting and hatching rituals of green sea turtles during a visit to Tortuguero National Park's Sea Turtle Conservancy, founded by National Geographic grantee Archie Carr.