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Ostional Wildlife Refuge Costa Rica: created on October 24th, 1997, in order to protect one of the world’s most important nesting beaches of the marine turtle Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) or Lora as it is known locally, as well as the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and the Pacific Green (Chelonia mydas) turtles at Ostional Beach on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. The massive turtle arrivals, called “arribadas” in Spanish, at this refuge, encompassing the beaches of Ostional, Nosara and Guiones, are considered the largest in the world, with as many as a million sea turtle eggs laid in the beach nesting areas each year. This phenomenon takes place around 4 to 10 times during this period, lasting roughly between 3 to 10 days each. Besides, this refuge also looks after and safeguards the marine wildlife and birds in the area as well.
The Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, located between Punta India on the north, and Punta Guiones and Nosara on the south, was officially created in 1984 but was declared a protected area in 1982. The refuge was initially construed as being 200m wide from Punta India to the mouth of Rio Nosara. This area was increased to include the 200m strip to Punta Guiones in 1985, which extends inland along the estuaries of the rivers and mangrove swamps, protecting also large colonies of birds. Finally, in 1992, with the institution of the new “Wildlife Law”, came the final definition of the refuge and in 1993 the amplification to the three mile maritime limit as it is today. In 1994, the functions of the forestry service, the park service and the wildlife service were combined under the umbrella of the “National System of Conservation Areas” (SINAC) directly responsible to the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE). Under this system, the Refuge falls under the control of the “Tempisque Conservation Area” (ACT) which has a wildlife ranger station as its representative in Ostional.
The beach of Ostional is the scenery for a rarely-seen biological wonder. Although some believe that arrivals may be correlated with moon phases and tides, there are turtles laying eggs at Ostional Beach throughout most of the year. However, the theory is that, at least once a month and, in some months, may occur even twice, around the beginning of the last quarter of the moon cycle, hundreds, and sometimes hundreds of thousand sea turtles come to Ostional beach during an arrival to dig their eggs into the black, volcanic sand, between the months from August through November, on the rainy season.
Some days or weeks before an expected arrival, visitors may observe an increasing number of turtles swimming close offshore. This is then the gathering of this particular group of turtles that will be taking part in the next event. At first, a few hundred turtles will come out on the beach, followed by a steady stream of animals for the next three to seven days. The largest arrival thus far recorded in Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, took place in November 1995 when a calculated 500,000 females sea turtles came on shore to nest. As the arrivals occur during the peak of rainy season it is sometimes not possible to get, or to leave from Ostional.
As marine turtles are normally shy and easily disturbed when nesting, arrivals are even more exciting and strange. These animals, now in “arrival mode”, will come out during the night and day and be almost oblivious to disturbance by man or animal, light or sound. Bumping into each other, crawling over each other, they are automatons on their way to fulfill a predetermined task; lay their eggs at all cost.
The turtles generally ride in on the high tide at night, but during an arrival they start arriving around 4 p.m. and keep coming until 7 a.m. the next morning. Used to a life in the ocean, the turtles drag their heavy bodies over the beach until they get over the high tide line. There, flicking clouds of sand, they dig a nest with their flippers to deposit about 105 white, ping pong-shaped eggs. Over the course of a five-day arrival nesting turtles will leave up to 10 million eggs on Ostional beach.
The baby turtles hatch within 45-54 days depending on incubation temperatures, which will also determine if they will become male or female. In general the baby turtle’s hatch at night, but it may also happen that you are sitting in the afternoon on the beach and suddenly, next to you, the sand becomes live and small heads pop up.
As soon as the hatchlings have struggled out of the sand, the race to the ocean begins. With eyes barely opened, the baby turtles smell the breeze and instantly know the right direction. Women and children from the community of Ostional accompany the hatchlings as they clamber toward the sea, protecting them from dogs and vultures. If visitors also want to help the small turtles they shouldn’t carry them all the way to the beach as they need the run to develop their lungs. You can carry them a piece of way over the hottest stretch of sand and let them run the rest just trying to provide them some shade and keep the vultures away.
Having reached the ocean, the baby turtles still aren’t safe, as the next cast of predators awaits them under water. Most hatchlings don’t reach maturity, but those who make it will remember the smell of their beach, and some 10 or 15 years later, they will return to their place of birth and lay their eggs into the black sand of Ostional.
The vegetation of this reserve is sparse dry forest, consisting of the white-flowered sweet-smelling Frangipani tree (Plumeria), cacti and other drought-resistant vegetation. Most of the coastline is sandy beach, but Punta India at the north end of the reserve, is an interesting rocky headland containing some great tide pools. Besides, the Nosara river mouth is surrounded by mangrove swamps with crocodiles, howler and capuchin monkeys, raccoons and coatis, as well as around 100 bird species.
Undoubtedly, one of the most amazing ecological experiences in Costa Rica, a great place to take the entire family, especially children. Without the occurrence of an arrival visitors can walk alone to the beach which is littered with the white shreds of broken turtle eggs. But, when there is an arrival you must check in with the ranger booth at the southern end of Ostional where you pay the entrance fee and for the guide, without whom you may not go to the beach, as the nesting beaches are patrolled by guards who are paid by the village of Ostional. No flashlights or flash photography are permitted.
The ranger station at Ostional beach is open to the public, where guided tours are available with bilingual park employees. Since this refuge has no lodging facilities or accommodations, most visitors usually stay in Nosara, San Juanillo or Samara. Other nearby Costa Rica parks includes Werner Sauter National Wildlife Refuge, Camaronal National Wildlife Refuge and Diria National Park.
Getting to Ostional Wildlife Refuge:
From San José drive north to Puntarenas and then follow the highway towards Liberia until you reach Limonal. Turn left at Tres Hermanas Restaurant towards La Amistad bridge until you get to Nicoya. Once you reach Nicoya, continue your drive taking the road to Samara. Once in Samara turn left towards Nosara for about 26 km (16 miles), passing through Barco Quebrado, Garza, Guiones and Pelada until you reach Ostional Wildlife Refuge. This route requires a total of six hours from San Jose.
From Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR), drive south to Santa Cruz and from there to Nosara passing through 27 de Abril, Lagarto, Frijolar, Pitahaya, Azul and San Juanillo until you reach Ostional Wildlife Refuge.
Take the bus San José – Nosara, which takes about 5 to 6 hours (Empresa Alfaro, 2222-2666 / 2682-0297). From here you can rent a car and drive or take a taxi to Ostional Wildlife Refuge, which takes about 10 minutes. We recommend buying the ticket a day earlier to be sure your seat is saved and if you are driving to the beach, a 4×4 vehicle is highly recommended.
You can also take a bus San Jose – Santa Cruz, which takes 5 to 6 hours (Tralapa, 2221-7202 / 2680-0392), and then take a bus from Santa Cruz to Ostional, which takes about 3 hours (however, the bus can’t make the trip during heavy rains).
You can also take a flight from the Juan Santamaria Airport to the Nosara airport, either with Sansa or Nature Air airlines every day. From here you can rent a car and drive or take a taxi to Ostional Wildlife Refuge, which takes about 10 minutes.
Location: between Nosara and San Juanillo beaches in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica.
GPS Coordinates: 9.996714, -85.702931 (9°59’48.17″N, 85°42’10.55″W)
Size: 352 ha (869 acres) on land and 800 ha (19.767 acres) of ocean
Elevations: sea level
Schedule: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
ADIO (Ostional Development Association) Telephone: +(506) 2682-0470
Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT) Telephone: +(506) 2686-4967 / 2686-4968
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192