Swimming with Leatherback Turtles in Costa Rica

Depending on what time of year you visit, swimming with leatherback turtles in Costa Rica could be a highlight of your trip.

Costa Rica takes environmental stewardship seriously, protecting 26 percent of its land in some form of conservation. Visitors flock to the rainforests, volcanoes, beaches and of course dive sites. But during certain times of year the beaches host not only to human visitors, but also hundreds of nesting and hatching sea turtles.

Both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of the country attract various species, including green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles. Leatherback turtles, however, are undeniably the most impressive. The largest of all the sea-turtle species can reach a gigantic 7 feet (2 m) in size. Leatherbacks can weigh up to 2,200 pounds (1000 kg). The individuals on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast are some of the largest on record.

Once the leatherbacks begin their ocean migrations, scientists have discovered that these turtles are one of the deepest divers of any marine creature, feeding on various species of jellyfish and pyrosomes. They also live quite long, with a life span of up to 100 years.

Leatherback nesting habits

Unlike most other marine turtles, leatherbacks don’t always return to the same hatching grounds year after year. In fact, female leatherbacks tend to lay their egg clutches around the same region of a specific area, but not the same beach. They seem to choose partially based on topography, preferring sandy to rocky beaches as rocks can easily damage their soft shells.

Visitors can observe nesting leatherbacks almost all year, depending on where they are. On the Caribbean side of the country, leatherbacks nest from March to July. On the Pacific side from September to March.

Las Tortugas Research Station on the Caribbean coast offers visitors the chance to peacefully interact with these giants as they come to and from the beach. Visitors cannot roam the beaches after 6 p.m. as most of the turtles lay their eggs after dark. For this reason, you must go with a guide as eggs and turtles are easily disturbed.

Swimming with leatherback sea turtles

In terms of swimming with the leatherbacks a huge amount of luck is involved. Yet if one is in the right place at the right time and respects the turtles and their nesting and hatching sites, the Costa Rican coasts doubtless the best place in the world to encounter these giants in their natural environment. Snorkeling off the coasts of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast and Playa Grande on the Pacific will provide visitors their best chances of swimming with leatherbacks.

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