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Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

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Montreal, Canada
posts: 15
Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

Hi there, I am coming to Costa Rica for the first time at the end of July and am very excited about the possibility of being in Nosara during an arribada. I realize there's no guarantee, but will keep my fingers crossed! I am also interested, if it's safe, to go swimming in the ocean with turtles. There is a tour company that offers a boat trip to swim with turtles, but I do not want to do this activity if it puts the turtles in any jeopardy whatsoever. I am a bit concerned about how a boat with a propeller is able to safely navigate around turtles and make sure that they will not be injured by the propeller. I notice that only one tour company offers this activity so it does make me wonder if it is safe and ethical to do this. If it is, then why wouldn't all the tour companies do this? Would greatly appreciate any input on this, as the last thing I would want to do as a tourist is risk harm to any wildlife that I am hoping to encounter while in Costa Rica. If this is an acceptable activity, can anyone recommend a responsible tour company to book with? Thank-you!

Lake Havasu City...
Destination Expert
for Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
posts: 6,807
reviews: 6
1. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

The arribadas are usually best view during a new moon, the nearest to your date will be happening August 6, I don't recommend you go in the water at night anywhere. There are many beaches in the area with strong rip tides, plus there might be some sharks in the water feeding on the turtles. It's best if you view from a distance preferably with a guide.

Costa Rica
posts: 24,921
reviews: 26
2. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

I once worked as a naturalist guide in Florida, doing boat trips. During the boat trips, we would usually see dolphins (I knew where they hung out....... but NEVER fed them) and once, a couple of ladies asked to get in the water with them. "Well......OK." I said.

It took all of about 2 seconds for the dolphins to figure out that these large, strange pale things were NOT dolphins and about 1 second for them to disappear. Such disappointment! (What did you expect......?)

I would imagine that the turtles are concentrating on getting onshore and laying eggs and wouldn't pay much attention to you. But I really don't think that a boat with a motor should be moving through a group of turtles - it's just too easy to disturb them. And your getting in the water with them could also disturb them. If it were me, I would have enough respect for them to let them do their thing unmolested. If you love wildlife, respect it enough to give it space rather than try to "love it to death."

I also agree with Cubanon about the danger of sharks. Although... sharks aren't really that dangerous.

Grecia, Costa Rica
Destination Expert
for Province of Alajuela
posts: 6,844
reviews: 41
3. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

Very thoughtful answer from Hattie and one I agree with 100%. I used to spend a lot of time in the islands, and was lucky enough to get to swim with dolphins and the occasional green sea turtle, here in Costa Rica I actually got to swim with a whale shark (Pacific side) which is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. HUGE and magnificent creatures.

The turtles coming in here to the beaches are doing so to lay eggs though, so it is a little different than say coming across one on a coral reef feeding in the middle of the afternoon. Once on land they go into a trance, and are quite unaware of things going on around them. You should never approach or disturb any animals on land or sea, fine to admire them from a distance... Sometimes if they are curious, they will come to you. Have a blast on vaca.

Brooklyn, New York
Destination Expert
for Sarapiqui
posts: 4,391
reviews: 85
4. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

The boat that does the swimming with turtle tours out of San Juanillo is very active in turtle conservation efforts. They go out during the day, and not when/where there's a massing for an arribada. Turtles are fairly indifferent to people.

PM me if you want more information.

Edited: 12:26 am, June 08, 2013
Costa Rica
posts: 24,921
reviews: 26
5. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

So now - you've got my interest, Racandee!

What do you mean "very active in conservation efforts?" Also -- how does it work that they go where turtles are? I mean, turtles move around - maybe in an area where they are feeding? Have you done this trip?

I agree with you that turtles are fairly indifferent to people and if they aren't going during an arridaba, that's different.

More please!

Bermuda
Destination Expert
for Bermuda
posts: 2,813
reviews: 26
6. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

as long as the boat is going slow when in the vicinity of the turtles there shouldn't be a problem as they are very aware of their surroundings in the ocean. i also don't think it's a problem swimming with them as long as you don't approach them and obviously feeding them is out of the question. if the tour operator can assure you that they stick to at least those basic rules i think you should go for it.

last year we organized a turtle race from bermuda. we captured 13 turtles, took dna samples, fitted them with gps trackers and released them. pretty amazing results!

www.tourdeturtles.org/2012/CalypsoBlue.php…

Cahuita, Costa Rica
Destination Expert
for Cahuita
posts: 2,294
reviews: 9
7. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

Observing Leatherback turtles laying on the beach at Gandoca was one of the most magical things I have ever witnessed. I was working was a group to help measure them and when the eggs had been laid in an unwise location, remove them and rebury them in a hatchery constructed for this purpose. We saw the hatchlings emerge and scurry down the beach too. I'm not sure how swimming with turtles could be more wonderful than quietly watching them do just that, but if it can be done safely and you want to, then go for it. Years ago, I swam with dolphins and Egypt and came out of the water long before the tour was over as I just felt like I'd overstepped the mark somehow.

Slovenia
Destination Expert
for Costa Rica
posts: 8,304
reviews: 57
8. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

From Hawai'i Division of Acquatic Resources: "NOAA and DLNR recommend, for your safety and the animals' protection, that everyone stay at least 150 feet from all marine mammals and sea turtles." Laying eggs is a very private affair; so do this with respect and from a distance. My personal approach: if I am swimming and the turtle comes near, great. But never go chasing after the turtle.

Montreal, Canada
posts: 15
9. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

Wow, thanks everyone for your thoughtful and knowledgeable input! I really appreciate it! :-) I'm a huge environmentalist and 100% in agreement that wildlife should just be left alone and appreciated from a distance. I always go out of my way when travelling to stay at and book tours with responsible, accommodations/ ethical companies. I agree with you Hattie, Incabod, and that people often cross the line and too much quote wildlife "loving" can be very detrimental. As sonnysullivan and xelas suggested I am only interested in swimming to observe turtles from a distance, in a very quiet, innocuous manner, not feeding or approaching them and ONLY if it is a responsible company that doesn't interfere at all with the turtles' going-about their natural behaviour or put them in harm's way with the boat. I've seen a couple of photos online of tourists swimming with turtles in Costa Rica and literally grabbing onto the turtle from behind and almost bear-hugging them (the reason given was that it was okay because it emulated the natural mating behaviour of a male turtle). It was very off-putting and I would imagine it was stressful for the turtle. Even if the female turtle was 'tricked' into thinking the person was a male turtle trying to mate (but I think we should give their intelligence more credit!), who's to say that this doesn't interfere on a short-term basis with the female turtle's natural receptivity to real male turtles? I think if the turtle chooses to approach the human, that's fine, but when entering their territory we should be passive and non-encroaching.

A few follow-up questions for you guys:

Cubanon: I am as-we-speak trying to decide my accommodation dates for staying in Nosara. As you mentioned, I know that August 6th is the New Moon. My understanding is that the arribada tends to start sometime the week BEFORE the New Moon. Is this correct, and if so, exactly how many days prior to the New Moon do you think I should arrive? Also, at this time of year, how many days does the arribada typically last for? Unfortunately, I only have time to spend about 3-4 nights in the Nosara area, so I'm hedging my bets and trying to pick the 3 'most-likely' arribada days to come to the area. Any suggestions on this guys?

Racandee: As Hattie said, more info please! What kind of tour is this in the San Juanillo area?

Sara F: Wow, you were a volunteer with the Widecast program at Gandoca? Good job! That must have been an incredible experience and what a great feeling knowing that you were literally saving individual turtle lives and contributing to the battle to prevent the leatherbacks from extinction. I'm actually spending a whole week in the Cahuita/ Gandoca area before travelling to Nosara! It looks absolutely stunning and I like how the Caribbean side sounds a lot less touristy and developed than the Pacific side. I had hoped to observe turtles at Gandoca beach, but I know I will have missed the egg-laying season at the end of July (hence one of the reasons I'm travelling to Nosara to see turtles).

A number of years ago I was privileged enough to be able to observe up-close a turtle laying her eggs on the beach on Heron Island, Australia. It was a magical, incredibly moving experience that I will never forget.

Thanks again everyone for your input! :-) Can't wait to come to Costa Rica!

Brooklyn, New York
Destination Expert
for Sarapiqui
posts: 4,391
reviews: 85
10. Re: Is it safe to swim with turtles (safe & ethical for THEM)?

We booked the boat through our hotel (Luna Azul). From what I was told (I have no way of verifying any of this), this is the boat that's used when the researchers need to get out in the water for data collection or to observe the turtles, so the crew is very knowledgeable and sensitive about what does and doesn't disturb the turtles. The turtles are in the water off the coast year-round.