Las Baulas Marine National Park was established by Presidential decree in 1990 and formalized in law on June 9th, 1991 to protect the endangered Leatherback turtles from profit-making egg poachers, being one of the foremost nesting sites for the leatherback turtle, as it supports the largest nesting colony of this turtles on the Pacific Ocean with a population size of about 800 female turtles nesting per year. The park also protects swampy mangrove coastline as well as inland forest and it is located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica near the village of Tamarindo in the Province of Guanacaste. More than half the park is underwater and protected but allows recreation such as scuba diving.
It is made up of three nesting beaches, Grande Beach, which is 3.6 km long, Langosta Beach, which is 1.3 km long, Ventanas Beach, which is 1.0 km long and Carbon Beach. It also protects two mangrove estuaries, the Tamarindo Estuary and mangroves at the mouth of the Matapalo River, the largest mangrove estuary in Central America, and the smaller San Francisco River Estuary.
On Grande Beach, female leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs from October to May-an incredible spectacle to behold. Watching one of these great ancient creatures come ashore at night to continue the age-old tradition of nesting in tropical sands is a very moving experience for most people.
Leatherbacks sea turtles, known as Baulas in Costa Rica, are not only the world’s largest turtle, but its largest reptile, which can weigh from 250 to 700 kg (550 to 1,500 pounds) and more than 1 to 2m (3.3–6.6 ft) in length. Leatherbacks wander the open seas in search of their favorite food, jelly fish, which they will dive to a depth of 1,220m (4,000 ft) to pursue. Unlike other species of turtle that have external carapaces, the leatherback has a tough leathery skin and internal skeleton.
In Costa Rica, this species can be found nesting at a number of beaches on both coasts, however, two of the more heavily used beaches are Grande Beach and Langosta Beach, to the north and south, respectively, of Tamarindo Beach. Together, the aforementioned beaches make up Las Baulas Marine National Park.
Although Las Baulas is remote from even the major population centers of Costa Rica, it suffers from the same pressures as found on sea turtle beaches in Florida, Greece and elsewhere around the world. Conservation faces many challenges at Las Baulas National Marine Park, ranging from over development, through excessive tourism activities, to the stealing of eggs. The park has been chronically understaffed so that the beaches are sometimes left unprotected during the day. Because of an active education campaign which began in 1988 when Maria Teresa Koberg, the turtle mother of Costa Rica, started to bring Scouts, students and friends to the beach to help stop poaching, making local residents no longer steal (poach) eggs from the beach. In fact, local residents now protect the beach and the Park. She was also the one that campaigned vigorously to get the Park established by decree and then law. EARTHWATCH teams, concerned local residents, guides, local business leaders, scientists and Park rangers continue working to improve the protection provided by the park.
The number of leatherbacks has been declining from the early 1980′s when Peter Pritchard first “discovered” up to 200 leatherbacks a night nesting on Grande Beach, number that to 1994-95 declined to 30 turtles a night and by 1996-97 only as few as 10 turtles a night nested there. This decline is due to many years of heavy poaching, development behind the beaches, and the incidental capture of turtles in fisheries.
Protection of turtles and their nests is the responsibility of National Park guards. Research and conservation efforts are spearheaded by Dr. Frank V. Paladino, Department of Biology, Indiana-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, IN 46805 and his colleagues through their EARTHWATCH Inc. project which runs from late September to March each year. Professors, students and volunteers not only conduct scientific investigations of the turtles and their eggs, but help in local conservation efforts and protection.
Successful protection of 99% of the nests started in 1993 and the hatchery started to operate in 1998-99, being the time needed for maturation for a leatherback an average of 13-14 years as reported by Zug and Parham. Therefore, we might expect to see numbers of leatherbacks increasing in the next few years. The real question is whether there are enough adult leatherbacks left to keep the population healthy until the hatchlings produced thanks to beach protection over the last 10 years can reach adulthood and rebuild the population.
Incredible white-sand beaches separate the park’s protected seas from its vibrant forests that are home to 174 species of birds such as White Ibis, the Cattle Egret, the Roseate Spoonbill, the Blue-winged Teal and the Muscovy Duck as well as countless other animal species like capuchin monkeys, raccoons, crocodiles, caimans, agoutis and grey squirrels. Also, mangroves and estuaries are plentiful, packed with a biodiversity known to few places outside of Costa Rica. It consists of the six species of mangrove known on the Pacific Costa Rican coast. Red and black mangrove, which grows in almost uniform groves, are the predominant species, and other species of trees reaching as high as 30 meters.
Climate here is hot during the daytime, and evenings have a very pleasant temperature, although when the winds pick up from December through February, a jacket or sweater might be wanted while out looking for turtles. The rainy season lasts from May to November.
Las Baulas Marine National Park is a great place to visit with family, this national park also has a turtle museum and night tours during the turtle nesting season. But it is important that visitors be aware of certain things when touring this national park. All visitors on the beach at night must be accompanied by a certified local guide (available at the entrance to the beach during the nesting season). Do not use cameras with flashes or flashlights, do not approach the turtles and do not walk on the dry sand that lies above the high tide markings or else you would end crushing eggs and hatchlings in the nest. In order to see the turtles you will have to go on a tour with a certified guide, without a guide you will not be allowed on the beach.
The process of making a reservation to see the Giant Sea Turtles is a little different than a normal tour and guide experience. Basically you can reserve a place on the list no more than 8 days in advance of the tour date by calling the Las Baulas Marine Station. You must give them your complete name and passport number in order to be put you on the list. On the day of the tour you must arrive at the station of Las Baulas at Sundown to pay for your ticket and be assigned in a group. If there is a healthy nesting Turtle found by the biologists they will allow 1 group to come and view the process for about 15 minutes. Sometimes people must wait hours until a turtle arrives on the beach while other times there are enough turtles for everyone to get a chance to view the nesting process (in some cases no turtles arrive at all).
The ranger station at Playa Grande is open to the public, where guided tours are available with bi-lingual park employees. For minimum impact, a limited number of visitors are allowed each evening. Other nearby Costa Rican parks include Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge and Diria National Park.
You can help the leatherbacks of Las Baulas by joining an EARTHWATCH expedition, taking a tour to the beach to see a leatherback with the local guide associations, and by contributing to the Leatherback Trust.
Getting to Las Baulas Marine National Park:
From San José drive north to Puntarenas and then follow the highway to Liberia until you reach Belen. There, turn right and continue on the road until you get to Huacas. Once in Huacas, go straight ahead following the signs to Las Baulas Marine National Park for 9 km (5.5 miles) passing through Matapalo, until you get to the park entrance. This route requires a total of 4 hours from San José.
From Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), drive south until you reach Belen. There, turn right and continue on the road until you get to Huacas. Once in Huacas, go straight ahead following the signs to Las Baulas Marine National Park for 9 km (5.5 miles) passing through Matapalo, until you get to the park entrance.
Take a bus from the route San Jose – Tamarindo, making the stop at Huacas which takes 4 to 5 hours (Alfaro-Tracopa, 2222-2666).
You can also take a bus from the route San José – Huacas – Flamingo – Brasilito, which takes from 4 to 5 hours (Tralapa, 2221-7202). In both cases you can rent a car and drive or take a taxi from Huacas to Las Baulas Marine National Park, which takes about 15 minutes. We also recommend buying the ticket a day earlier to be sure your seat is saved.
You can also take a flight from the Juan Santamaria Airport tothe Tamarindo airport, either with Sansa or Nature Air airlines every day. From here you can rent a car and drive or take a taxi to Las Baulas Marine National Park, which takes about 20 minutes.
Location: just due north from Tamarindo, covering the districts: Cabo Velas and Tamarindo, canton: Santa Cruz, province: Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
Grande Beach GPS Coordinates: 10.334744,-85.847781 (10°20’5.08″N, 85°50’52.01″W)
Size: 445ha (1100 acres) on land and 22,000ha (54,362 acres) of ocean
Elevations: sea level
Ranger Station Schedule: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Las Baulas Marine Station Telephone: +(506) 2653-0470
Toll Free: 011 2506 653-0470
Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT) Telephone: +(506) 2686-4967 / 2686-4968
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192