TORTUGUERO, Costa Rica -- Their path lit only by stars, tourists stumble across the Caribbean beach until their guide stops them at a large sandy hole.
Kneeling, they watch silently as a 400-pound green turtle deposits her eggs into a freshly dug nest.
The scene can be witnessed in this seaside village on Costa Rica's northern coast from July through October each year. Tortuguero (literally, "place of the turtles") is the largest green sea turtle nesting area in the Western Hemisphere.
Legend has it that when Christopher Columbus docked here in 1502, he wrote there were so many turtles, you could walk to shore on their shells.
Their numbers drastically dwindled as hunters harvested them for their meat and shells. Thanks primarily to the organization Caribbean Conservation Corporation, founded by U.S. biologist Archie Carr in 1959, protections have been put in place that allow sea turtles to reclaim Tortuguero as a their primary nesting spot, and their numbers have increased.
"The end of the last nesting season was the highest level ever recorded," says executive director David Godfrey. "It's a real milestone."
Based in Gainesville, Fla., the group, which also has turtle rescue programs on Florida's Atlantic Coast and in Panama, celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.
The highlight will be "Tour de Turtle," a coordinated release of turtles into the Caribbean Sea next summer. The migrating turtles, tagged with satellite transmitters, can be tracked through the Internet.
For more information on the organization, visit cccturtle.org.