According to the World Wildlife Fund, nearly all species of sea turtles are classified as endangered. Hatchlings, in particular, face threats from predators as they make their way to the sea. ©Astrid Frisch/Karel Beets

Witnessing any of nature’s great spectacles—such as the wildebeest migration of Africa, the wintering grounds of millions of monarch butterflies in Mexico or thousands of sea turtles coming ashore from the Pacific Ocean to lay eggs—is usually described by onlookers as nothing short of “awe-inspiring.” These natural events are treasures that belong to all of us who inhabit Earth.

But during the first weekend of September 2015 on Ostional Beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, those who came to watch one of these special events proved to be a problem for the animals they were there to see. A combination of good weather and a Facebook page advertising the happening drew a crowd that numbered in the thousands to watch as hundreds of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles crawled out of the ocean to lay their eggs in the black, volcanic sand.

Encouraged, no doubt, by many others doing the same thing, people began snapping Facebook-worthy selfies with the turtles, shooting other photos by using flash photography, perching their children on the turtles’ backs and trampling nests. Locals collected the eggs, a Costa Rican delicacy. Scared off, most of the ancient reptiles simply turned around and went back into the sea—without laying any eggs.

Climate change, which alters sand temperatures, could mean that more female than male sea turtles will be born. ©Gavin Lautenbach

If this story is any indication, it seems like people are exhibiting increasingly bad behavior around wild animals. Is the world in need of more restrictions regarding where and when large groups can observe predictable natural phenomena?

Emboldened by the masses

Of course, the incident in Costa Rica isn’t the first time people have misbehaved in the outdoors in recent years. On August 2, 2014, a tourist from the Netherlands crashed his drone into a spring in Yellowstone National Park. And in the fall of 2014, a woman, desiring to post her outrageous acts on social media, drew graffiti on natural landmarks in eight national parks.

That kind of vandalism, however, was done by perpetrators who were alone or were with only a few other people. What happened in Costa Rica with the sea turtles was a crowd of people behaving badly. Some say that today there is a growing expectation that when you travel, the countries you visit are your personal amusement parks, with free access to all of their public places and native animals. Respect for nature and its processes is almost nil.

Most sea turtles undergo long migrations—as far as 1,400 miles—between their feeding grounds and the beaches where they nest. ©Colby J. Brokvist

One country, at least, has decided to do something about it. According to an April 2015 article in the London Free Press, the Chinese government is making a strong effort to convince its citizens to behave themselves while traveling inside and outside the country. Recently, several Chinese tourists have made headlines with their disruptive behavior. Provincial and national authorities are going to start keeping track of those doing anything illegal or inappropriate while in other nations, and the China National Tourism Administration recently stated on its website that border control, customs officers, police and even bank credit agencies would be contacted if necessary. Believing that tourism reflects on the image of the Chinese people, the administration says that more “social supervision” of tourists is required.

Respectful by small group

In the case of Costa Rica and the sea turtles, it’s clear things had gotten out of control. While residents are legally allowed to harvest turtle eggs for consumption and sale, the locals may have been profiteering by charging entry fees to the beach, with no regard for the numbers being admitted. Some may even have been posing as official guides, when they had no experience. Costa Rica does have laws in place regulating tourists’ visiting of turtle nesting grounds.

Witnesses say that official guides were encouraging their groups to be respectful of the turtles. They sought to ensure groups stayed together, didn’t interfere with the nesting process and insisted leaving the beach at dusk.


Healthy oceans need sea turtles. They help control their prey, such as jellyfish and sponges; nutrients left behind by eggs and hatchlings that don’t survive aid coastal vegetation; the turtles graze seagrass beds, which keeps the beds healthy; and turtle hatchlings are an important food source for many other animals.

In any event, the Costa Rican government is working on changes before the next arrival of the sea turtles, expected on October 4, 2015. They hope to double the number of police officers and security guards, and even bring in the Coast Guard. Groups will be allowed in only with official guides and will be limited to the edges of the nesting area.

Let’s hope this time the turtles will have no reason to beat a hasty retreat—a speed extremely out of character—back to the sea.

Do you think people are more likely to act disrespectfully toward nature when in large groups and others are conducting themselves badly? As a whole, are travelers lately exhibiting more reprehensible behavior?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,