Looking for the leatherback in Trinidad

On Trinidad’s northeast coast, thousands of huge, rare sea turtles come to nest each year. Eric Hawk didn’t see a single one on his first trip there.

A leatherback turtle returns to the sea after laying her eggs. Photograph by Eric HawkA nesting turtle, with the hotel in the background. Photograph by Piero GuerriniPiero Guerrini, left, owner of Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel, and Eric Hawk. Photograph by Piero Guerrini

At Grande Riviere, a small, clear river meets the Caribbean Sea. It originates in Trinidad’s Northern Range and flows northward. Perhaps it was a grand river during the rainy season, but that day it was just a shallow, slow-flowing stream that spilled its cool, clear waters across a beach into Grande Riviere Bay. A wide, placid, freshwater lagoon beckoned invitingly behind the narrow strip of grey-brown sand separating the river and the sea.

This small beach, barely half a kilometre in length, annually plays host to thousands of huge, endangered leatherback sea turtles, Dermochelys coriacea. These remarkable creatures, the largest of all sea turtles, and other smaller species, gather here during their March – July nesting seasons.

A small hotel, painted in faded pink, yellow, and blue pastels, sat just above the high-tide line, about mid-way along the beach, west of the river mouth. Behind it, green, densely forested hills rose steeply and became the Northern Range. The Mont Plaisir Estate Hotel, partly shaded by a huge, ancient almond tree, faced the blue Caribbean, the tumbling waves breaking just 30 yards away. To the right, a high, lush, forested headland jutted northward into the sea, forming the protected bay which took its name from the river.

The hotel is owned by Piero Guerrini, a hospitable Italian émigré. As we ate our late lunch, he had convivially opened a bottle of red wine and sat with us, filling our cups as we ate our meal and he told us about the leatherbacks.

“There are many during the nesting season, as many as 10,000 nests on this beach,” he said. “So many that they crawl into my hotel vegetable garden and make a mess of it, attempting to dig their nests. I had to build that small fence to deter them” – pointing to the white picket fence that ran behind the almond tree, along the front of the hotel. There were none on that visit, though. I envisioned a leatherback as it hauled its ponderous bulk, weighing over 1,000 pounds, up the beach above the high-water mark.

Seven years later, returning to Trinidad on business, I called the hotel and spoke with Lydia, the receptionist. Yes, Piero is still there, still the owner, she had said. No, the leatherbacks have not really started nesting yet, it’s too soon, though we have had one nest already this season, and perhaps I might see one. I hoped that was the case. My colleague Clay and I had made reservations for just one night.

We finally go to bed, full of good food and wine, tired from the drive and the walk and the swimming. I crawl under the canopy of mosquito netting hanging from the overhead fan and wrap myself in a sheet and thin blanket. My eyes close, but I awaken several hours later. I step towards the darkened balcony and sit, looking out on the quiet, still beach. No turtles. The sky – what I can see through the limbs of the ancient almond – is dotted with myriad points of light. I peer down at the beach, willing there to be a big dark shadow, a nesting leatherback. Nothing is moving. It’s chilly and damp; the nearby surf rumbles incessantly. I am reluctant to go for a beach walk to look for turtle tracks, knowing the odds are so slim. I hesitate. I should at least look. My will wavers as my warm bed beckons. One last long look down the darkened beach and I retrace my steps.

I find another blanket, tuck myself in – then change my mind once more. I pad barefoot across the balcony, down the steps to the beach, through the gate guarding Piero’s garden, and make for the western point, stepping gingerly in the inky darkness, using my flashlight sparingly. The sand is cool and moist under my feet.
The night is so dark I almost stumble into her. She is halfway up the beach, a huge, dark hulk making her way slowly, with little noise other than her laboured breathing, up the incline. She drags herself, alternating her long front flippers, almost in a swimming motion, leaving telltale tracks on the packed sand. The tide is high; she won’t have to crawl far to find a good spot to lay her eggs. She pauses, then starts to dig furiously, kicking sand away with all four flippers until her bulk is partially hidden.

Suddenly her motion changes from frantic to unhurried. She uses just her rear right flipper, curling it delicately into the shape of a narrow auger, a sand scoop with which she starts to dig a precise, narrow, egg chamber. Her leathery auger curls, dips, retracts, and throws sand out of the hole. She delicately repeats the motion again and again, each time lifting just a bit more sand out, and flicking it away, again and again, until she can go no deeper.

She shifts position, and suddenly I am startled by the sight of clumps of white, sticky, golf-ball-sized spheres tumbling into the hole. One, two, three, four…her cloaca pumps them out steadily: 31, 32…they keep plopping into the hole. They are round and soft and plump, and make no noise as they pile on top of one another. She doesn’t seem to be aware of my presence, and I have stayed behind her, so as not to startle her. I stop counting eggs after around 85. The trickle slows. She finishes depositing her eggs into the hole. I can see better now and am amazed that such a huge animal can so delicately dig an egg chamber – almost three feet deep, but no more than 12 inches wide – without the walls caving in, solely with her rear flipper.

She’s done; she crawls a few feet and goes into frantic mode once again, kicking sand furiously, covering up the egg chamber. Her black bulk twists slowly in a circle as she pushes sand this way and that. In a few minutes, it is done. The nest is unrecognisable, save for her tracks leading up to it. She turns her bulk seaward, and minutes later disappears into the foam along the shore. I am stunned. I am privileged. I am in awe of nature.