Trinidad’s Leatherbacks: a Place to Nest

Amanda Mitchell-Henry goes turtle-watching in Trinidad

A dead leatherback on the beach at Grande Rivière. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeHaving laid her eggs, the leatherback returns to sea. Photograph by Mark NuzumPhotograph by Mark NuzumPhotograph by Roger NecklesPhotograph by Stephen Broadbridge

She would have been easier to spot under a full moon. The use of flashlights on this protected beach is restricted, and at this late hour it was dark enough to trip over one of these great creatures. But stars blanketed the sky, reflected brightly on the sea, providing ample light for the task at hand: observing the largest living turtles as they come to lay eggs on a remote Caribbean beach.

By concentrating my stare and squinting just a bit, I could make out a silhouette in the surf: a gargantuan shape, smooth and round. With waves crashing around her nearly inert body, she could as easily have been a boulder as a 1200-pound sea turtle.

“Is that a leatherback?” asked my 6-year-old son who stood beside me, his hand firmly planted in mine.

“I think so,” I whispered. It was. And we were among the privileged few lucky enough to witness such an event.

 

Leatherback turtles have roamed the planet for millions of years, since the day of the dinosaur. Today, they are a dying breed, and there is only a handful of beaches where they still come to lay their eggs. One is a little-known beach in  the village of Grand Rivière. Located on Trinidad’s north coast, this seaside community is witnessing a small revival of these endangered creatures, thanks to recent conservation efforts.

In years past only a few leatherbacks came ashore each night during the nesting season. But locals say the beach has recently become more popular, with up to 400 turtles sighted in a single night during the season’s height. “Until last year, the most leatherbacks (at Grand Rivière) was two or three per night early in the season, and then 80 to 90 per night in peak season,” said Deon McEachnie, a local leatherback expert and guide.

 

Observing the turtles at Grand Rivière was an experience as unforgettable as it was convenient. We spent the night at the Mt Plaisir Estate Beach Resort, a reasonably priced, artsy hotel that sits smack on the beach where the turtles come to nest, and from where guides accompany you onto the beach when the turtles arrive.

That night the beach was a virtual leatherback amphitheatre. In every direction were living, prehistoric giants. As I stumbled around the uneven sand, I caught the creatures in various stages of nesting: releasing eggs into a two-foot deep pit; covering their nests; heading back out to sea. I even saw a nest of hatchlings burst out of the sand and scramble down to the water.

I kept a close eye on my first leatherback because I wanted to witness the stages of nesting in sequence. The turtle we initially spotted in the surf was just taking a rest; she showed surprising speed once she started her ascent up the beach. By pushing her flippers into the sand and pulling them back in a downward thrust, she edged up the sandy slope. She continued this swimming motion until she found what seemed to be the perfect nesting spot and then began to dig.

We could see the action a little better by the light of a torch. While lights confuse and lead leatherbacks in the wrong direction as they emerge from the sea, once a spot has been settled on, a minimal amount of light is not a problem for the nesting creature, provided it is not directed on the face.

The leatherback’s best digging tools were her hind fins, which scooped up each flipper-full of sand with amazing ease and hurled it out of the way. My legs stung where the sand made contact, and guides warned children, who were pressed up close for better viewing, to protect their eyes. The creature went on until the hole was so deep that her flippers could no longer reach sand. “That’s when she knows she’s through,” explained the guide monitoring her progress.

We had plenty of time to learn about turtles while she dug out her nest, since this took about 45 minutes. The guides explained that from March to August thousands of turtles visit this beach. A female is 20- to 25-years-old before she is mature enough to lay eggs, and she becomes fertile every two to three years. “A leatherback will lay eggs a total of eight to ten times for the season and will come back every eight to ten days to nest,” said McEachnie. After two months of incubation, the hatchlings who have survived sand crabs and other underground predators scramble out of the sand en masse.

 

I pondered this information as my turtle dug away. I felt exhausted watching her, knowing she would do this up to ten times in six months. And then the unthinkable happened. Our entire group, about ten in all, began to murmur in horror when we saw eggs already nestled at the bottom of her newly dug hole.

“She’s hit another nest,” a guide explained calmly.

“Can’t you do anything about it?” I asked, feeling a heroic sense of urgency.

He looked up at me with a wry smile on his face. I may have been motivated by compassion, but my question was ridiculous considering the size of the turtle hovering over this pre-existing nest.

“Noooo, sorry. We can’t do anything. She’s already started, and the eggs won’t hatch if they have been disturbed.”

We waited and watched nature take its course. At first she only brushed the top of the nest, but eventually eggs came whizzing past us along with the sand that had buried them. It was painful to watch, knowing that the odds are against the survival of the leatherback from the outset. Only one per cent of the hatchlings in each nest is expected to reach adult size — which can mean a length of up to nine feet and a  weight sometimes exceeding 2,000 pounds.

Birds and fish pick off many of the two-inch hatchlings as they float along the water’s surface during their first days of life. Young leatherbacks cannot hold their breath for long and must frequently surface for air. Fishing nets can unintentionally trap and drown them. A single net can snare two or three per day. Turtles can become ensnared in plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish.

On the more sinister side, although leatherbacks are on the US Government’s list of endangered species, they are hunted for their meat anyway. Sometimes poachers kill leatherbacks for their fins, a prized ingredient in soup.

One of the most significant threats to the leatherback population is the vulnerability of their eggs. Leatherbacks cleverly hide their nests by compacting sand on top of them and smoothing them over to blend in with the surrounding beach. Birds and other animal predators are usually fooled by this attempt at camouflage, but people are not. Poachers with an appetite for turtle eggs simply wait until the turtle is finished. Meanwhile, beach erosion triggered by seasonal changes such as wind and waves can devastate the nests.

 

My turtle finished laying her eggs, mixing them in with those that remained from the previous nest. Then she set to the task of covering the eggs up and erasing the evidence. Once she had finished — about 45 minutes later — she started scooting down to the sea. She was making good time now she had gravity in her favour. But apparently she didn’t notice another turtle emerging from the sea directly in her path. I watched with interest, wondering how this turtle collision would turn out. Suddenly we heard the “whomp, whomp, whomp” of her flipper beating on the other turtle as the two became entangled. We couldn’t see much more than a dark blob near the water’s edge, but the noise was followed by the sound of shells scraping as the two bodies clashed. It was actually kind of funny, and I doubt anybody got hurt.

“It’s a slow-speed, leatherback demolition derby,” I joked. The creatures floundered about until my turtle solved the problem. She changed direction. Off she went, away from the water and toward the brightly lit hotel.

As it turns out, turtle guides step in to help where they can. One of them turned on his flashlight to guide her. Mesmerized by the light, she followed the beam, turning herself around 180-degrees to head back to the sea, her job done.

Leatherbacks face a bleak future. Only 36,000 females are estimated to be alive today, and their numbers are falling off fast. Places such as Grand Rivière offer a glimmer of hope because the community embraces them. “We don’t have any poaching of the large leatherbacks anymore,” said McEachnie. And their presence is creating additional jobs for the villagers.

 

The Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Current Status: Endangered worldwide.

Description

• The leatherback is the largest living turtle and is so distinctive that it is placed in its own separate family: Dermochelys. All other sea turtles have bony hard plates on their shells (carapace), but the leatherback’s carapace is slightly flexible and has a rubbery texture.

• An adult can weigh as much as 700 to 2,000 pounds and can measure from 4 to 8 feet in length. The largest leatherback on record was a male stranded on the west coast of Wales in 1988. He weighed 916 kg.

• Male turtles, once born, never return to land.

• Turtles eat mainly jellyfish (including the poisonous Man-O-War), sargassum weed and molluscs.

• Turtles migrate from Newfoundland to Trinidad, across the Atlantic to coastal Europe, and back again, every year.

• Because leatherbacks have poor eyesight, it is suggested that they travel to the same beaches year after year by detecting the angle and intensity of the earth’s magnetic field, which determine latitude and longitude, thus enabling them to navigate virtually anywhere.