I recently witnessed several Prehistoric Reptilian Leatherbacked Nocturnal Beach Layers crawling on to our shores late at night. Relax! There’s no need to be afraid, this 100 million year old species pose absolutely no threat. In fact, it needs our protection. Still wondering what they are? I’m talking about Leatherback sea turtles.
Now After several drafts of this post I let a friend read it before publishing, his exact responses were, “I know that you like facts but, dig deep for your feelings” and “you’re like a turtle!” I laughed and frowned. I then went back to the old keyboard, hopefully I was able to capture some of the mush that lies beneath my tough exterior in this post.
During the months of March to August second only to Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago becomes the favoured site of nesting leatherback turtles in the Atlantic. In Trinidad the leatherback turtles nest along the north and east coast, with the hot spots being the beaches of Grand Riviere, Matelot and Matura. The popular spots in Tobago are Great Courland Bay, Stone Haven Bay and Mt Irvine but they nest along the south-west coast of the island. The favoured beaches are protected during nesting season which means that permits and the use of guides are required to view the nesting leatherbacks.
I stayed overnight at the wonderful Le Grand Almandier Hotel in Grand Riviere. The hotel is on the beach and is obliquely opposite the Turtle watching visitor’s centre. You can obtain permits and book a group tour at the visitor’s centre which opens at 7pm. Tours begin around 9pm and last 1 hour. Turtle friendly flashlights (usually red) are also available for rent. You’ll be greeted by a guide, who will give you a lot of interesting information about these creatures, while taking you for a walk along the beach to see the nesting turtles live in action.
About Leatherback Turtles
They measure between 4 ft and 8 ft in length and weigh up to 2,000 lbs. These turtles are typically dark grey or black, have a ridged shell and are covered by whitish spots. Of all sea turtles, only leatherbacks possess a soft or ‘leathery’ shell. This soft shell enables them to dive to depths of 4,000 ft so that they can feed on jellyfish. An otherwise hard shell would be crushed by the ocean’s pressure at such depths. Leatherback turtles are also the fastest swimming reptiles, clocking a speed at around 20 mph.
I might be boring you with some facts, but it’s only because I think that it’s really interesting.
Nesting Habits… Turn off the lights!
Every 3 years, in the months prior to nesting season, a single female leatherback turtle will mate with several males storing their sperm for later use. The female comes ashore with the sole purpose of laying eggs which she does several times during one nesting season. Male turtles never come on land.
Did you know? Leatherback turtles are nocturnal. The females use the cover of the night for protection whilst laying.
Given their size and weight, these girls do not move quickly on land (the universal struggles of females) making them vulnerable to threats, human or otherwise. Bright lights and noise disorient the turtles; if disturbed they will return to the water without laying their eggs in the sand.
Once the female settles, she uses her back flippers to dig a cavity about 2.5 ft deep in the sand where She lays between 80 and 100 eggs (they look like ping pong balls). The turtle goes into a “trance” like state whilst laying, where she in unable to hear or feel anything. It’s at this point whilst in this state, your guide may allow you to carefully and very gently touch the turtle’s shell. It feels leathery… Quelle surprise!
Did you know? Eggs are laid with the embryo facing up. This allows the baby turtles to be oriented towards the sky when they eventually hatch. They will dig towards the surface to climb out whilst clearing a path for the others behind.
When she is done, she will cover the nest with sand using her back flippers. Before returning to the sea, she protects the nest the only way that she can; using camouflage. The female will crawl around to different spots throwing the sand around along the way, thereby concealing the nest’s true location. The eggs incubate in the sand for a period of 60 days and must be left undisturbed to give these hatchlings a fighting chance. Hatchlings that break the surface go towards the first light that they see, this is ideally moonlight on the ocean.
Did you know? A leatherback turtle leaves the nest after laying, never seeing her young. Hatchlings have the harsh reality of fending for themselves from day one.
Why do leatherbacks choose Grand Riviere as the delivery room?
This one mile stretch of beach boasts a record high of 500 leatherback turtles a night coming ashore to nest for an entire month. I can’t begin to imagine what that would look like! It’s clearly the turtle’s most favoured beach. During the day, it’s very apparent by the large dips and rough mounds of sand everywhere. Nesting turtles do a lot of excavations! The sand at Grand Riviere retains heat such that it incubates the nests perfectly. The beach itself is deep, which the turtles love since they are great divers. Also, this area isn’t rocky nor are there are any coral reefs which the turtles also prefer. It’s easy to understand why they love it. At the time of this post there were about 50 turtles a night. During my tour, I witnessed about 20 of these giants crawling onto the shore.
Did you know? When eggs begin to hatch, the ocean is filled with fish ready to make a meal of the hatchlings. Though this is a natural threat, leatherback turtles need all the help they can get to increase their current survival rate (to maturity) of 1 in 1000.
Threats and Conservation
Every year, at least 2 dead leatherbacks wash up on the shore at Grand Riviere and are buried on the beach. In almost all instances, plastic bags are found upon examination of the turtle’s stomach contents. Turtles can’t tell the difference between a plastic bag in the water and jellyfish. They die because of plastic induced health complications or starvation. The turtles are also frequently hurt and killed by fishing equipment like boat propellers or getting caught in nets.
Did you know? If you boil one of these eggs, no matter how long, it will never solidify (like a chicken’s egg).
In the past, for residents of villages near nesting sites, consuming the meat and eggs of leatherback turtles was a normal part of life. Though laws and beach patrols have been implemented to protect this species, poaching is still a very real danger to leatherbacks. Their meat and eggs still fetch high prices on the black market. The eggs are said to be a delicacy and aphrodisiac. A lot of the residents in these communities now assist in conservation efforts.
Did you know? The tears from a turtle’s eye is a form of sweating from physical exertion. It is said to be delicious. I was told this by a conservationist, who tasted it as a child.
Leatherback turtle watching has become one of Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest ecotourism attractions. The development of this sector also increases the threats to the species resulting from land development needed by ecotourism resorts, increased pollution (noise, light and trash). A few years ago, we’ve experienced the tragedy of seeing thousands of eggs destroyed during excavation works on this very beach. Ironically it was done to prevent erosion of the beach and by extension the nesting sites.
Hatchlings move towards the first light that they see, which should lead them to the ocean. However, in areas with increased light pollution, hatchlings are disoriented and move away from the ocean making them easy targets for prey. They have been known to wander into hotels in the area.
Leatherback turtles are also a threat to their own survival. In the case of Grand Riviere, the beach is small in comparison to the volume of turtles visiting every night in a 3 to 4 month period. During the nesting process, the turtles can disturb, expose or lay on top existing nests. Exposed eggs are a welcomed meal by dogs and awaiting vultures.
Humans pose the biggest threat to the leatherback turtle population. Ongoing conservation efforts include imposing harsh fines on persons caught sitting on them (sadly this happens), teaching fishermen new techniques and use of equipment to minimize the risk to turtles, collecting and releasing the lost hatchlings into the water, global tracking and tagging programs to study these animals, protected beaches and regular beach cleanups, efforts to reduce the use of plastics (not just locally) and education about the animals. I personally found this experience very enlightening and I believe that education goes a long way.
Hawksbill and Green turtles also nest on Trinidad and Tobago’s shores. Conservation efforts are also directed toward their protection. In fact, hatchlings of these turtles are raised in tanks and then released into the wild at a suitable age to increase their chances of survival. I was also able to visit the Nesting station in the morning to witness feeding. Unfortunately, this logic cannot be applied to leatherback turtles. No one has ever successfully raised one to maturity in captivity. They are unable to survive in tanks, they frequently get bruised by the walls and develop infections.
Guidelines for turtle watching:
- Use of a trained guide is required on protected beaches, it is illegal to visit them on your own.
- Be very quiet, during the tour, startled turtles return to sea.
- You should generally stay behind the turtles and out of sight, your guide will advise on distance and position otherwise.
- Use of flashlights or bright lights are prohibited. You can use turtle friendly red lights when necessary.
- Flash photography is prohibited!
- Do not ever sit on the turtles!
- Do not drive on the beach.
- Absolutely no campfires are to be lit on the beach.
- Do not touch the turtles in any way unless instructed by your guide, or if the hatchlings need help.
- Don’t leave ANY trash on the beach.
Have you ever seen a leatherback turtle? If you enjoyed this post, please share and as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Check out these groups for more on guided tours and how you can help conservation efforts.