“It depends. Sometimes they come early, and sometimes they delay.”
“They assess the temperature, the tide and the darkness. They won’t come if they don’t feel entirely comfortable and secure. Sometimes one will come close to the beach, test the condition and go back if she feels uncomfortable. She won’t lay eggs. They are intelligent species and won’t lay eggs if weeds are seen on the beach.”
This was the conversation I had with the guide assisting us in watching a leatherback turtle laying eggs on the Orosco bay beach at Matura in northeast Trinidad. The bay connects to the Caribbean sea in the western Atlantic ocean. The guide was a young lady trained in some aspect of marine biology, and they were entrusted with organizing these visits with the government’s approval.
As we drove from our hotel to the beach around 8 p.m., I noticed we were moving into darkness. The road to the beach was patchy, without streetlights, and it was bushy and dark. The driver explained that one must keep the beach and the approach area as natural as possible so that the turtles find a natural ecosystem to lay eggs and lights on the approach road could have an effect.“Let’s go to the beach. We have established contacts with our colleagues on the beach,” the guide said. We were eager and excited in anticipation.
As we followed the guide to the beach, she alerted us not to use a camera, flash light or mobile phone. It was past 10 p.m.
She signalled us to stop and focus on the waves on the beach. “Can you see the black thing which is coming towards us?” I could imagine a black something approaching us. As it came closer, I could see the turtle, gigantic and majestic. I was seeing such a thing live for the first time. She came on to the sand, rested for a few seconds and returned to the waters. “She didn’t find it comfortable. Maybe the temperature or the seaweeds,” the guide said. We were a bit sad.
The leatherback is the world’s largest, fastest, and deepest-diving turtle. They can grow up to eight feet long, weigh more than 900 kg and live up to 45 years. Once prevalent in every warm ocean, its population has declined dramatically. Female leatherback hatchlings usually roam the seas until they reach sexual maturity, and then they return to the same areas to produce their offspring. Males, however, spend the rest of their lives at sea.
One of the main nesting beaches in Trinidad is the protected Orosco bay. Permits are required to visit during the nesting season. These areas and others all have community-led conservation groups with trained tour guides that are on hand nightly to safeguard the turtles, record sightings and nests, and describe the whole nesting process and the history of turtles while people witness this remarkable sight. Scientists from North American universities have established research centres collaborating with local conservationists to study the turtle’s behaviour.
Some turtles travel over 12,000 kilometres from Nova Scotia, Canada.
Leatherback nesting season occurs in Trinidad and Tobago from March to the end of August each year.
Five turtle species — loggerhead, Olive Ridley, green turtle, hawksbill and leatherback — are protected by law in Trinidad and Tobago. Leatherbacks are listed as vulnerable, green as endangered and hawksbill as critically endangered. Trinidad and Tobago has a 61-year history of protecting the leatherback turtle, which was started in the 1960s by the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club.
A leatherback are highly migratory. It is still a mystery how they remember and navigate. It is imagined that they may be using several cues to orient and guide the ocean, such as visible light, beach slope elevation, wave direction and the earth’s magnetic field. They dive deep, and the deepest recorded dive reached nearly 4,000 feet. Their front flippers are proportionally more extended, and their back flippers are paddle-shaped. The female use the back flippers to dig the sand and cover the eggs after laying them. They can lay up to 70 to 100 eggs at one time, and they can lay eggs multiple times during the season. It takes about 60-75 days for the hatchlings to come out.
We were signalled to stop again. This time the turtle was already on the beach. We waited in silence behind her back. She used her back flippers to dig out the sand. It was a veteran craftsman’s work. She dug deep, hid herself, made herself comfortable, laid the eggs and covered them with sand before leaving for the waters. The whole process took about an hour. As the turtle finished laying the eggs, the guide checked the front flippers to see if it had come to the shore before. She found the electronic tag and told us that she had come before.
She could also predict the age of the turtle. She measured the length and width and explained how they monitor and record the turtles. “It’s a fascinating job”, she remarked. As the turtle prepared to leave, she allowed us to touch its back and take a few pictures from behind without a flash. It was an experience of a lifetime.
As we returned, we encountered two more leatherback turtles laying eggs. “How many turtles can one see in a night?” “Sometimes a few, sometimes as many as 10. It depends on the sea’s nature, the beach’s temperature, the weather, etc.”
“You can come after about two months to see the hatchlings. It’s a spectacle. Hundreds of them will run towards the waters. Not all eggs will hatch, but many of them will. Along with the eggs, the turtle releases smaller egg-like white balls. Scientists guess these balls are to cushion the hatchlings, but they are conducting studies to find out the exact nature of these balls. Nature is mysterious and fascinating.” She said.
“It’s fascinating, indeed,” I remarked before thanking her for this unforgettable experienc.
The writer is a former High Commissioner of India to Trinidad & Tobago