I refer to these beautiful creatures as dinosaurs because
Their common name, Leatherback, originates from the fact that their shells are not hard and bony as that of other turtles, but instead soft and leathery to the touch. They can grow to 9 feet in length and weigh around a ton! But of course that’s the extreme end of things.
In Trinidad and Tobago we are lucky enough to be graced by these critically endangered species every year between the months of March and July when they come onto our beaches to lay their eggs in the sand. Although we are one of the most important nesting site for these gentle giants it is amazing how little many citizens know about them.
It appears that with each wave the object moves closer to the land until it leaves the water and wiggles its way up the sand bank. Hello mama!
Still giving her some space, she settles in a spot by turning in circles a few times, kinda looks like a cross between a puppy looking for a comfy spot and someone making a sand angel (since we don’t have snow!). She’s body pitting. This is mainly so no unwanted debris falls into her nest. Then she’ll begin to dig: a surprisingly delicate act where her back flippers gracefully remove scoops of sand until she can reach no more.
When her nest is dug she goes into a trance-like state and contractions begin. She’ll lay up to 100 eggs! She will then start the processing of covering her eggs, another delicate process where flipperfuls (handfuls?) of sand is gently placed on the eggs and patted to compact it. When sufficiently covered the camouflaging sand storm begins! She basically starts pelting sand in all directions to hide the location of the nest, and trust me it’s well done!
Once satisfied she’ll make her way back to the water bidding farewell to her babies.
I have grown up seeing these turtles nesting as my family went every year so it is appalling when I see pictures of people abusing these gentle creatures either by sitting on them, poaching them or their eggs. My hope is that this post provides you with a bit of information on where you can get the opportunity to meet them, how to behave around them and especially raise awareness and respect for them.
About where to meet them
These turtle nest mainly on beaches of North-East Trinidad such as Fishing Pond, Manzanilla, Matura and Grande Riviere.
Turtles have also began nesting on Manzanilla bay where no permit is required to be on the beach but there are Ministry patrols there to protect the turtles from the ever dangerous human race. In Tobago they nest on Turtle Beach. They mainly surface at night but if you are lucky you may catch an early/late female who couldn’t wait!
About your behaviour
- Do not sit on the turtle, that’s just dumb. She is laying eggs, I’d say she’s experiencing some discomfort. You can be fined TT$20,000.00 or 6 months in jail. They don’t have hard shells so the your weight can cause severe or fatal damage to their insides. To be very crude, you wouldn’t want anyone on your mother’s back while she was in labour.
- Do not shine your flashlight at a turtle! You can scare her off and the light can disorient her. The theory is that they know the ocean is lighter than the land, so when they are ready to return to sea they look for the white surf or moon reflection, which is why some are found under streetlights. If you shine a flashlight at them they will have the lingering ball of light in their vision just as we would! A RED light is safe to use around her. And NO flash photography: I took my night images without flash using a slow shutter speed. It’s sad to see some “guides” allowing patrons to take flash pictures of young hatchlings or in the face of a mother.
- Keep a few feet distance from her as even when digging if she gets stressed by your presence she can decide to leave.
- When laying her eggs she will go into a sort of trance state and then you can GENTLY touch her fins and back. Remember no riding.
- Do not drive on nesting beaches at any time, day or night. The weight of the vehicle can compact the sand crushing eggs below or making it difficult for hatchlings to dig their way to the surface.
- Keep the noise to a minimum.
- Do stop someone if you see them doing the wrong thing and do have respect for them. Contact officials if you notice anything wrong.
- Check out SOS Tobago’s tips
Just have a seat on the cool sand as the warm breeze brushes your face, enjoy the sound of the waves crashing and appreciate the miracle you are about to witness. Even if only one additional hatch-ling survives from our shores each year it can make a difference. The reality is that humans are one of the biggest threats to these gentle giants and by educating yourself and others can help in their conservation. For the best experience try going to the beaches that conduct guided tours, such as Grande Riviere (GRNTGA), Matura (Nature Seekers) and Turtle Beach ( SOS Tobago).
Everything written here is to the best of my mediocre knowledge, if you are reading this and you think I have said something wrong or missed some important point please feel free to let me know in the comments sections below, i’ll be sure to change it!!