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Leatherback Sea Turtle Watching

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Turtle-nesting season began last week in Trinidad. We drove from San Juan through lots of winding country roads to Matura, on the eastern (Atlantic Ocean) side of the island to spot the leatherback sea turtle night egg-laying trek.

After a seemingly long 10-minute drive under thick jungle canopy, we emerged out of the dim moonlit parking lot. My cousin and I were the last to arrive in our group so the park ranger led us down the gravel track to the beach. He explained that although leatherback turtles can see red light, they will not feel threatened by it. White light from mobile phones, standard flashlights and cameras are considered threats by leatherback turtles. While they are swimming to shore they will be wary of white lights and swim back into the ocean, thus interrupting the natural nesting season. With that said, we quickly turned off our phones.

Once we caught up to our group by the beach, we were greeted by pleasant ocean mist and a starry sky. The second park ranger explained that when his colleague – who was standing about 6oo metres down the beach – signalled his red light, we could proceed. Since it was only the beginning of the nesting season, there were only about 5 leatherback turtles expected that night.

Patience is a virtue and the group mused that humans cannot force nature in any way without consequences. We waited, star-gazed and chatted amongst one another for over an hour. When we saw the colleague’s red flashes, we excitedly walked towards him while carefully dodging driftwood in the loose sand.

It was very dark so most of us couldn’t even tell that just a few metres in front of us lay a huge leatherback turtle! As we squinted we could begin to see her outline in the sand. The ranger told us that we could only turn on white lights when she was actually laying her eggs.

We waited and chatted a bit more until the leatherback turtle dug her nesting hole and started to drop eggs. Finally! With an OK from our ranger, we formed a semi-circle facing her back, turned on our cameras and started ooooo-ing and awwww-ing at the beautiful ancient creature!

She was in an egg-laying trance so she didn’t move much. We gathered around her and gently patted her head and surprisingly soft shell. According to the ranger, the average number of eggs these turtles lay is 100 per night. They come back every 10 days or so to repeat the process until the end of the season in August.

Once she finished laying her eggs, we had to turn off our white lights and move away from her or else get splashed with sand. She was now camouflaging her nest so that predators would have a harder time finding it. One guy in our group turned his very bright white flashlight on (by accident), stumbled with the switch and took what seemed like hours to turn it back off. All you heard was a loud AYE! TURN OFF DE LIGHT NAH BOI! from the group.

With the light and tension, Ms. Turtle decided to linger and camouflage her nest far longer than most. So, instead of a couple of minutes we watched her for almost an hour dance around the beach making sure nothing would harm her nest. In the end, satisfied that she had done what any self-respecting mommy would do, she headed back to the ocean with slow determination.

We were speechless (a tough thing for Trinis to be) at the beauty of her waddling into the high waves with the half-moon light over her. It was awesome!

Have you ever watched leatherback sea turtles nesting?

 

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