Monday, July 25, 2011

Leatherback Turtles

This lady jumped in front of us when Jesse was trying to take our picture, so we're kind of hidden on the right.
Is that not the cutest little thing?
The first of the eggs are laid!
  Wow! That’s about all we can say about an experience we had the other night. Trinidad is the second-largest nesting site for leatherback turtles. The females nest March through August, and the eggs incubate for two months before hatching. So we got a twofer when we visited Matura Beach, on the east coast of Trinidad. Jesse James, who is a force of nature here in Chaguaramas, took a group of ten cruisers to see the turtles. We left about 5 p.m., fought traffic through Port of Spain, then headed across the country. We stopped close to Matura for a Chinese-food dinner (although the town is famous for its specialty of BBQ pig tail). It was well dark as we drove through the Matura forest, with fireflies blinking away in the trees. Near the beach, we met with members of Nature Seekers, a local group formed to prevent the turtles from being slaughtered for food. They patrol the beaches during nesting season, collect data on nesting turtles, and conduct tours. We followed Donnie, our tour guide carrying a red light – which doesn’t disturb the turtles – onto the beach, and within minutes he spotted some hatchling tracks. Four of the cutest little turtles had been left in the nest by their siblings, so he dug them out and had us rub their backs, which stimulates them to crawl. It worked! Soon their little legs were flapping, and we watched two crawl down the beach and into the surf. The other two went in a bucket to revive a bit more before being released. Continuing down the beach, Chris saw a shadow in the surf, and Donnie checked it out.
It was a female coming ashore! We stayed back so as not to disturb her until she was settled. Only then would they let us come forward to watch her dig her nest using her rear flippers. Once she starts laying her eggs, she goes into a kind of trance, and we were then allowed to take pictures and touch her. She was enormous, as long as Anne is tall, and Donnie estimated she weighed about 800 pounds. The turtles are called leatherbacks because they don’t have hard shells like other turtles, but a hard, leathery skin. This skin was so smooth and hard, it felt like plastic, while the skin on her flippers was silky soft over massive muscles. Her head was the size of a watermelon, and when she occasionally moved it, it seemed more animatronic than alive. Once she finished laying her eggs, we all had to back off and turn off our lights while she refilled the hole with sand and tamped it down. Then she slowly made her way back down the beach, stooping to flip sand all over the place to camouflage the true location of the nest. Finally she reached the water and swam away. Like I said before – Wow! During the height of the season, Donnie said they’d have more than 200 turtles nesting in a single night. That would be an impressive sight, but I’m glad we got to see the hatchlings emerging. On our way out through the forest, we had to stop to let a porcupine cross the road. I had made cookies to give Jesse some sugar to keep himself awake during the long drive back to Chaguaramas, and we arrived back at about 1 a.m., sleepy but very happy with the experience.
Look at the size of her head!


  1. That is just awesome, guys. Lucky you. Pretty unforgettable, and love those pictures. Thanks for posting!

  2. Oh my gosh, that's so cool!