A giant among us – the endangered leatherback
Leatherbacks are the largest surviving turtle species on earth. Some can reach up to seven feet long and weigh more than 2,000 pounds. These reptiles can dive to depths of 4,200 feet — deeper than any other turtle — and can stay down for up to 85 minutes. They can live up to 45 years. Once prevalent in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, the leatherback population has declined dramatically in many parts of the world.
Female hatchlings that make it to the sea will roam the oceans until they reach sexual maturity. Then they return to the same nesting areas to produce their own offspring. Males spend the rest of their lives at sea.
Trinidad and Tobago: turtle nesting sites of global importance
From March to September (and sometimes as early as January), Trinidad takes on a very important role: the second largest leatherback turtle nesting site in the world is at Grande Rivière. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago are two of the world’s most important turtle nesting grounds, and not only for the endangered leatherbacks. Hawksbill, green turtles, and other species — all of which are legally protected on our shores — come up on north and east coast beaches to nest during nesting season.
Both Grande Rivière and Matura are well-known and protected beaches in northeast Trinidad. In Tobago, turtles frequent the beaches of the Leeward coast, especially Stonehaven and Courland (or Turtle) beaches.
NB: It’s important to note that popular north coast beaches in Trinidad like Maracas, Tyrico, Las Cuevas, and Blanchisseuse are among those important nesting sites. In Tobago, popular beaches including Pigeon Point are also nesting sites.
The annual ritual
During nesting months, females heave themselves on to the shore, laboriously digging their nests in the sand before laying, then covering the eggs over and returning to the sea. Two months later, the eggs hatch, and the baby turtles dig themselves out of their nests and hustle — awkwardly and adorably — to the open sea. Few survive the predators and make it to maturity, but those females that do then return to the beaches on which they were born to begin the cycle anew.
Protecting the turtles
Access to these nesting beaches, particularly Grande Rivière and Matura, is restricted to prevent poaching and to allow the turtles to nest and young hatchlings to emerge undisturbed. They already have to contend with fishing nets, sargassum, plastics, natural predators, disconcerting man-made light (they follow the light of the moon), human activity (including parties and vehicles driving on the beach), and poachers. Turtles are said to come ashore in greatest numbers late at night and during the full moon, though there are instances of nesting during daylight hours.
Tour operators can arrange necessary permits and access. You can also choose to stay at a nearby hotel. The front desk there can arrange your permit and give you a shout when there are turtles sighted. It’s best to go with a guide, who can explain the nesting process.
Turtle watching essentials
- Do not touch or disturb nesting turtles or hatchlings in any way. Give them ample space
- Lights (including flash photography), noise and activity tend to disorient both turtles and hatchlings
- Try to be quiet and unobtrusive, and do not use flashlights or flash photography
- Do not try to pick up hatchlings or impede their progress to the sea
- Do not drive on nesting beaches; the weight of the vehicle can crush eggs buried in the sand.
Guides & conservation groups
The Turtle Village Trust (www.turtlevillagetrust.org, 638-5953/674-4213) is the umbrella body for the islands’ leading turtle conservation groups:
- Nature Seekers
- the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association
- the Matura to Matelot (M2M) Network
- the Fishing Pond Turtle Conservation Group
- SOS (Save our Sea Turtles) Tobago.