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Turtle-watching in Tobago: ancient mariners

Your guide to watching turtles in Tobago

Tobago gets a lot fewer turtles than Trinidad, but you will still see enough to make turtle-watching in Tobago an awesome experience. Plus, it’s easier to get to them in Tobago as the beaches are more accessible. Giant leatherbacks and hawksbills nest on four main beaches — Turtle Beach, Mt Irvine, and Stonehaven — in season. Hawksbills also nest in significant numbers at the Magdalena Grand. Notably, popular beaches including Pigeon Point are also nesting sites, among many others, and care should be taken by visitors on all beaches during the nesting season.

Leatherback, hawksbill, and green turtles

March to September is nesting season for the leatherbacks who may come from far away to nest on the beach where they were born. Female leatherbacks come ashore roughly every two to three years, nesting multiple times per season, and laying roughly 100 eggs per visit once they reach sexual maturity (at 25–30 years old). Their hatchlings will emerge roughly eight weeks afterwards and head for the sea. The ones that reach adulthood can live to be 45–50 years old, on average, and reach up to 2,000lbs and 10ft in length. Peak season for seeing both nesting adults and babies emerging from nests is June through August.

Green turtles (which can reach up to 400lbs) and hawksbills (up to 200lbs) inhabit the coastal waters year round, and you can spot them foraging for food on the reefs and sea grass beds.

During nesting months, females from all species make their way on to beaches, laboriously digging their nests in the sand before laying (on average 100 eggs each visit), then covering the eggs over and making their way wearily back to the sea. 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. During peak season (late May and early June), you can see up to 10 per night.

All turtle species are legally protected in Trinidad & Tobago. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List identifies the leatherback as vulnerable; the green and loggerheads as endangered; and the hawksbill as critically endangered. They face a number of ongoing threats: natural predators, indiscriminate fishing practices, sargassum, plastic pollution, man-made light (they follow the light of the moon), human activity (including parties, campfires, and vehicles driving on the beach), rising sea levels and coastal erosion, and poachers. This is why conservation efforts are so important.

Green turtle at Speyside. Photo by Rapso Imaging

Green turtle at Speyside. Photo by Rapso Imaging

Book your turtle-watching tour

Contact SOS Tobago, North-east Sea Turtles (NEST) Tobago, or reputable tour guides to arrange for your tour. You can become a volunteer with Save Our Sea Turtles (t: 328-7351) and join their efforts in tagging turtles, counting nests and rescuing disoriented hatchlings. You must commit to a minimum of four weeks between March and September. Graduate students and marine researchers enjoy working alongside staff and other volunteers.

A critically endangered leatherback turtle hatchling takes a breath as it swims out to to sea at Mt Irvine/Back Bay. Photographer: Giancarlo Lalsingh/SOS Tobago

A critically endangered leatherback turtle hatchling takes a breath as it swims out to to sea at Mt Irvine/Back Bay. Photographer: Giancarlo Lalsingh/SOS Tobago


Turtle-watching etiquette

  • Turtles will not come out of the water and onto the beach if they see any lights or movements. It is very important that you keep all noise and movements to a minimum
  • There should be no flashlights (or flash photography), as any light can scare and disorient both mothers and hatchlings. Beachfront lights should also be turned off. If you stay on a nesting beach that hasn’t turned off or converted their lights to turtle friendly ones, we encourage you to raise this with them.
  • No campfires, please. Campfires can literally bake the nests in the sand below.
  • No smoking while turtles are nearby.
  • Please do not leave any litter behind because it can trap hatchlings. Turtles at sea also choke or suffocate when they mistake clear plastic bags for jellyfish.
  • Driving on nesting beaches is absolutely forbidden — as is sitting on the turtles! Vehicles can crush the eggs in the sand.
  • Do not stake umbrellas or any object that can damage eggs underneath. Sandcastles are also discouraged in case you disturb or destroy any eggs.
  • Our turtles and hatchlings are legally protected and endangered. Please do not touch them — unless to save them from harm.
A critically endangered hawksbill turtle camouflages her nest after laying eggs. Photographer: Giancarlo Lalsingh/SOS Tobago

A critically endangered hawksbill turtle camouflages her nest after laying eggs. Photographer: Giancarlo Lalsingh/SOS Tobago

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