Trinidad’s beaches: where giant leatherbacks come ashore
Trinidad is one of only a few places in the Caribbean where the giant leatherback female practises her timeless “family tradition” of returning to the place where she was born to lay her eggs. The sight of these huge creatures swimming in the rough waves of the Atlantic and then making their way up on to the beach is incredible. The whole process of watching her give birth to hundreds of eggs — from the digging of the hole with her flippers, to the “backfilling” after the delivery, to her return to the sea to mate again — can be witnessed on any north or east coast beach, but especially at Matura and Grande Rivière (here you can see up to 50 on some nights).
The second largest leatherback nesting site in the world
Trinidad is the second largest leatherback nesting site in the world, with more than 6,000 of these heavyweights (up to 2,000lbs) travelling across the Atlantic to nest on the north and east coasts every year, from 1 March to 31 August. About two months later, the clutch of babies will emerge, like magic, from the sand pit. (Peak season for seeing hatchlings is June to August).
Nesting grounds for five different turtle species
Leatherbacks, olive ridleys, greens, loggerheads, and hakwbills all nest in Trinidad
This country is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles found globally; all are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The leatherback and olive ridley are listed as vulnerable; the green and loggerheads endangered; and the hawksbill is listed as critically endangered. Three species — the leatherback, hawksbill, and the green turtle — nest on the beaches. Only a few dozen hawksbill and green turtles (40 at most) nest on our beaches each year. The loggerhead and olive ridley are less common locally but they are occasionally sighted at sea. There have been a few nesting records but these are few and far between.
In Matura, only 100 visitors at a time are allowed in order to minimise disturbances. You can also take a tour to the nearby Rio Seco waterfall. A guesthouse is available nearby. At Grande Rivière, you can also see the endangered blue-throated piping-guan (pawi), crimson-crested woodpecker, and swallow-tailed kite. A primary nesting ground for large numbers of leatherback turtles globally, the beach is quite wide and slopes steeply as it enters the sea. It is not advisable to go into the sea between November and April because of the steepness of the incline and the height of waves. At present there are four small eco-resorts, with a 50-room combined capacity, as well as 10 guesthouses.
Conservation efforts in Matura and Grande Rivière require that permits be purchased at the Forestry Division to visit nesting sites. This is for the protection of the turtles and their eggs. Permits can be arranged through authorised tour guides and local accommodation, or directly at Forestry offices: Long Circular Road (622-7476)‚ San Fernando (657-7357) or Sangre Grande (668-3825).
Trinidad turtle-watching tips & info
- Please do not visit nesting beaches on your own. Always use a trained guide who will be aware of any dangers to the turtles and to visitors. Nature Seekers: 668-7337, Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association: 670-4257/469-1288)
- Easily startled, turtles will not come out of the water if they see any lights or movements, sooner returning to the sea without laying eggs if they sense any disturbance. So, keep all noise and movements to a minimum
- Do not approach the turtles unless your guide indicates it is okay to do so. Try to stand behind the turtle and out of its field of vision. If she shows any signs of distress, move away immediately
- There should be no flashlights (or flash photography), as any light can scare and disorient both mothers and hatchlings. Infrared lenses are much more suitable. Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. By no means should you shine a light directly into a turtle’s face
- No campfires, smoking, or open flame near turtles. Campfires can literally bake the nests in the sand below
- Do not stake umbrellas or any object that can damage eggs underneath. Sandcastles are also discouraged in case you disturb or destroy any eggs
- 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
- Our turtles and hatchlings are legally protected and endangered. Please do not touch them — unless to save them from harm.
Written by Nazma Muller