Watch giant leatherback turtles come ashore on Trinidad’s beaches
Turtle-watching in Trinidad is something every local and every visitor should experience, if they can. The island is one of only a few places in the Caribbean where 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 Ocean or the Caribbean Sea, and then making their way up on to the beach is incredible. The whole process of watching her give birth — 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, Fishing Pond, and Grande Rivière.
Trinidad: the second largest leatherback nesting site in the world
Trinidad is the second largest leatherback nesting site in the world, with some 6,000 of these heavyweights travelling across the Atlantic to nest on the north and east coasts every year, from 1 March to 31 August (though sometimes before and after as well). They produce 15,000 to 20,000 nests each season, with each turtle nesting an average of three to five times (sometimes more), laying roughly 100 eggs per visit once they reach sexual maturity (at 25–30 years old). They won’t nest again for another two to three years.
About two months after the females nest, the clutch of babies will emerge, like magic, from the sand pit. These majestic leatherbacks can weigh up to 2,000lbs, and be up to 10ft in length — though they average roughly 800–1,000lbs and five to seven feet long — and can live an average of 45–50 years once they reach maturity.
Depending on the time of year, turtle-watching tours can involve seeing nesting females, hatchlings — or both! Peak season for nesting turtles is May and June, and peak season for seeing hatchlings is June to August.
Nesting grounds for five different turtle species
Leatherbacks, olive ridleys, greens, loggerheads, and hawksbills 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 our beaches, but only a few dozen hawksbill and green turtles (40 at most) nest over the season. The loggerhead and olive ridley are less common locally but they are occasionally sighted at sea.
Leatherback hatchlings will be male if the temperature of the sand at the time of laying is cooler, and female if the temperature is a little hotter!
Grande Rivière turtle-watching
Grande Rivière is by far the largest leatherback nesting site in the Caribbean — and the densest. At its busiest and when the leatherback population is healthiest, the 1km beach can see up to 500 leatherbacks nesting on a single night. More recently, visitors can most reliably count on seeing between 50 and 150, as there have been steady declines since 2006 — primarily due to fishing nets.
Owing to its remote location nestled between the Northern Range and the Caribbean Sea (it’s about a 3-hour drive from Port of Spain), tour times vary, and it’s worth considering whether you might want to overnight at Grande Rivière, and enjoy what the area has to offer. At present there are four small eco-resorts, with a 50-room combined capacity, as well as 10 guesthouses. If you overnight, can also see the endangered blue-throated piping-guan (pawi), crimson-crested woodpecker, and swallow-tailed kite; go kayaking and hiking; and enjoy swimming and relaxing at the beach (which 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 the waves.
In Matura, only 100 visitors at a time are allowed, under normal conditions, in order to minimise disturbances. Tours often arrive at Matura about 8pm, and last 2–3 hours. Matura is about two hours drive from Port of Spain. Between May and August, you can see not only nesting mothers, but hatchlings emerging from nests. You can also take a tour to the nearby Rio Seco waterfall. A guesthouse is available nearby.
Permits during turtle nesting season
Conservation efforts in Matura and Grande Rivière require that permits be purchased at the Forestry Division to go turtle-watching and to visit nesting sites. This is for the protection of the turtles and their eggs, which face threats from natural predators, the risk of becoming fishing bycatch, ingesting plastic pollution, rising sea levels and coastal erosion due to climate change, and poaching from humans. Grande Rivière permits are inexpensive and 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); Fishing Pond Turtle Conservation Group: 361-4712, or 290-6795; or the M2M Network: 670-3283/321, or 372-1423
- 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.
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Written by Nazma Muller and Caroline Taylor
Hi I am not sure when how soon I’d get a reply but i would like to contact the photographer of the images used in your article please. I would like permission to use them
Leatherbacks are amazing! When I was a child, I went to Tacaribe with my cousin and uncle and saw my first one at night laying her eggs. I even rode it for a while! Slow ride! I didn’t know it was illegal, and it probably wasn’t back then! I was light so it was not a problem for the big mama!
Another time, there were hundreds of hatchlings crawling out of the sand at Mayaro! I’d never seen them there and was stunned! I’d gone to that beach hundreds of times and never saw them! We got them all into the water before the corbeaus (cobos) could get at them!
They were so awesome and amazing they way they flapped their flippers like wings!
I miss Trini… sigh…