Blog by Samantha Whitcraft
Photos by Stephen Broadbridge
Those lucky few who have witnessed a leatherback sea turtle nesting say it’s like watching a VW Bug trying to dig a ditch, complete with tire tracks and piles of excavated sand. I recently learned firsthand that the analogy is quite accurate. I’ve seen quite a few sea turtles in my life – beautiful, shiny hawksbills with their dappled shells, greens that aren’t really all that green (it’s their flesh, unfortunately still often prized for soup and steaks, that is green), and big, stocky loggerheads – both while diving and during countless nights on beach patrols and nest watches in Hawaii and Costa Rica. But I hadn’t seen a leatherback until I traveled to Trinidad and Tobago earlier this year.
I had a late-night stopover in Trinidad before heading to Tobago for some much-needed diving the next day and was fortunate to have a guide and sea turtle conservationist pick me up at the airport. Because Trinidad and Tobago is home to more than 80 percent of the remaining nesting leatherbacks in the Caribbean and it was nesting season, he asked me the magical question: “Have you ever seen one haul out and nest? I work with the ranger on duty, so we could go now if you want.”
I replied that I hadn’t and seeing one actually go through the primal process of nesting was definitely on my bucket list. Too excited to care that it was almost midnight, we drove for more than an hour through quiet village streets and twisting mountain roads to an undeveloped, wind-swept beach. Because there was little moonlight, the beach was dark. We thought we’d have to walk for miles and wait for hours to find a turtle, but we were in luck – within minutes we saw sand flying through the air right in front of us! He pointed to what I was sure was a beach berm until I saw the movement of her giant flippers.
We kept a respectful distance to avoid disturbing her, but she was steadfast in her task. She was in the midst of finishing her nest, gently tapping the sand with both hind flippers and then flinging sand with her cupped front flippers to camouflage the nest. It had started to rain and we were soaking wet, covered in sand. By now, feeling very protective of our turtle, we stayed and guarded her until she finally turned to head back to the sea. She moved a little more quickly the closer she came to the breaking surf, and I strained my eyes to see the last glimpse of her shell disappear under the waves. I hugged my guide and now friend and thanked him because I knew how rare an experience this was. Our turtle is truly one of a vanishing breed.
Leatherbacks, a species that has been swimming in our oceans, from the tropics to the poles, since before the first great dinosaurs, are now endangered worldwide. Their numbers on most nesting beaches have been in free-fall for decades, primarily due to egg harvesting and by-catch of adults in long-line fishing. Scientists estimate that in a single generation, the global population decreased by 78 percent. The largest known nesting area, Malaysia, once had over 10,000 leatherback nests on a single stretch of beach, but by 1995, the number had dropped to 37 documented nests. Fortunately, in the Eastern Atlantic, a few scattered nesting populations are holding or increasing slightly.
On the long drive back to Port-of-Spain, I had to ask, “Are the nests fenced and guarded against poaching and predators? What can we do?”
The guide replied that citizen patrols are increasing and awareness is spreading about marine conservation. One group recently requested guidance about having a party on a nesting beach and conservationists erected some of the first nest fences on that same beach. But most importantly, eco-tourism is the key for leatherbacks in Trinidad and Tobago – if the turtles are more valuable to the economy alive than dead, there will be more incentive to protect them. For example, it was just three days later at the aptly named Turtle Beach Hotel on Tobago that I, unexpectedly, saw my second nesting leatherback. She came ashore just after sunset, during cocktail hour, and immediately people began to surround her. I was worried; would they disturb her; drive her back to the sea before she could nest? But I was quickly reassured when a local beach guardian with a red flashlight, used to limit light disturbance, kindly asked people to keep a respectful distance.
The result was locals sharing their knowledge and stewardship of the animals with happy tourists who could sip their tropical drinks while watching the miracle of an ancient, critically endangered species, safely create yet another generation.
For your own chance to see leatherbacks nesting in Trinidad and Tobago, book a nature tour with www.caribbeandiscoverytours.com