Thursday, May 9, 2013

Lovely Leatherback Ladies

Trinidad is a spectactular place for many reasons. This here, however, takes the island's spectacularity to a whole new level. One word, people: turtles. 

Need anything else? Right, didn't think so. 

Trinidad's northeastern coast is the second largest nesting ground for leatherback turtles (dermochelys coriacea) in the whole wide world at this time, mainly from March to June. Seriously, for real, no lie. The largest one is along the coast of Surinam/French Guiana; so, basically, right around the corner. Trinidad has one big advantage over the other two countries, though: I am here and I can tell you all about it! 

Leatherback turtles are the oldest and largest turtles alive on the planet today and the only ones that have a soft shell instead of a hard one and that's not all that makes them special: they're also worldwide oceanic roamers, they have teeth that could give grown men nightmares and they're just fascinating creatures. I mean, it's incredible to think that they, as a species, were around during the time of dinosaurs! 

Last Saturday, I had the chance to visit Matura Beach, one of the nesting sites here in Trinidad and Tobago, and take part in a guided tour, so I'll show you the pictures I got to take and tell you all I learned that night I spent on a dark beach in the East. 

We got to Matura a few hours after dark, because even though Matura is not as far from Port of Spain as Sans Souci or Grand Riviere (the other main nesting site) it is still quite a drive and we also encountered some traffic on the way over, and the first thing that struck me after getting out of the car in the parking lot next to the visitor's information centre was the incredible amount of stars in the sky. I realize that, of course, in St James there would be very few stars in the night sky because of light pollution and all that fun stuff, but... man! Man! Incredible density of tiny sparkling objects on the vast black canvas overhead. 

60 seconds exposure, now imagine what the sky really looked like through actual eyes. Unimaginably intense.

Once we were signed into the visitors log and had paid the admission of 20 USD (which goes into preservation of the site), we were assigned our own eco guide and started making our way towards the beach itself. We walked in almost complete darkness, because bright lights might disturb turtles that are scouting the beach for the ideal spot to bury their eggs. Unfortunately, there are always people who disobey or simply ignore the rules, but thankfully the guides have the authority to remove such people from the beach and even call the police on them if they really won't behave appropriately or pose any kind of threat to the turtles. Walking out, then, we had one little light the guide was shining for us, directly onto the ground, just so we'd be able not to stumble over fallen palm leaves or dried coconuts. On the beach itself, red lights are used so as to not disturb or distract the turtles. Via cell-phone, she got confirmation from other guides who were already on the beach as to where exactly turtle-action was happening and what exactly said turtles were doing. There was one, who had just started digging her hole and that's the one we went to see first. By the time we arrived, she was done digging and was ready to start laying her eggs. 

Female leatherback turtles will spend most of the time out of a year out in the open ocean, roaming waters worldwide - they do not have a specific spot they migrate to. But they do have a specific spot they come back to for nesting, the place they were born. They are quite the promiscuous ladies, because they will mate with a lot of different male turtles and then choose the sperm from five to seven males (the ones they deem best). That sperm is stored - how cool is that? - until they make it back to where they are from, when they use it to fertilize their eggs. 

Another thing they do while out at sea is fatten up by eating loads of jellyfish. Jellyfish are mainly water and, once ingested, the turtles will get rid of all the salt water they eat with their jello-like food by secreting the excess liquid through holes near to their eyes, which makes them look like they're crying, the cute things. They need to eat as much as possible because during the time they nest, they will lose a lot of weight due to two facts: a) there are not that many jellyfish in the water close to shore and b) laying all those eggs and spending so much time on land is very stressful for them. Two things about that are really cool. On one hand, they help keep down the jellyfish population which in turn keeps the fish population higher and is good for the marine equilibrium as well as Trinidadian economy (fishermen get good catch, which brings them money and the rest of us food). On the other hand, their shell, being soft, adjusts to their weight and they basically change shape as they gain or lose weight. Other turtles can't do that. And other turtles also can't adjust their own shape to fit through narrow spaces when diving or seem larger when defending themselves. 

Having a soft shell means that these turtles have natural enemies like sharks and whales, aside from us horrible humans, and being among the fastest swimmers (and proven to be the fastest moving reptiles) in the ocean is part of their defense strategy. Also, they can dive incredibly deep. Many of them have tags to identify where they are from and tracking chips implanted into their shoulders, so their movements and well-being can be studied. The tag has a letter and a five digit number (the letter marks the country where she was tagged, like T for Trinidad, and the number identifies the turtle itself) as well as a return address so information about the turtle can be sent to the research unit. The chip in her shoulder is a tracking device the size of a grain of rice. Both the piercing as well as the injection do not hurt he turtle much, they can be compared to us getting our ears pierced and receiving a vaccination. This system has allowed scientists to find out that leatherbacks can dive at least 4,200 feet deep. I say at least, because the time that dive was recorded, the chip burst at a specific depth (which, unfortunately, I can't remember right now, but a little over 4,200 feet) and thus the real depth could never be recorded. Typically, they will stay under the surface of the sea for short periods of time, usually under ten minutes, but when the situation requires it, they have been known to spend between one and two hours under the sea, which is really impressive. 

On the top of their head they have a pink spot and according to the guide, that's where their internal GPS is located. It's what enables them to come back to their place of birth from wherever they might find themselves and then they have this very specific routine that they go through five to seven times per nesting season, with at least nine days between each laying session. 

The female leatherback turtle will come out of the water during the dark hours of the night and find a spot along the beach where the temperature of the sand is right for her purpose, because she decides if she will have a female, male or mixed nest and the sex of the babies depends on the temperature of the sand around the eggs while they're buried, as is the case with many reptiles. Once she has found a spot she likes, she will first throw sand onto her own back to conceal herself from possible predators on land and then start digging her hole. She uses her front flippers to conceal herself and hold on to the ground once she starts digging, then she uses her back flippers to dig and close the hole for her nest. She has to be very careful, because, being a water creature, her senses on land don't allow her to be as sensitive, reactive or fast as in the water. Basically, imagine what we are like when we're in the water and how we don't see and hear as well or move as fast, for her it's the other way around. 

As soon as she's dug her hole, she will go into some kind of trance while laying 80-120 eggs. The trance is because she can only concentrate on one thing with her senses being so limited out of the water. So while she's laying her eggs is the perfect time to really get close to her and observe her, because she won't even notice. That is the time the guides will turn on lamps and show you all of her majestic body and what she's doing and even flash photography is allowed. What's more, if you dare, you can even touch her and stroke her head and try to pass a little positive energy into her while she's producing new life. As soon as she is done laying, however, all that must stop immediately, because if she is distracted, she might decide to abandon her nest thinking her previous efforts of caution nil. 

Of the 80-120 eggs she lays, about half will be fertilized with the sperm from the five to seven best suitors, which she's been keeping with her all the time from mating to nesting. The other half are yolk-less eggs that will later serve as air pouches for the hatchlings so they can move and leave the nest in a group effort. 

Isn't she amazing?

This girl was unmarked, so while in her trance she received a tag and a chip and was measured.

A shot from a different angle so you can appreciate her full size.

Magic in the making.

When she is done laying, she will start packing sand on top of her eggs and when the hole is completely filled, she will spend approximately 45 minutes hiding her nest. She will cover th nest as well as her own tracks and also double back and create false nests on her way back into the sea, to make sure the actual nest is well concealed. Camouflage is very important, as the eggs have a lot more predators than the grown turtles in the sea - from dogs and crabs and birds all the way back to humans. It is because of all the dangers posed by nature and us that for every thousand eggs laid, only one little turtle will make it to adulthood. 

The babies hatch after sixty to seventy days and will dig their way to the surface to make their way into the sea. If they happen to reach the surface during daytime, they will stay in place until it is dark and cool before they leave the nest and walk towards the water. This walk from the nest to the shore is when their internal GPS is calibrated and needs to take place in order for them to be able to find their way back later in life. Should one find a group of hatchlings during the daytime, one should never pick them up and carry them to the water. If the need for help seems apparent, providing cover and shade is the way to go, so that later they can still find the way into the sea on their own and learn to navigate. 

By the time midnight rolled around, we were already on the way back to Port of Spain, having accompanied two beautiful turtle ladies through their journey and experienced the wonder that is being around a leatherback turtle laying eggs. 

When was the last time I mentioned how lucky I am and how grateful I am for all the incredibly positive things that are happening to me in this exciting life of mine? Doesn't matter, I'm saying it again. I'm having an incredible time here in Trinidad and I'm hoping that maybe, reading something like this here, somebody else will also be inspired to come here and enjoy the beauty of the island. 

Preparing more stories through which you can Discover Trinidad with me. Go ahead and google these astonishing creatures if you want more information, I'm sure there's a lot more to find out about them than the little I am able to share with you from what I have learned so far, but, well, all I know you know. And if I get another chance to go see them and learn more, you'll be the first to find out. 

In the meanime, gosh, I am overwhelmed... 


  1. Honey this is really beautiful...

    1. It was so amazing to be there and experience it all!
      Glad you like the post :)

  2. ....hey, das ist grossartig,

    hab ein bissl neid weil das ja ein wirklich tolles erlebnis ist.....und sehr gut dokumentiert,

    naja - wie immer, gell?

    gruss aus wien - pp

    1. Nicht neidisch sein, wenn ich nächstes Jahr auch hier bin könnts ihr während der Legezeit zu Besuch kommen und dann bring ich euch da hin :)

  3. Here's a pretty good article on the topic from Yahoo News: