The Leatherback Sea Turtles of Trinidad

In the early morning darkness, all along Trinidad’s northeastern beaches, a mysterious ritual takes place every year. Here, giant leatherback turtles, some over six feet long and weighing half a ton, roll in on the ocean waves and start climbing the sloping shore. Anxious locals wait for them. Their dimmed headlights further illuminating the shimmering wetness of the turtles leathery skin. The turtles crawl slowly along the beach, pulling their huge bodies over the sand with their strong front flippers.

Not many years ago, poachers from nearby villages would be waiting for them to steal the buried eggs and kill the mothers during the legal hunting season. A watch group called Turtle Village Trust lobbied to change the law and enforce a ban on the slaughter. Now, with the turtles driving a surging tourist trade, the natives are there to protect them by chasing away birds that come to feast on the tiny hatchlings when they first emerge and began hurrying out to sea.

Because the renewed interest in these magnificent turtles, and with the protection of locals, leatherbacks have staged an amazing comeback on this exotic beach in a corner of the Caribbean. Now, over 500 females nest each night during the breeding season in May and June, along the Frand Riviere beach. Marine biologists have declared that the Grand Riviere Bay (named after the river that flows into ocean there) has the largest population of nesting leatherbacks in the world.

Using instincts developed over 100 million years, these leatherback turtles migrate from cold North Atlantic waters in Canada and northern Europe to lay their eggs on Trinidad’s warm shores. Although they are air-breathing reptiles, these turtles can dive to ocean depths of more than 4,000 feet and stay underwater for an hour. They are the largest and strongest of all marine turtles and also can withstand colder temperatures.

It is not uncommon these days for so many female leatherbacks to be on the beach that they were bumping into each other hunting for nesting sites. After finding the perfect spot, they cleared away sand with their front flippers and then dig out nests with their back flippers. Once satisfied with their nests, female leatherbacks laid dozens of gleaming eggs. Once the eggs are gently deposited they are with sand. Then, the female leatherbacks head back into the ocean. They will return in about 10 days to create a new nest and lay even more eggs.

The recovery of the leatherback turtle population along this beach is considered to be a major environmental victory. Over half of all adult leatherbacks on Earth have been killed since 1980, mainly in the Eastern Pacific and Asia, where they are considered a delicacy.

When local conservation efforts began in Trinidad in the 1990s 30 turtles nested on the beach during the peak of the six-month-long breeding season. Now, locals in Grande Riviere and Matura boast that more than 700 turtles arrive at the height of the season, in May and June.

The victory turtle tourism has not only saved these beautiful and exotic creatures, it is providing a good living for the people in these poor farming communities along Trinidad’s coast. According to Turtle Village Trust, locals make $8.2 million a year from leatherback sea turtle based tourism. Trinidad has now become the world’s leading tourist destination for people interested in these amazing animals. Recently, other breeding grounds for leatherback turtles have become protected areas or have protect status pending in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (and, these locations, too, are becoming popular eco-tourist destinations). Hopefully, we will discover the beauty of all such current and endangered species and create a win-win for animals and people alike.

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