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Turtle power


Discover the Trinidad beach that might just be the world’s best place for close encounters with egg-laying leatherbacks. Words and photos: Mark Meredith

She was the last leatherback left.

The others had crawled back down the sloping beach in the darkness, vanishing beneath the waves. Now that the sun was creeping up behind the headland at the end of the bay, she seemed to be in a hurry, flippers working overtime in the coarse sand, covering the hole she had dug to lay her eggs.

Around her, and all the way along the shelving beach, the dry sand was disturbed as though something large had swept through it: circular mounds and hollows everywhere; tractor-like tracks leading to the sea, disappearing in the wet sand washed smooth by the surf. Black vultures stood around in groups, gangs of scavengers on the lookout for sweet yolk among the detritus of broken leathery eggs disturbed by the village dogs and the turtles that had dug out their nests.

For an endangered species like the leatherback turtle, this beach in Grande Riviere on the north coast of Trinidad is something of a haven. During the peak nesting season, up to 500 turtles gather each night on the narrow plateau of sand above the high-water line to lay their eggs. This is the greatest density of nesting leatherbacks anywhere in the world. It’s hardly surprising they sometimes dig up an existing nest.

The turtle in front of me, like all the others that laboured here during the night, had come back to lay her eggs on the very beach where she was born, travelling vast distances to do so. She would have laid between 65 and 115 eggs in a hole 30 inches deep carved out with her flippers. Interestingly, the temperature inside the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings; when the temperature hits around 85.1°F a mix of males and females occurs. A higher temperature produces more females, colder temperatures more males.

It’s a sobering thought that, after all the female’s effort – hauling her 700kg frame up a steep slope, digging a hole, laying the eggs, covering up the nest and crawling back to the sea, then repeating the process over several months – many of her emerging hatchlings are likely to be gobbled up by a dog, crab or seabird before they even reach the sea. In fact, my turtle was lucky to be here at all. Of all newborn hatchlings, just 6% make it through their first year. Only one in 1,000 reaches adulthood.

Around the world, adult leatherbacks are under assault. They are killed for their meat, their eggs are taken from nests by humans, and those that reach adulthood are likely to be hit by industrial fishing boats, caught on their lines or trapped in their nets. The turtles’ favourite food is jellyfish and, unfortunately, they often mistake floating plastic bags for their gelatinous prey. Leatherbacks have been found with many pounds of plastic in their stomachs, which has ultimately killed them. Their nesting grounds and habitat, meanwhile, are under serious threat from beachside development and pollution all over the tropics.

This remarkable giant (species name Dermochelys coriacea) undertakes migrations averaging 3,700km each way between breeding and nesting areas, is distributed more widely than any other reptile, and has survived the past 100 million years, outlasting the dinosaurs with whom it swam – yet today it may have finally met its match.

Community conservation
Fortunately, here in the village of Grande Riviere – one of the most remote in Trinidad – the locals have taken it upon themselves to protect these wonderful creatures and keep the visitors coming. This small settlement, named for the river that runs through it to the sea, has become a role model for sustainable ecotourism based on the leatherbacks, which has benefitted the whole community. Quite simply, this is probably the best place in the world to see them.

In 1994 an Italian photojournalist called Piero Guerrini, who was working on a project documenting the wild north coast of Trinidad, found himself captivated by its allure. He leased a building on Grande Riviere beach, eventually buying it. With the support of the village community, local artists and craftsman, he began transforming the basic lodging into a holistic hideaway – a rustic, eco-friendly hotel celebrating the natural spirit of Grande Riviere.

Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel put the village on the map, providing jobs and a burgeoning local craft industry, all driven by people’s desire to see the leatherback turtles. In those early days, watching the turtles was a fairly chaotic affair. The turtles would often nest just in front of the stable-block bedrooms on the sand, sometimes in Piero’s vegetable garden at the back. People wandered all over the beach in the dark with no regard for the turtles.

Eventually, a local community group was formed to patrol the beach and bring some semblance of order to the foreign tourists and Trinidadians descending in droves on this tiny village surrounded by coastal rainforest. Other small hotels and guesthouses opened in the village, and the numbers visiting in the nesting season began to threaten serious disturbance of the nesting process.

So today, though the number of visitors remains high – Grande Riviere’s Turtle Village Trust puts the annual number of tourists at 15,000 – the manner in which turtle-viewing is managed has changed, and the turtles’ ancient nesting ground in this area of Trinidad is more secure than ever.

Aquatic action
Returning to Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel after an absence of ten years, I found it as lovely as ever, but the experience of seeing the turtles very different. This was organised, efficient, very informative and extremely popular; on the weekend we spent there in March, dozens of visitors had come to see the turtles. Many also use the area as a base for birding tours into Trinidad’s Northern Range forest.

The Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association runs the turtle show now. At night you have to purchase a ticket from its office behind the beach, and are escorted onto the sand by a guide with a red, low-light torch who leads you to where the giant turtles are digging their nests.

Over the next hour or so he answers questions, shining a light into the hole where you can see eggs being laid, silently plopping like ping-pong balls onto a shiny white pile in the sand. Around the hole a crowd of people crouch or stand transfixed by the timeless ritual playing out in front of them. Along the beach, in the darkness, black shapes crawl up the slope undisturbed by wandering tourists and pilfering poachers.

At dawn, while the rest of the hotel guests slept, I sat alone with my turtle as she finished her work. Mucus collected around her eyes, protecting them from sand flying around her carapace – the leathery shell that enables her to dive to great depths. Suddenly she was finished, and she set off slowly down the slope to the surf before disappearing beneath the pounding waves. She would be back again every ten days or so over the next few months to repeat the laborious process.

When would I be back? That was the question I pondered while sipping coffee, looking out at the beach from Mt Plaisir’s restaurant, taking in the magic of Grande Riviere, the forested headland and sweeping bay. The sea was pale blue, bright in the morning sun, with big breakers rolling in on the freshening wind. The dried sea fans on the tables rocked in the breeze blowing through the dining room’s open arches. Two small boys skipped down the shelving sand to the sea, retreating again before each wave surged up the slope.

From the eastern side of the bay, where rainforest splashed with the colour of orange blossom tumbled down to the river and sea, a man and three children were riding out of the sun towards me on a buffalo. To the west, a graceful curve of sand ringed by forest stretched away from me in a lonely haze of spray and filtered sunlight. These turtles sure know a good place when they see it. No wonder they keep coming back.

For more information contact the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association: +1 868 469 1288;; Facebook: Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association. Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel is right on the beach at Grande Riviere;

The big five Caribbean turtles

There are five species of sea turtle found across the Caribbean – here’s who they are and where to see them…

1 Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
The world’s largest turtle, the leatherback can reach over 2m long and weight more than 600kg. Its shell is distinctive, comprising five long ridges.
Where? Trinidad; also take a tour with the St Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network.

2 Green (Chelonia mydas)
Contrary to its name, this endangered turtle isn’t necessarily green – individuals can be black, grey, brown or olive, with a yellow underside. Unlike other species, it is almost exclusively herbivorous.
Where? Nests throughout the Caribbean.

3 Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
This endangered turtle is highly migratory. It grows to around 1.2m long and has a reddish-brown carapace and large head. Loggerheads feed on crabs, molluscs and jellyfish.
Where? Infrequent visitors to the Caribbean; try the beaches of Grenada.

4 Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Once hunted nearly to extinction, the hawksbill  is now critically endangered. It has a beautiful pattern on its shell and a hooked beak.
Where? Dominica; Grenada; Nevis is the major nesting ground, where a sea turtle programme is organised by Four Seasons Resort Nevis, in collaboration with the Nevis Turtle Group and Sea Turtle Conservancy.

5 Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)
Named for its olive-coloured shell, the smallest sea turtle – up to 70cm long – takes part in mass nestings involving up to 150,000 turtles coming up onto the beach to lay their eggs.
Where? Guyana; Trinidad & Tobago; other southern islands.