Heroes in a half shell
As a child of the Lowe family of Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, turtles hold a special place in my heart. Saying that, they also hold a slightly gross place in my family history, as I found out recently that – like many other Caribbean people of his generation and even today – my own grandfather used to enjoy eating turtle meat and even their eggs! Which is a good example of the kinds of threats turtles face as they come up onto land to lay their eggs each year.
On Matura Beach in Trinidad (above), an impressive conservation project has been underway since the 1990s to stop the slaughtering of turtles there, where once as much as 30% of all turtles who visited the beach to lay their eggs were killed for their meat and eggs. Today as many as 5,000 nests are made per year by turtles on Matura beach, with up to 30+ turtles known to come up onto shore on a single night during peak laying time. Trinidad itself is said to be the site of as much as 80% of all turtle nesting that goes on in the Caribbean as a whole, and hundreds of turtles return to the same beaches each year on the island to make their nests. While still critically endangered, the organisation Natureseekers, which is located in the small community of Matura next to the beach, has helped to ensure that turtles have gone from being a simple food source to more of a national treasure (as evidenced by the fact that a recent horrific photo of a girl standing on a turtle which was posted on facebook in Trinidad was said to have been so controversial that the girl found herself practically the subject of a manhunt.)
A perk of being in Trinidad for my internship this summer was the chance to support this conservation effort when I went to take a turtle watching tour on Matura beach in North Western Trinidad. While conservation has clearly been placed quite high on the agenda, a testament to how little stock the TT government places in the idea of promoting tourism (even eco tourism) in Trinidad is the fact that the long road to Matura beach is one of the worst I’ve traveled on here…you’d hardly think that every person I’ve mentioned the fact that I am going to watch turtles and hatchlings has suggested it’s something they’d love to do.
Even finding the right road was a struggle. On Saturday night a wrong turn left us within minutes of having seen a giant leatherback laying her eggs on the beach in the moonlight, and we resolved to return to try again (she had gone back out to the ocean by the time we arrived). Returning after another 1.5 hour drive across the island on Sunday, we waited again to see the giant mother turtle make the journey out of the ocean under the full moon to lay her eggs, but again we missed out. However, we did get to see something even more incredible- the “birth” of dozens upon dozens of turtle hatchlings.
I say “birth” because technically when you see the baby turtle on the sand, they are already 7 days old, having spent that long attempting to dig themselves out of the 2.5 – 3 foot hole where their mother deposited them as eggs. When you think about how much of a herculean effort this must be for these tiny creatures, only to then drag themselves down the beach, to set off into the perilous ocean, it seems incredible any of them are alive today.
The greatest moment was when one lone motionless hatchling on the sand alerted us to an entire nest which was full of baby turtles, some of which had died, apparently trying to get out of the nest in the hot sun. As we dug them out the bodies of the turtles closest to the surface were boiling hot. Those underneath were not moving. Hours later the turtles revived and were released into the ocean in the early hours of the morning.
The moment we found the first turtle nest with the overheated hatchlings:
Digging out the Hatchlings:
The hatchlings make their way to the ocean:
About to enter the water:
A few unbelievable facts about the leatherback turtle:
The leatherback is the only living sea turtle without a bony shell, and is the third largest “modern” reptile behind three different types of crocodile. A tour guide told us they have seen turtles up to 8 feet in length and 6 feet wide on Matura beach.
Leatherbacks are the most “cosmopolitan” turtles, travelling to various continents throughout the globe in a single year. One tracked turtle is said to have been recorded as swimming 12,000 miles in a two year period.
A single female may mate up to 8 times during mating season and lay nine clutches of eggs, of up to 110 eggs per clutch. However, around 90% of all hatchlings will die at a young age. They only appear to nest once every two to three years, between March 1st and August 31.
The sex of the turtle is determined by the temperature they experience in the nest. Those at the top of the nest will be more likely to be female, and those below, male.
Most importantly, despite the efforts of Natureseekers and others, and despite the species having survived for over one million years, the Leatherback turtle is still considered critically endangered (on the verge of extinction). While its population is more stable (but still endangered) in the Atlantic, in the Pacific it has fallen to as few as 2,300 females today. One of the major threats is fishing nets, in which the turtles get caught when they are out at sea. For this reason, Natureseekers is now involved in an effort sanctioned by the Trinidadian government to ensure monitors are placed on fishing boats where net fishing is taking place to assess and reduce the number of turtles getting caught and killed in this way.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to our guide, Devin, who was very knowledgeable about the turtles and their life cycle, and taught us much as we walked along the beach looking for the turtles. 27 year-old Devin volunteers around 7 hours of his time many nights during the summer to patrol the beach looking for turtles and hatchlings for visitors -mainly Trinidadians- to view, in the process raising awareness of these reptiles and the threats they face in a sustainable way. For example, only small groups are allowed to be on the beach at any one time, and rules are enforced about the distance that must be kept and the use of lights and camera flashlights around the laying turtles, to ensure that they are not disturbed. He also passes on information to students from all over the world studying towards degrees and doctorates in marine biology, thereby helping to ensure this effort is backed up by academic research. I was truly impressed by his commitment to the cause (he’s one of only 15 volunteers from the local community of around 3,500 as a whole). It’s thanks to people like him that this conservation effort has been so successful to date.
Google image of a leatherback turtle, to give a visual of the size of these beasts: