Leatherback Love – A Giant Among Us

They were among the first sea turtles to evolve more than 110 million years ago. Yet today they are critically endangered. Mankind has become a serious threat to these gigantic reptiles (the largest recorded specimen tipped the scales at 2,000lbs and was 10ft long). The average life span of these amazing creatures is 75 years. They can swim thousands of miles across oceans (females tagged in French Guiana in South America have been recaptured in Morocco and Spain). Yet somehow the females find their way back to the precise region where they were born.

The worldwide population of leatherbacks has fallen rapidly in the last 20 years, and it’s predicted that they will be extinct in the Pacific Ocean within the next decade. Within 30 years the Atlantic population will probably follow suit. From a global nesting population of 115,000 in 1980, it is estimated that only 26,000 to 43,000 females nest annually now. Coastal development, beach erosion, oil slicks, plastic bags and long lines to catch tuna have killed thousands of leatherbacks. The plastic bags look like jellyfish, their main source of food, and when the turtles eat them, they choke.

This is why Trinidad and Tobago is so special. In the Caribbean, the leatherback nests only in French Guiana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad’s north and east coasts alone attract more than 6,000 females a year. In Tobago, Turtle Beach is the favorite nesting site because of its deepwater approach, which allows the female to get close to the shore before she has to haul her egg-laden body up the beach. This is why they don’t nest on beaches like Pigeon Point; they would have to drag themselves along the bottom of the seabed long before they reached the sand ‘ a waste of valuable energy.

In the peak nesting season between April and July, leatherbacks throng Turtle Beach, Grafton and Back Bay (all in the Black Rock area), as well as Charlotteville. It is an incredible experience to see these ancient creatures emerge from the sea. The female uses her flippers to slowly, laboriously, pull herself up above the high tide line. She then starts the long process of excavating a hole with her powerful flippers. When the hole is deep enough, she lays her eggs. The entire process can take up to two hours.

On average she lays about 100 eggs in one clutch; one female can lay as many as nine clutches in a breeding season. After she has laid the eggs, the female carefully packs the sand back, covering the nest to disguise it from predators (animal and human). The temperature of the sand will determine the sex of the hatchling.

Sadly, very few hatchlings survive. If a poacher doesn’t dig up the eggs, and the hatchling makes it to the water without being eaten by a bird or a crab, it stands a chance. Once in the ocean, they are rarely seen before they become adults. They tend to hide out among seaweed and rocks on reefs until they are big enough to head for the open ocean, where feeding and mating take place. Males never leave the water once they enter it.

Turtle-watching is an experience you will never forget. It is a privilege that humans should cherish. The most important thing to remember is to be as quiet as possible, since noise and lights will deter the turtles from coming up onto the beach. Campfires can literally bake the nests beneath them so please don’t light any. Also, driving vehicles on to the beach can crush the eggs beneath the sand. Recently, people have been photographed standing on the backs of these dear animals; enraging much of Trinidad and Tobago’s turtle and animal rights supporters. If you happen to witness such an atrocity, you can make a report or post the evidence on the Trini Eco Warriors Facebook Page.

Please be sure to stay behind the leatherback at all times, and don’t shine a flashlight near her face or at the hatchlings. You may think it helpful to give hatchlings a lift to the water, but they must orient themselves to their environment by crossing the beach. What you can do is remove any obstacles in their path, and turn off or block any light that may blind them on their way.

Let\’s all work together to prevent this lovely creature from becoming extinct.
Useful info:

Save Our Sea Turtles
Guides recommended by Save Our Sea Turtles: Harris Jungle Tours (868) 759-0170, Tour Tobago (868) 477-4795, Ellis Clarke (868) 682-9147.

If you should observe any poaching or harassment of leatherbacks, please call the Tobago Police Hotline on 999, the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment on 639-2273 or SOS Tobago on 290-6798.

Flash photography is not recommended since it can blind and disorient the turtles. Infrared video recording is allowed though.

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