Eerie red light scanned the rough waters crashing against the shore. Beyond the waves, it was silent.
A sense of anticipation filled the cool air around us until, finally.
At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but no, a strange shape was hauling itself out of the ocean, pulling itself up onto the sand.
And I smiled.
The Leatherback Turtle
There are very few countries in the world where you can see wild Leatherback Turtles up close and personal. Trinidad is one of the few lucky places. I had wanted to see these amazing creatures for years but it was rare that I visited Trinidad during the right season. Finally, this year I finally was able to time things properly.
The Leatherback Turtle is the largest of all turtles: they can weigh between 500 and 2,000 pounds! Males never leave the sea and the females only leave to nest on land. There actually isn’t very much known about these creatures yet. However, one thing that is known is that they don’t pick their nesting locations by chance – they generally nest on the same beach they themselves were born!
Trinidad is the second largest nesting site in the world. One can see these turtles come to shore along the north and east coasts of the country. Peak season runs from March to August; most of the laying happens in the first half of this period and most of the hatching during the second. Trinidad is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles and all, unfortunately, are on the IUCN Red List. The Leatherback Turtle is listed as Vulnerable.
The Laying Process
Female Leatherback Turtles haul themselves out of the ocean at night, when it is relatively safe to do so both in terms of being less visible to predators as well as it being much cooler, temperature-wise. Their instincts guide them up the shore away from the crashing waves. Normally, anyway. I did see one turtle who laid her eggs too close to the water, meaning that her eggs will eventually get washed into the ocean. Most of the turtles, however, have a working internal GPS system and so make it further onto the beach.
Once a turtle has picked a spot, she starts digging with her back flippers. Watching these turtles dig is an exercise in patience as it does take a bit of time. And it’s an exercise in hope because you’re hoping she doesn’t accidentally uncover another turtle’s nest. Because if she does, she doesn’t just move on to another spot. She destroys the other nest! Thankfully, I didn’t see that happen.
When a turtle feels she has dug a deep enough hole, she then goes into a trance and starts laying her eggs; the eggs kind of look like ping pong balls! Leatherback Turtles can lay up to 100 eggs…per session. That’s right – they don’t lay just once. These turtles return to the beaches several times during nesting season, at intervals of eight to 12 days. I can’t imagine that – I was exhausted just watching them go through the process once!
When a turtle is finished laying, she then uses her back flippers to move sand back into the hole. Once complete, she turns herself around and around, in an effort to disguise the nest. Then she hauls herself back to the waves and silently slips away into the ocean.
How to See Leatherback Turtles
To see the laying process, a permit and guide are required. One of the more popular places to go is the beach in the village of Grande Rivière. And don’t think that you can just skip the permit and guide – these beaches are protected and patrolled during the hours 6 pm and 6 am. You can either buy your permit in Port of Spain (capital city) or in Grande Rivère (the Visitor’s Centre opens at 7pm).
I do recommend staying in the area so you aren’t rushed and to avoid driving at night. For example, in the village of Grande Rivière, there are several relatively small hotels and guesthouses. I stayed at the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel which was quite lovely and had great service. The hotel sits right on the beach so you don’t have to go far to see turtles at night or to go swimming during the day!
- Only use flashlights that produce a red light. Any other light can either scare the turtles or disorient them. Even the beachfront properties turn off their white light as this type of light appears as the ocean to the turtles, attracting them to places that aren’t safe for them to be.
- Due to the minimal amount of light, expect to be stumbling around. Wear suitable footwear.
- Don’t touch the turtles unless your guide says it is safe to do so (i.e. during the laying process, when the turtle is in a trance).
- This is rural Trinidad so do not expect many options to buy food. Expect to eat at your hotel. There is a little shop in the village at which you can find some snacks and drinks.
- If you’re staying overnight, make sure you’re on the beach at 6am again (not before) – you might get lucky and see a latecomer!
- If you do go on the beach in the morning, keep in mind you’re not at a zoo – you will see the Circle of Life in action. The eggs you watched being laid the night before, some of them are breakfast for the local dogs and numerous large black birds.