I woke from a light sleep to a melodious chime and a pitch-black room. My hand fumbled along the bedside table until I found my cellphone and switched off the alarm.
“Time to go,” I called to my travel companion, who had yet to make a move.
With the blood thrumming through my veins, I yanked opened the door to our modest abode where I was greeted by the gentle ebb and flow of ocean waves. I peered along the beach, a smile of anticipation on my face, hopeful for a glimpse of the gentle giants we had travelled so far to see. But the night was pitch black, the sky overcast. No starlight illuminated the long stretch of sand; no moon cast a silvery trail upon the water. I hugged my arms, wishing I had thought to bring a light sweater. The night air was chillier than I would have expected of the tropics.
We slipped on our shoes and left the Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel, the former headquarters of a cocoa estate, now a refurbished 12-bedroom beachfront dwelling in Grand Rivière, a remote coastal community in the northeastern tip of the Caribbean island of Trinidad. After a short walk, we joined other visitors in a room of the Nature Guide Association where instructions in turtle watching etiquette and headlamps were handed out. With our tour guide in lead, we trooped out into the darkness and headed down to the beach.
Growing up in Trinidad, I missed out on seeing the giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs at night. Back then, with no accommodation on offer, you had to undertake a two-hour drive to arrive at the beach before midnight, which was when female turtles emerged from the sea to haul themselves up the beach and lay their eggs in the sand. After taking your full of this magical sight, you then had to turn around and drive the two-hour return trip (longer depending on where you lived), an undertaking only the really adventurous were up for. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when I learned, while on a recent visit to the island during the prime laying season of March to September, that there were hotels (a euphemism as it turned out) where one could spend the night, eliminating the dangers of night driving through remote countryside.
As we trudged through cool sand with the consistency of brown sugar, we learned that Grande Rivière is the second largest leatherback turtle nesting site in the world. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago are two of the world’s most important turtle nesting grounds, not only for the leatherbacks but the Hawksbill, green turtles and several other species. Each year, more than 10,000 leatherback sea turtles travel across the Atlantic Ocean from as far as northern Canada and southern Africa to nest on Trinidad’s eastern beaches. The largest of all turtle species, the seven-foot-long, 1,000+ pound females drag themselves from the sea, lumber up the sloped banks of the beach and make their way to dryer sand. Here, using their rear flippers, they dig holes and lay up to 80 eggs a night, a process they repeat as many as twelve times during breeding season. Two months later, baby turtles dig themselves out of their nests and scuttle their way to the water. Few survive but the female hatchlings that make it to sexual maturity, return to the same nesting sites to produce their own offspring. Males spend the rest of their lives at sea.
Lady luck was not on our side that night. Instead of a beach swarming with hundreds of turtles, as it had been a night or two ago, there were no more than a handful of the gentle giants; perhaps because it was an overcast night, numbers usually greater during the time of a full moon. Still, careful not to shine any light in the turtles’ faces, we got to see pearlescent, spherical eggs, about two times the size of a table tennis ball, slipping from the female’s cloaca into the cool sand below.
Next morning, clouds still blanketed the sky and mist hung low and heavy amongst the tropical landscape. Taking an early stroll along the beach, we saw a knot of people congregated in one area. As we ventured closer, we saw a lone leatherback, still in the process of laying her eggs. Respectful of the gentle beast, we took pictures as she covered up her clutch, then watched as she lumbered down the slope and slipped into the surf. Within a blink of an eye, she disappeared, swept away by a wave.
Humbled by nature’s awesome beauty, my companion and I ventured to the dining area for a late breakfast. We hadn’t been seated long when we heard a raised voice. Glancing in the direction of the beach, we saw a shirtless, muscular young man sporting dreadlocks, waving his hands in the air as he circled another leatherback straggler. Turning to address the diners on the covered patio, a mixture of locals and foreigners, he ranted at great length about the exploitation of the turtles, of mother nature, that there were too many people who came to the beach, and so on and so forth. At one point, he mounted the turtle and stood on its back, much to the distress of the onlookers. The owner of the hotel was eventually able to move the disturbed young man along, but the incident was unsettling, to say the least, the morning’s serenity broken by the man’s crazed rant.
But his words stuck with me and I began to wonder. Did he have a point? Was ecotourism a selfish exploitation of mother nature? Flying around the world, exuding carbon emissions, ticking off bucket list items, stockpiling stories to impress our friends with all we had seen and done.
I later learned that through the efforts of local conservationists to educate the thousands of local and foreign visitors to the islands’ turtle laying sites, poaching of these giant sea creatures, once rampant, is now rare. Restricted access to these nesting beaches, particularly Grande Rivière and Matura, also reduces poaching and allows the turtles to nest and the young hatchlings to emerge undisturbed. Income from visitors is used to hire local guides and help fund research, while housing and feeding visitors provide jobs in the local community that would not otherwise exist, reducing the need to rely on turtle meat as a source of food.
As in all things, then, a double-edged sword, where we’d like to think the good outweighs the bad. The hope is that through education and conservation efforts, more hatchlings will be born, increasing the numbers that survive natural predators such as birds, fish, and marine mammals, as well as manmade threats from fishing nets, plastics, and warming ocean temperatures, ultimately allowing us to one day take these gentle giants off the endangered species list.