One of the most anticipated events since arriving in Grenada has been a trip to watch critically endangered leatherback sea turtles nest on the northern beaches. Well, I finally did it and it did not disappoint. If you haven’t seen a leatherback turtle in real life, you cannot imagine how large they are! Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles there are. Rather than a bony shell, they have a thick skin covering on their back that allows them to be flexible. They can dive deeper than other marine animals and swim faster than any turtle. The only adult leatherback’s real predator is the human, which says a lot since it is endangered.
Leatherbacks average six to seven feet in length and can weigh anywhere between 550 to 1,500lbs! They have large, muscular front flippers and big heads that remind me of a dinosaur. The largest front flippers recorded were 8.9ft in length! Can you imagine how big the whole turtle was? Something interesting to think about is that only females come onshore after they’ve entered the water as hatchlings; males do not leave the water. It stands to reason that most known measurements would be from females then. If males are generally larger than females, then the largest of the leatherbacks may not have ever been measured!
The northern beaches of Grenada are ideal for them to lay their eggs because the sand is warm (good for producing females) and not too fine. Very fine sand makes the turtle’s already taxing job that much harder as she propels her 1,000lb body up the beach to dig a deep hole. The northern beaches, as opposed to Grand Anse Beach, are also less touristy. Leatherbacks will return to the general area where they hatched many years ago.
The leatherbacks can travel 10,000 miles in a given year! They often go from the Caribbean to the Arctic Circle, down the west coast of Africa chasing jelly fish, and back to the Caribbean to lay their eggs. They can be impregnated by multiple males at a time, so they may need to lay eggs three or so times in a season. One female may lay 100 eggs, return to the sea, and come back on shore a couple nights later to lay another 100 eggs. She can easily lay 300 or more in a season. Sadly, 90% of the hatchlings won’t make it into adulthood. They have many, many predators, including humans who poach them for food.
The Significant Others Organization arranged for a group of SOs to be able to go to Lavera Beach one night. With a St. Patrick’s Eco-Conservation Tourism Organisation (SPECTO) guide, about twenty three people boarded an SGU school bus at 6:30 and headed to the complete opposite side of the island. It took about 2-2.5 hours to get there. First we stopped at the visitor’s center to hear a little presentation on the turtles and then we continued on to the beach.
Luckily we were prepped ahead of time with all we needed to know. No DEET bug spray and no flash photography were important to the health of the turtles. We could only use flashlights with red light, so my guess is turtles cannot see that spectrum of color. There were quite a few red flashlights in the group so we were all able to see very well. I had the forethought to borrow a friend’s tripod so I could stable my camera and get the best pictures possible without flash. Go figure that I discovered on the bus that my battery had gone bad! I’d charged it all day in preparation for the night’s event and got one photo before it revolted. I have the worst luck with cameras.
Back to the good stuff… we all stepped onto the sand to find a place to wait. Many people brought blankets or towels, which was a great idea. We quietly conversed while SPECTO volunteers and Ocean Spirits workers combed the beach looking for the first turtle to arrive. The night was calm and mostly clear. Without any city lights the stars were absolutely incredible. Just off the beach is a neat, pyramid shaped island, Sugar Loaf, that made an awesome silhouette in the dark.
We didn’t honestly have to wait that long before one person radioed to another and we were on the move down the beach like a silent army. We were being led by our guide and each time she paused I anxiously peered around her for the giant turtle. The group could only approach once the turtle reached a certain stage in the process. Finally, the guide led us to the spot and instructed us to gather in a U shape around the sides and back of the turtle, but not to obstruct her head, which was facing the ocean. From the moment I saw her I just kept muttering under my breath things like “wow” and “oh my gosh”. You cannot fathom how big and powerful they are compared to humans!
I wasn’t checking the time, but I don’t think she was on land more than thirty minutes. She came on shore, found her preferred spot and started digging. As she neared the end of her digging, she signaled with some part of her body that the eggs were ready to come out and she entered a trance. That was when we gathered. Two Ocean Spirits workers laid on their stomachs catching each egg as it came out. With gloved hand they gently placed it in the sandy hole and kept count. She laid around 94 eggs with about 9 false eggs on top, for a total of 103 eggs. From what I could see, the eggs are round, as opposed to chicken eggs, and a bit larger than a golf ball. The unfertilized false eggs at the top of the nest are for added protection in case the nest is looted. They are noticeably smaller and would not fool a human who was looking for eggs.
As the turtle laid her eggs, she rid her body of excess salt by excreting it through her eyes. Thick mucus ran down her face like tears. One by one we were allowed to gently touch her back before she came out of her trance. I can’t find an accurate surface to compare the feeling to. I anticipated skin like an alligator with the texture of an iguana. It wasn’t. It was super smooth when you wiped away the sand.
As she began covering her nest back up, the workers took measurements of her body and noted that she was already tagged and in their system. They helped fill the hole with sand to make her job a little easier. She used her body to pack the sand into the nest. The red flashlights went off and we watched her attempt to cover her tracks by making sand angels. Her muscular flippers could send sand flying clear down the beach if she wanted to. Imagine how strong those flippers must be to scoot their bodies up the squishy sand. Just amazing.
She slowly made her way back to the roaring waves of the ocean. The waves breaking on the shore were large and would easily topple a grown man with its force. As she made her way in and the waves crashed over her back, she didn’t budge an inch; a true testament to her weight and size. A few more waves washed over her and she was gone. It was such a powerful and moving experience.
The volunteers and workers raked over the nesting site and her track back to the ocean. While she may camouflage her tracks from animal predators, only another human can camouflage her tracks from a fellow human predator. The group made its way back to the bus and came across two more leatherbacks: one just finishing the nesting process and another just coming on shore. Workers were already there doing their job while volunteers were still combing the rest of the beach. There is no telling how many came to nest that night, but workers and volunteers would be there until sun up. This happens every night from April to August.
If you ever get the chance to observe something like that in the wild, without being intrusive, I highly recommend it. If that doesn’t make you appreciate the beauty and diversity of our planet, I don’t know what will.
|Lavera Beach by Becca Thongkham|
|A long exposure photo of Sugar Loaf Island by Emily Vacek|
|Courtesy of Emily Vacek|
|Counting eggs by Becca Thongkham|
|Courtesy of Becca Thongkham|
|Me touching the turtle by Emily Vacek|
|Taking measurements by Becca Thongkham|
|Courtesy of Emily Vacek|