The Leatherback Turtle: Up Close & Personal

The Leatherback Turtle: Up Close & Personal

“The waves are too rough to swim here.”

We scurried down the bumpy, sandy path behind our guide. The beach, illuminated by the half moon in the night sky, opened up before us. The waves crashed on the shore wildly, promising danger to anyone who dared venture into its waters.

Matura Beach, on the east coast of Trinidad, is a hotbed for nesting turtles during the months of March to August. We had driven almost two hours to witness the endangered leatherback turtles swim ashore and lay their eggs.

We were led down the beach by a soft-spoken local with a knowledge of the sea turtles more comprehensive than an encyclopedia entry. He told us how the babies who are born here will return to the exact same beach around 25 years later to lay their own eggs – if they survive (only about 1 in 1000 do).

A few minutes after stepping onto the beach, our guide heard on his walkie talkie that turtles had been spotted. We hurried excitedly along the sand, sidestepping rocks and sticks to keep up with him.

A group of foreign volunteers stood with their red-light flashlights pointing at the ground. We huddled around to see babies emerging from the sand, practicing swimming motions in the sand to get ready for the first trip into the expansive ocean.

“You’re lucky,” said our guide. He motioned to the volunteers. “They’ve been here for five days and this is their first time seeing the babies leave their nest.”

leatherback turtles Trinidad

There must have been at least ten of them, all awkwardly swimming towards the ocean. Our guide picked one up and dusted it off, as he recounted more facts. They spend almost a week digging up to the surface from their nest, buried three feet underneath, safe from predators.

“You can hold it,” he says, handing the turtle off to my sister. He assures us that it doesn’t bother them. In fact, they hardly seem to notice us, instead continuing their swimming motions to ready their little legs for their upcoming trip into the great unknown. We hold them for a few seconds before placing them back in the sand. I feel like a proud parent sending my first born to college as her little body disappears into the blackness.

Eventually, they all follow suit, so we head to a log to wait for another call. The night is perfect. The sound of the waves, the luminescence of the moon , the ocean breeze soothes me instantly. I am reminded of how complete I feel at the beach, and wonder if I should head to a Mexican playa instead of the big city after this.

Our guide makes small talk with us and shares how he winded up volunteering with the turtles. “I first came here a couple of years ago with some friends,” he recounted. “I’ve lived here my whole life and had never come to see the turtles. As soon as I saw them, I fell in love, and signed up to be a volunteer.”

I thought about how magical it must be to live just a few minutes from prehistoric reptiles nesting here for half the year. I would never get tired of that.

leatherback turtle Trinidad
me holding one of the babies

The walkie talkie buzzed. A mom had just landed on shore and was searching for a place to lay her eggs. We booked it down the beach, her landing place much farther away than the babies had been. When we arrived, the volunteer crowd was forming a protective circle around her, blocking any decent views of the turtle. I was finally able to get a peek between a couple of their heads and was stunned by the size.

Though we had been told the turtle could grow to be five to seven feet wide and at least that long, it’s hard to visualize the immensity until you actually see them. I could have laid on top of her and spread my limbs, and her span would still have been larger than mine.

The volunteers looked on with concern. “She isn’t going to lay here,” one told me. For whatever reason, she didn’t like the spot, and turned around to slide into the ocean again. The back of one of her legs had been bitten off, the shred of which slivered along after her. The guides mused that it was probably the aftermath of a shark attack.

Back to the log, our wait was longer this time around. I felt anxious, as we had to leave the beach at a certain time because the drive was long.

Finally, a call came in. A mom had been spotted and she was just about to lay her eggs.

turtle watching Trinidad
the mom laying her eggs

When we arrived, there was a sizeable crowd of spectators. Another local guide shouted above the waves, narrating the turtle’s ritual as it unfolded.  She rocked from side to side, occasionally flinging sand with her back legs. Volunteers measured her width, marking dimensions on a sheet lit dully by a small flashlight.

I sat near her face, gazing into her eyes as she prepared the space. She froze in place and the guide announced that she had begun to lay her eggs. At this time, we were given permission to take photos and touch her skin, as she was in a trance and would not notice it.

The crowd rotated around her body slowly, giving everyone a chance to take photos of the eggs and stroke her face and shoulders, which were much softer than I had expected.

leatherback turtle eggs Trinidad
the eggs in their nest

One of the last in the huddle, I pushed my sister forward so she would have a chance to touch the reptile. Just seconds after her hand made contact with the face, the turtle woke up from her trance and the volunteer announced, “OK! No more photos, no more touching! She’s out of her trance.”

My sister said it felt like she had taken a huge breath when she was done, as if she had been holding it the entire time.

I gazed into the turtle’s eyes again for a few seconds longer, silently thanking her for the gift and feeling grateful I got to witness such a miracle.

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