Have you ever had an experience when, until the moment it arrived, you didn’t quite realize how much you wanted it? That happened to me.
When I was a kid my family headed to Trinidad each year to visit family. It was during one of those trips that my older sister and brother had an opportunity to do something that I didn’t because I wasn’t old enough (even though I am just one year younger than my brother). They went out to the beach at night to see the leatherback turtles as they came ashore to lay their eggs. I must have been about 9 or 10 at the time, and while I wasn’t happy that I didn’t get to go on this adventure with them it wasn’t really a big deal. Over the years we talked about their adventure, heading off with my aunt in the dark to a beach then staying overnight in what was described as a castle (I think it was a big, stately, older house) and each time I felt a little twinge that I didn’t share the experience.
Fast forward many years I came across an article about the the turtles and decided that I would go see them for myself. I was excited about it but it not jumping for joy excitement. Below is the post I wrote on another blog about the experience. I hummed and hawed about editing this post but opted to leave it as is, length, flaws and all. I hope you enjoy!
One of the “must-dos” on this trip was to see the turtles as they came ashore to lay their eggs. Last night was the night. I’d been hearing that there are lots of turtles around and there would be no problem spotting them. Not quite so.
We arrived at the estate of the Manatee Conservation Trust after dark. Absolute silence except for the sound of the waves. The only source of light was the stars and the oil rigs in the distance. Richard, my companion for the day, and I relaxed on the verandah waiting for the tide to come in while fruit bats flew around us. I tried to be brave but the bats made me nervous – at first just flying around the verandah but then they started flying through. Seemed to me that they were very close to my head and I envisioned one of them getting caught up in my matted mass of hair (moist tropical air will do that to curly hair!), but Richard assured me that it would not happen. We were just sharing the same space was what he said.
Our first stroll on the beach was at around 8:30. Lots of turtle tracks and nesting areas but we didn’t see any turtles. About 1/2 hour down the beach we turned around to head in the other direction. Still no turtles. The staff of the Manatee Conservation Trust, in conjunction with the Zoological Society, patrol the beach to make sure no one harms the turtles. They were patrolling and were going to call when they found one.
Back at the estate house we hung out with ‘Yankee’ and his buddy, both wardens and men I would not want to encounter on a deserted beach at night if I were illegally tampering with the turtles. These serious, giant, kind of scary looking men spoke to me about patrolling the beach, about finding turtles with their flippers cut off and left to die, chasing men down the beach to arrest them. I have great respect for these guys who are so knowledgeable about the turtles and go to lengths to protect them.
We got the call at around 10:30pm. There was a turtle on the beach laying her eggs so we hopped in the truck and drove about 5 minutes up the road and into a grove of coconut trees. I was super excited by this time and could not wait to get to the beach, so excited that I almost walked right past her. She was right at the edge where the tree line ended, still digging the hole for the nest.
Amazing. She was quite large, probably over 5 feet long. With just her hind flippers she dug a deep hole, slowly scooping out sand and then started laying. The warden said they lay between 80 – 160 eggs at a time and about 5% survive. We stayed a nice distance away, giving her space to feel comfortable. Apparently they go into some sort of trance when they lay and are not aware of the surroundings so I had time to get a bit closer and get a few photos (no flash). The minute she stopped laying we backed off. The light disorients them and it’s intrusive so we let her be. It took about 1/2 hour for her to cover up her eggs using her front flippers to flick sand backwards onto the nest and her back to smooth it down. Every few minutes she would rotate until she completed the circle and covered all traces of the nest. Then lumbered back to the water.
I don’t think words can really express just how incredible this experience was. It was while watching this giant turtle lay her eggs and flicking sand to cover them up, listening as the wardens quietly spoke to me about the terrible things they have seen people do to the turtles and passionately explain why they patrolled at night, sometimes putting themselves in danger, that I realized just how much this moment meant to me, how somewhere deep inside this was something that I just had to experience.
For more information about the turtles and how you can help the conservation efforts visit the EarthWatch Institute.