Watch one of the most spectacular sites in nature as adult female leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on desolate sandy beaches in the Caribbean island of Trinidad.
It is nearly 9 p.m. when we arrive in Matura. On some stretches of road there are no street lights to illuminate the way but we eventually veer toward the outpost where the only thing visible in the darkness is the silhouette of thick black jungle. Several maxis (bus taxis) full of people returning home and a few private cars are parked. We pay for the permits and, at last, step out of the vehicle. Immediately, a breeze blows, redolent of salt water.
By now a guide, Kadisha, has joined us and warns us not to put on any lights for the short walk to the beach. She checks with her supervisors before directing us to a location where the leatherback turtles have been spotted.
The entire scene is like an artist’s painting in grisaille – as we walk near the shoreline which is lit by the full moon, the sand, the ocean, and the turtles all appear in varying shades of grey, giving the entire scene a sense of energetic timelessness. The moon is intermittently covered by cloud and absolute darkness alternates with glimmering silver light – the sea a mirror.
Finally, we arrive near another group of visitors, a red light shining at their centre, enabling them to observe the birth without endangering it. Turtles cannot see red or orange but if she sees a white light she is apt to return to the sea and the cycle of birth interrupted.
We amble to another leatherback turtle nearby that has made her trademark tractor-like trail from the sea and begins scraping the sand with her front flippers which are large and skilled. Little by little she creates a hole a quarter of a metre deep into which she will conceal her eggs.
At times, the enchantment of watching this 500 pound creature dig is interrupted – perhaps a glint of moonlight steers our gaze toward the seashore or someone in the group, incredulous, points and whispers – and a large object emerges, barely discernible from the black sea engulfing it. The leatherback turtles have voyaged from the frigid waters of Canada here to the warm Caribbean to spend less energy regulating their temperature.
By now, all around us, there are leatherback turtles in every stage of laying eggs. One begins the ritual of digging. Meanwhile, we accompany another toward the sea, flippers and tail trailing, leaving the trademark tractor marks. Others, though, come ashore only to return to the ocean because they do not find the perfect spot to lay their eggs – a strange fussiness from this gigantic creature, that leaves telltale u-shaped marks on the sand. Now, there are four leatherback turtles visible to us on one small stretch of beach. This area, on the eastern side of the island of Trinidad, is a world-renowned viewing place for this most rare of births, but to be present at this intimate moment with so many leatherback turtles converging at once, is an incredible honour.
Once the hole is dug, we wait as she repositions herself comfortably. She is in a trance when she lays her eggs, clear liquid oozing from her eyes – as she eats mainly jellyfish she has no other way of excreting the substance. Then, she begins laying baseball-sized yolk filled eggs that drop down into the hole that she has dug and that will hatch in 60-70 days. We are able to touch the turtle’s soft shell. She is injured – a piece of her shell has been severed near the tail – Kadisha conjectures that a whale or shark may have broken it or that it occurred in mating.
She has large pink spots on her forehead, and like fingerprints, no two are alike. Next, she begins laying smaller eggs the size of chicken’s eggs that will not hatch but provide air pockets for the other eggs and hatchlings. She begins to use her back flippers to fill the hole with sand which flies about, whizzing past our faces. The force of her flippers could break a rib and she takes 15 minutes to compact the hole, ensuring it is covered using her entire body weight. But if she sees a light, it may take 45 minutes.
On this coconut fringed beach it begins to drizzle, and then to pour and we take shelter under a thatch hut. The only other group that had been viewing turtles nearby left shortly after we arrived. For most of the night we are alone. She can hear us speak but her hearing is not acute. When the rain stops she is still compacting sand undeterred.
It has rained once, and will again, so we decide to leave. On the walk along the beach we see three more leatherbacks. But for me, as miraculous as the laying of the eggs, perhaps even more so, is the sight of these giant ancients emerging from the sea following a natural calling back to the shore where they were once hatchlings too.
This original article initially appeared as the Editor’s Letter entitled Of Turtles and Moonlight in the Winter 2015/16 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.