The magnificence of Tobago’s turtles
by Lesli Kate Gallivan
The sight of nesting leatherback sea turtles has brought me back time and time again. If you travel to Tobago between March and September, you stand a very good chance of seeing one of these beautiful creatures.
Imagine standing on a sandy beach in the dark, under a velvety sky lit with millions of stars. The sand is warm between your toes from the day’s sunshine. The only sound is that of the waves gently slapping against the sand. The moon hangs low on the horizon, casting a silver shadow across the sea. A turtle moon.
And then, in the darkness, you can just make out a what appears to be the wake of a boat, running parallel with the beach. After a few moments a slightly darker curved shape rises from the sea. Slowly, the enormous leatherback turtle drags herself out of the sea and onto the sandy shore. Leaving what appears to be an impression of a tractor trail in the wet sand behind her, she hauls herself up the sloping beach to the dry sand where her eggs will incubate safely. Three pulls and a rest…three pulls and a rest…
Above: Beautiful Turtle Beach, Tobago
Above: Beautiful Turtle Beach, Tobago
She begins to dig with her spade-like back flippers. Carefully, she begins to excavate her nest which, when finished, will be the home for her 100 or so eggs for the next 60 days. She lays her golf-ball sized white eggs as if in a trance. She appears to be crying, but the liquid is to protect her eyes whilst out of the water. The local SOS Tobago Turtle Protection staff will allow you to carefully walk behind her to see the nest…no flash lights and no smoking. Quiet voices and slow movements only.
She then carefully covers up her nest, flapping sand in all directions. She moves slightly away from the nest and creates another false nest cover. Once finished, it is almost impossible to tell exactly where the eggs are.
Above: Leatherback turtle preparing to make a nest.
Above: Laying eggs. Image © www.animalspot.net/leatherback-turtle
And then, exhausted by her efforts over the hour and a half it takes to complete her task, she hauls herself back down the beach to the sea. Three pulls and a rest… three pulls and a rest…
She will repeat this nesting every 10 days on 10 occasions during the season of March to September. Only one of the 1000 eggs that she lays each year is expected to reach maturity and to return to the same beach to nest some 25 years later.
These beautiful and protected creatures can reach almost 2.5 metres long, and can live similar lengths of time as humans. They have been repeating this process every year for 100 million years. To watch this amazing and ancient nesting in such a natural and peaceful environment is a privilege. It’s one of those times when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. If you are lucky enough to experience this amazing event you will never forget the feeling.
Above: Leatherback turtle egg laying
Sixty days later, the sand begins to move as upto 100 baby turtles make their way upwards towards the light. They all hatch at once – no-one knows what triggers them to do so all at the same time. They can hatch day or night, and once they reach the surface the race to the water across the sand begins. Gulls and frigate birds await the hatchlings during their mad dash. Even at night birds will be patrolling the shoreline. A hatching nest appears to have many small tractor trails leading from it, a smaller version of that made by their mother two months ago.
The SOS Tobago patrol staff carefully excavate the whole nest once the majority of hatchlings have emerged to ensure none have been buried in the rush. The smell from a newly vacated nest is like the worst smelly feet you can imagine! The nest is then carefully filled in to avoid sprained ankles in the dark and the area is checked again for any stray babies who may have become disorientated on their journey to the sea.
Because the nesting process takes around 90 minutes from start to finish, no matter where you are staying in Tobago you can be transported to watch this unique event. Hatching is usually over more quickly, but if you stay at Turtle Beach between May and October you
Above: Baby leatherback hatchling
Hatching is usually over more quickly, but if you stay at Turtle Beach between May and October you may be lucky enough to watch the babies scurrying across the beach to safety.