Thrilled to have one of my closest friends, Hannah Enightoola, share a story here about turtle watching in Trinidad, where she was born and raised. Hannah has traveled far and wide, but she’ll always consider Trinidad her home.
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I gaze at the seemingly never-ending stretch of sandy beach, hoping I’ll catch a glimpse of at least one turtle nesting in the night. The moon glows overhead, bathing the ocean with its silver light as the waves crash onto the shore. It’s a perfect night as the leaves of the coconut trees whisper and dance in the cool, Caribbean night breezes.
And then, I see them. One, then two, then three…until I realise that the beach is almost covered with massive oblong figures for as far as my eyes can see! Amazed and humbled, I am completely surrounded by a host of enormous leatherback sea turtles who have silently emerged from the ocean and made their way onto the shore.
To see this elusive and magnificent sea creature, I journeyed to one of the world’s largest nesting sites, Grande Rivière, in the Caribbean twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Located along the North coast of Trinidad, Grande Rivière gets its name from the huge river which runs through the village to meet the sea. The village is a nature-lover’s paradise as it also houses the endangered blue-throated piping-guan (pawi), the crimson-crested woodpecker, the swallow-tailed kite and of course, the endangered leatherback sea turtle.
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Nesting Season at Grande Riviere
The nesting season runs from March to August each year, with 15,000 to 20,000 nesting events occurring on the shores of Grande Riviere during this period. During the peak months of April and May, 300 to 500 turtles come ashore to nest every night.
As the season winds down from June to August, fewer female turtles visit the shores to lay eggs. However, during this period the eggs begin to hatch and hundreds of miniature baby leatherback sea turtles can be seen bubbling out of the sand every day.
How to Go Turtle Watching in Trinidad
The drive from Trinidad’s capital city of Port of Spain to Grande Rivière is approximately 100 km and takes roughly three hours. Make sure you pack some snacks! It’s a scenic (and a bit winding) drive filled with lush tropical rainforest and glittering ocean views. I recommend stopping to rest and bathe at the beaches along the way to stretch your legs and make the most of your trip.
Once a fishing and agricultural community, Grande Rivière is now a significant international hub for eco-tourism. Due to the high levels of turtle nesting, Grande Rivière has been deemed a protected beach in Trinidad and a permit is needed for access between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am. You can purchase a ticket (inclusive of permit) from the nearby Grande Rivière facility to access the beach and go turtle watching. For non-nationals, the ticket costs US$15 for adults and US$8 for children aged 12 and under.
For citizens the ticket costs TT$25 for adults (approximately US$4) and TT$10 (approximately US$1.50) for children. The ticket includes the cost of the required permit, an informational session and a tour guide to take you onto the beach for turtle watching at night. My special tip for you is to book a night’s accommodation at one of the nearby guesthouses. This way you can spend the night watching female turtles lay eggs, catch a few hours sleep, then head back onto the beach to watch the sun rise and check if there are mothers still out on the beach. Chances are there will be during peak season.
The Nesting Process
After mating, the female turtles come ashore for the nesting process. One of the most amazing characteristics of the leatherback turtle is that when the females are ready to lay their eggs, they return to the same beach on which they were born. Talk about an amazing sense of direction!
Once settled onto the sandy shore, the mother turtle uses her flippers to clear an area of sand and create a deep depression. Next, the laying process begins. You may see the turtle releasing tears while laying. Though local stories may speak about the turtle crying because of humans destroying her eggs or the fact that she will never see her babies, the tears allow the turtle to remove excess salt from her body and protect her eyes from the sand.
Mothers deposit between 60 to 100 eggs per session. Once all eggs have been deposited, the mother skilfully covers the hole, leaving behind a gently sloping mound. She then makes her way back into the ocean, disappearing into the waves and leaving her potential babies behind. During one nesting season, a female turtle may nest several times, at intervals of 8 to 12 days.
Hatchlings on the Beach
After approximately 55 to 65 days, the leatherback hatchlings emerge from the nest and instinctively make their way towards the ocean. Did you know that the sand temperature affects the gender of turtles? Males tend to be born in sands of cooler temperatures while females are born in sands of hotter temperatures.
During my trip in August, I was fortunate to see hatchlings scurry out from seven different nests within a space of two hours! As part of their conservation efforts, you may see guides collecting baby turtles to release later in the day, when the chances of predators attacking the turtles are fewer.
Turtle Watching Tips:
- Keep your voice low and avoid being noisy as this can scare turtles attempting to nest.
- Do not shine flashlights, phones or use photography flash on the beach. This distracts and disorients the turtles. Your guide will provide special lights for your group.
- Do not litter on beaches. Turtles can get tangled or choke on plastics etc.
- Do not sit on turtles or try to touch them. You should only touch turtles when your guide says that it is safe to do so.
- It’s going to be dark and difficult to see your way on the beach – wear suitable footwear (sneakers or sturdy sandals) for your night-time adventure.
- When viewing hatchlings, do not dig up nests or pull hatchlings out. They will emerge in their own time.
- While turtle watching is indeed a once in a lifetime experience, respect the animal’s space and try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Would you want to give birth with a horde of strangers gathered around you? Didn’t think so!
Headstart Programme at Grande Rivière
While at Grande Rivière, I had the amazing opportunity to check out the latest turtle conservation initiative, the Headstart Programme, managed by the Turtle Village Trust and the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association (GRNTGA) in collaboration with Atlantic LNG. This programme was started an as intervention to address the disturbance of the nests of hard-shelled turtles by the nesting leatherback turtles.
The project aims to increase the likelihood of the survival of hard-shelled sea turtles in the wild and promotes attitudes of conservation nationally. Baby green and hawksbill turtles are reared at the Grande Rivière facility and eventually released into the ocean when they have grown and are less vulnerable to predators. Turtles are tagged before release to monitor their movements. My guide recounted a tagged turtle who was raised and released in Trinidad and was recently reported to be living in Madagascar!
The Headstart Programme provides an excellent learning opportunity for children and adults as we all work together to do our part to conserve these fascinating and beautiful animals. To book a visit to view the turtles in this programme, contact the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guides Association (GRNTGA) at (868) 469-1288 or [email protected]. A heartfelt thank you to our wonderful Guide Shakeel who allowed us to view and feed the young turtles and to the Chairman of the GRNTGA, Mr. Len Peters, for providing me with valuable insight and information on Trinidad’s turtles.
For more information on viewing turtles or volunteering, contact the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guides Association (GRNTGA) at [email protected] or the Turtle Village Trust of Trinidad and Tobago at [email protected].
All the photos above are from Hannah Enightoola.