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South America, part 3 - Nesting Leatherback Sea Turtles


We finish our celebration of nature in South America with an animal that can be found across the globe, but seldom seen beyond its nesting beaches. South America has several Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting beaches concentrated along its northern end. Here we visit a particularly dense nesting beach on Trinidad, an island 6.8 miles off the coast of Venezuela that was historically attached to South America.

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The faint red glow of my flashlight barely penetrated through the blackness as the lights of Grande Riviere’s last beach-side building faded into the distance. The deeper we moved into turtle nesting territory, the more uneven the sand became. I had seen the tractor-sized tracks of leatherback sea turtles during the day, and I now stumbled across evidence of fresh activity. leatherback-8

A sea turtle researcher had told me this Trinidadian beach hosted one of the two densest concentrations of nesting leatherbacks in the world. Locals claimed 500+ turtles came ashore a night here but despite these claims, and evidence in the sand, I was nervous I wouldn’t see one. I needn’t have worried.

Leatherback struggling beyond the water's buoyancy, photographed at dawn

A sigh to my left drew my attention to the water and I gawked as a shadow the size of a Mini Cooper surfed ashore. The massiveness of this turtle shocked and humbled me. It was one thing to know these were the largest sea turtles in the world, but it was another to feel insignificant in its presence. Beyond the water’s buoyancy, the turtle struggled. It dug its powerful flippers into the sand and shimmied its impressive body forward, displacing yards of sand to move mere inches up the steep bank. I wanted to keep watching, but my group was well ahead and I didn’t want my presence to discourage this female after her monumental exertions.

Leatherback returning to the sea after nesting (dawn)

I picked my way across the sand, nearly tripping on a leatherback I had mistaken for a boulder. I heard a grunt and realized there was another female further inland. I turned toward the sound and watched as something pale emerged from where this turtle dug. I trained my light on the faint white spheres that rolled across the sand; eggs from a previously laid nest. Such wasted effort! I yearned to gather the leathery eggs and bury them for the mother whose nest had just been dismantled, a small contribution to a Threatened species. Yet I knew the effort was too small and pointless. There were too many females digging too many nests on this particular beach; some eggs would be sacrificed but that was certainly better than having too few females and too few nests. I comforted myself with the thought that unsuccessful eggs were part of this species’ reproductive strategy. These females would return to this beach several times in the next few weeks. They would lay hundreds of eggs, and only one or two might survive to adulthood. The mother of these dislodged eggs would have other chances to pass on her genes.

Gelatinous tears protect a Leatherback's eyes from sand and desiccation

Leatherbacks (1 of 1)Guides checking a pit scan reader to identify a nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle

I turned away and saw my group gathering into a circle ahead. I scurried to catch up, tip toeing around a couple more turtles en route. I joined the huddle seated on the cool damp sand facing a mother turtle, all reverently silent. The turtle was in her nesting trance, oblivious to the red beams glistening off the gelatinous tears protecting her eyes. She was unperturbed by the prodding of the local guides as they stretched a measuring tape across the longitudinal ridges of her leathery back, checked the tags on her front flippers and eased her rear flippers aside to show us the pile of eggs growing in her carefully shaped egg chamber. For the guides, this was routine. For me, it was magic, and the transfixed expressions of those seated around me suggested they felt the same. There was something worshipful in sharing this intimate moment with this meditative mother beneath a sanctuary of twinkling stars, rhythmic waves as a reminder of the ancientness of this ritual.

Leatherback Sea Turtle on her nest (dawn)

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To read the other posts in this series, please click on this link.


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Fascinating!  I was just visiting Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia today and discovered that leatherbacks like to spend their summers off the coast feasting on jellyfish.  Amazing what long journeys they make to lay their eggs.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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