Seeing the leatherback turtle jerking around in the sand as it works to bury its eggs on Grande Riviere Beach in northeast Trinidad puts me in mind of the scene in the movie Jurassic Park in which Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) finds a sick triceratops in the reeds and leans on its belly in order to listen to its heart. His body rises and falls as the giant animal breathes in and out.
The leatherback turtle is so immense it could be mistaken for a dinosaur.
And it does seem a relic of a lost world; an enigmatic monster of the sea, like the kraken.
The leatherback turtle
The leatherback turtle, or leathery turtle (called so because it has a rough, leathery carapace rather than a bony shell) is the largest of all sea turtles. It grows to two metres in length, and can reach up to 700 kilograms in weight (although the average turtle might be closer to 400 kg).
The leatherback turtle can dive beyond 1,200 metres depth, making it one of the deepest diving four-limbed vertebrates, alongside the sperm whale and beaked whale, and it can stay below water for periods of up to 70 minutes.
It is also the fastest reptile on earth, reaching speeds above 35 km/hr when swimming.
Grande Riviere Beach
The range of the leatherback turtle extends across all of the world’s tropical and sub-tropical oceans; they can be found in the northern extremities of Norway, and well below the southernmost points of Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
Their nesting sites, however, are limited to a number of select beaches across the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.
The best beaches for egg-laying are those with gently-rising, sandy shores, such as this one, at Grande Riviere, in northeastern Trinidad.
The egg-laying process takes up to two hours, during which time the giant female hauls herself into a suitable spot on the beach, digs a deep hole with her hind flippers, and fills the hole with her eggs (there are usually about 100 eggs per clutch).
After the eggs have been laid, the turtle will spend 45 minutes camouflaging the nest site, which involves disturbing a large patch of sand using both front and hind flippers. Camouflaging is performed to hide the location of the eggs from potential predators.
The female goes into a trance-like state when she begins laying her eggs. During this time she can be approached by tourists without being deterred from her egg-laying. Tourists can even lay their hands on the side of the heaving turtle, and feel her breathing, just like Sam Neill does in Jurassic Park.
At all other times tourists should keep their distance.
Turtles direct themselves by moonlight, and can become distracted and disoriented by artificial lighting. Red torch light doesn’t seem to bother them, and it is now the only form of torchlight permitted on the beach.
Photos have to be taken without flash.
I have taken the liberty of converting my photos into black-and-white images, but I have left the photo below unaltered, showing the egg-laying turtle lit up by red light as it was on the night.
Leatherback turtle numbers have more than halved since the 1980s. Threats to the turtle include harvesting of eggs for human consumption; death from drowning after being caught in fishing nets, and ingestion of pollutants and litter including plastic bags (plastic bags and jellyfish look uncannily alike when suspended in water).
Practical information and how to reach Grande Riviere Beach:
Grande Riviere beach is located on the northeast coast of Trinidad. It’s about a 100 km drive from Port-of-Spain (trip time is 2 – 2.5 hours), on windy and occasionally rough road. More transport info here.