All Creatures Great and Small
Just where has the time gone, we keep asking ourselves. So much for us thinking that we would run out of things to do during our three month stint on land here in Trinidad. Now we have only 23 more sleeps until it’s time to leave, yikkes!.
The countdown mode has begun and we still have a long list of things to do before our time runs out. The rain continues to fall, well it is the wet season after all, and our workers are starting to get behind due to the weather. We really don’t want them going at it hammer and tongs just to meet the deadline, so we’ve told them to slow down and do it properly as we want it done right.They are still adamant that they will finish on time…we will see.
We have been popping over to the boat a couple of times a day to check on the progress and overall we are very happy with the job so far.There have been a couple of discussions with the gelcoat team re some wavy patches on the hulls, but after a few more days of fairing back, the outcome has been great and at last we are seeing shinny hulls with a mirror finish, something that we have not seen in years.
Work on the boat aside, there were still a couple of tours that we wanted to do before leaving.The main one being to see the Giant Leatherback Turtles. Once again Jesse James was the guru on this subject and we booked a trip with him to see these magnificent creatures.The females only come ashore to nest at night during the months of March to early August and then 7 -12 weeks later the hatchlings begin to make their way down to the water.
This trip is one of the most popular amongst the cruisers especially as the month of July wears on and the likelihood of seeing more babies increases. As with all things to do with mother nature sometimes it is the luck of the draw whether or not you actually get to see what you are going out there for. Luckily the Gods were smiling on us the day of our trip.
With a van full of eager yachties we left Chagauramas in the early evening all set for the 3 hour ride across the island to Matura beach on the northeast coast. Stopping for dinner along the way we arrived at the beach about 10pm where the guides from the community based organisation, Nature Seekers, were waiting for us. During the six month nesting season the beach is off limits to the public unless you are accompanied by a guide. This is for the safety of the turtles as they will not come ashore to lay their eggs if they sense any sort of danger.
But before I get into our experience here are a couple of interesting facts about these ancient mariners.
A Giant Leatherback Turtles’ lifespan is 30 - 50 years. After reaching maturity they mate every 2-3 years.Having said that the female only begins to mate at age 20 –25. Rumor has it that the reason for this is that the males have so much respect for the females that they wouldn’t think of deflowering her any earlier, the jury is out on that rumor. Growing to a length of 1 - 2m they weigh in at a massive 250 –700kgs. These particular type of turtles are one of the deepest diving animals in the sea and have been recorded at depths of 1,280m. They also hold the record as the fastest moving reptile, being clocked at an incredible 35klm per hour. The female lays around 110 eggs in each clutch and deposits 5 –7 clutches over a period of 10 days with about 85% of her eggs being viable.The depth and temperature inside her nest determines the sex of the hatchlings. Incredibly, the females always return to nest on the beach on which they were born and so the cycle of life continues. From the moment a male enters the water as a hatchling he never sets a flipper ashore again for the rest of his life.
The guides had already been out patrolling the beach and looking for signs of the turtles before we’d arrived and to our delight one had been sighted a few hundred yards along the beach. With red globed flashlights in hand, so as not to annoy or alert the turtles of our presence, we set off. Our group spread out as we ambled along the foreshore and being mindful of some large dips in the sand and scattered driftwood Liam and I slowed down a little. From a boaters perspective, but I guess not from a pregnant turtles’ one, the shoreline looked very inhospitable with scattered rocks and large waves crashing onto the steep sandbanks. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something move. There right before us was a female ever so slowly making her way out of the surf. We stood in the moonlight mesmerised. She was gigantic. Pulling hard with her front flippers she gradually increased the distance between her and dark waters behind. We watched her for a short while and then left her in peace to do what she had come here to do.
Catching up to the rest of our group we stood quietly watching another female already busy digging a hole to lay her eggs. Surprisingly, this only took about 20 minutes. She worked hard using her rear flippers digging a steep sided hole and packing down the sand to ensure that it didn’t collapse before she could lay. Once she was satisfied that all was in order she then went into a laying trance and around 50 white eggs slid down into the deep nest below. During this time, according to our guides, she is completely unaware of her surroundings. It is then and only then that we were allowed to take flash photos and pat her.
Her leather skin and was cool but soft to touch, unlike other turtles which have hard shells. In the dark it was hard to gauge just how big these animals were, but once we could put the lights on we realized how truly magnificent they are.The laying trance lasts only a short while and then it is back to hard work using all her flippers turning this way and that as she covers and recovers the hole again to prevent predators from finding her nest and poaching her eggs. After this she makes her way back down into the water exhausted, never to know the fate of her babies.
Leaving the rest of our group behind Liam and I joined Jesse for a walk along the beach in search of some hatchlings. We had just about given up when we came across a little fellow stuck in some flotsam as he tried to make his way down to the waters edge. He was tiny but full of energy.
When the babies hatch they have a small pouch in their tummies which nourishes them for about 2 weeks, sort of a starter pack I guess. With a bit of luck they make it out into the ocean before they exhaust their initial food supply.Their usually diet is sea grass and jellyfish, but for these little guys it’s a big ask to forage on your own out in the big wide world. Sadly, the majority of hatchlings never make it.
The biggest threat to this endangered species are humans. With fishing being a large industry in the waters around Trinidad many get caught in nets and die,and at the sake of persevering their livelihood, the fisherman prefer to save their nets rather than cutting them to free a turtle. Often fisherman will sacrifice the life of the turtles by cutting off one of their flippers in order to release them. Ultimately this means death to these gentle giants. The other big killer is floating plastic bags which turtles often mistake for their favourite food, jellyfish.
Leaving the beach that night, having been touched by mother nature, made us feel very special. Not many people get to witness such an extraordinary event and it is one that we will both remember for a very long time.