Mon, 1 Jul 2024

— Leatherback Turtles of Trinidad.

Please check out these blog postings every few days, as I’m going to post a new story about each of the turtles I’m photographing, in parallel with my fundraising campaign to finish my upcoming book — I’m hoping to reach my goal in the next two weeks —  Campaign link and information below, thanks in advance!

‘Beauty’ might not be the first word that comes to mind when describing a massive, mostly black, cylindrically-shaped marine creature, some 6 feet in length and weighing half a ton or more. Yet that was the name that fit perfectly for the last of several hundreds of these behemoths that I met during my two weeks on the island of Trinidad, the southernmost of the Caribbean chain.

The first one came at dusk, a dark hulk appearing motionless between the waves lazily pounding the beach, about the size and shape a regulatory life-raft.  After several minutes with no detectable movement, the silhouette of a conical head lifted up from the sand for a gulp of air.  

Then began the transformation of what, for the last 100 million years or so, has been a mysterious oceanic beast effortlessly swimming across entire ocean basins, suddenly metamorphosing into something reminiscent of a living tank grinding its way doggedly up the beach. In a determined mission to reproduce, she was now leaving the weightless embrace of the sea, pulling herself inch by inch onto the sand, using the full power of her nine-foot-span, sail-shaped front flippers

I had come here specifically for this magical encounter, because sadly, the giant Leatherback Turtle today is a species in steep decline throughout most of the world.  But not here, at the little village of Grande Riviere (pop 260), with its gently curving quartz beach on the northeast coast of the island.  Thanks to the steadfast protection work of a small local conservation group called the Grande Riviere Nature Guides Association, here the lumbering giants can find a safe haven to lay their eggs and hatch their babies, the focus of an epic 10,000 miles migrations from their feeding grounds in Canadian waters, off the coast of Nova Scotia.  The villagers here even adhere to lighting their beachfront shacks only with red lights, so as not to disorient nesting female turtles, and later, their hatchlings.

Each night, for a modest fee, the Guides take visitors — mostly families from the island’s capital of Port of Spain — for a magical encounter with these living dinosaurians.  In the glow of heavily filtered red torch lights, the guests watch in a hushed group as the dedicated female scrapes and shuffles, dragging her formidable weight forward until she finds the perfect spot for a nest.  

Then begins a delicate dance — even if ‘delicate’ is also a word difficult to correlate with such a monster. Her body rooted in place, the female turtle uses her dexterous hind flippers alternatively to oh-so-carefully excavate a perfectly cylindrical hole, somewhat vase-shaped at the bottom. Here she lays her 80-110 eggs, which she will cover and leave to be incubated by the tropical sun. 

While in the process of dropping her eggs, the mother turtle enters a kind of trance — you might compare it to being in labor — oblivious to what goes on around her. That’s when the guides invite the children, one by one, to gently place the palm of their hand on the side of her carapace. “Oh, she’s warm!” little voices exclaim. Indeed, the leatherback turtle is the only reptile capable of generating substantial metabolic heat. In fact, she is now overheating from her efforts out of water, her paler undersides flushing pink with blood to shed excess heat.

Night after night I watch and photograph this sacred ritual. Under starlight and moonlight, I witness the nesting process repeated hundreds of times. I see turtles fling sand at each other and even collide in a flurry of panicked flippers. Occasionally, some late nesters are still busy as the sunrise bursts over the forested mountains surrounding the bay and onlookers begin to walk the beach, staring on in amazement.  

Daylight gives me a chance to study the features of these archaic beings in more detail: their glistening smooth leathery skin and sharp bony ridges running the length of their backs; their inscrutable, sunken black eyes that roll completely back into their sockets (instinctive protection for when they are dining on jellyfish armed with millions of stinging cells?), their pink-skinned ‘parietal eye’ on top of their heads (sensitive to light and believed to help in navigation), their vastly expandible pale pinkish throat that acts like a bellows (to pump giant jellyfish in, and water out?); their big, round nostrils (that serve to squirt out water while keeping slippery food in?).  

Of course, most noticeable of all is the deeply jagged, dagger-sharp interlocking front edges of these turtles’ mouths, the perfect tool for carving up their favorite menu of gelatinous prey. Even more striking is to see one yawn, revealing a formidable array of backwards pointing spikes lining its mouth and throat, all tools refined to process food that consists almost entirely of seawater!

Early one morning, some splashing draws my attention some distance up the river that cuts through the nesting beach, and I soon realize that it’s a turtle that took a wrong turn after nesting. Confused and stuck on a gravel bar, she’s desperately trying to swim upriver rather than down. It takes me several hours of cajoling and nudging (you don’t PUSH a half-ton turtle!) to get her headed back in the right direction and out to sea. 

Throughout my stay, I notice that, while looking mostly black from a distance, each individual turtle in actual fact carries her own distinctive dappled markings in a smattering of grey-green spots and smudges on an otherwise blue-black background, especially around the throat and front flippers.

Dawn breaks clear on my last morning in Trinidad. I wander around the beach dazed from so many nights without sleep, watching the last the dark lady conscientiously covering and hiding her precious nest, then work her way back down the beach just as the stars above are fading. But then, one more wave transforms into an emerging turtle, a latecomer. As she clears the water determined to make haste toward the top of the beach, she grunts and groans with effort. 

That’s when I realize that she is nothing like any turtle I’ve seen before: she is stunningly beautiful!  Her entire body — down to her eyelids — is daubed in pale green markings as if a child had carefully finger-painted her. Spontaneously, I call her ‘Beauty.’

She hurries to get her job done; in an hour she too is gone.  Beauty is the last adult leatherback turtle that I see… until the next installments of my Turtle Dreaming, stay tuned... 

To do all seven species of turtles justice, I’ve embarked on a
series of trips around the world, the list of which keeps getting
longer rather than shorter. That’s why, to complete the book,
I needed to set up a fundraising campaign.

If you like these sample images then please check out my Kickstarter Campaign and especially the incentive gift rewards I’m offering… 

I’m nearing my target figure but since it’s an all-or-nothing goal, every donation, however small, will ultimately help me achieve the photographic results I’m aiming for.

My campaign notes feature many more images and a lot of information, plus I regularly post updates to my supporters.
Look it up via the following link…  And remember to return to this blog site for more lively stories of individual
turtle encounters in the days to come…