A couple of days ago, to break the monotony of endless boat chores, the crew went on a tour to view leatherback sea turtles laying their eggs. The leatherback turtle is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth-heaviest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. It is the only living species in the genus Dermochelys. We left Curare at 5 in the afternoon and drove all the way across the island of Trinidad to a beach on the eastern coast, close to the town of Maturo. This was another trip organized by Jesse James and, as we expected, it was well run and a lot of fun. While driving Jesse told us some interesting facts about turtles and when we arrived at our destination we were met by an enthusiastic young guide who told us the rules and led us onto the beach.
The two most important rules were: only use red lights and give the turtle a lot of room. Off we moved through the red-lit dark, walking very quickly because a turtle was on the beach and had started to lay her eggs. Our guide wanted to make sure we saw this event because there was no guarantee that another turtle would choose that particular night to come ashore. The nesting season starts in March and goes until August with the peak activity from mid-May to mid-July but some nights no turtles come onto the beach. The beach was lumpy and uneven and we looked like a bunch of yachties coming home from a bar as we lurched our way across the sand. When we arrived we were told that we could use white lights, touch the turtle and take flash photographs. What about the two most important rules? Apparently those rules do not apply when she is actively laying because she is in a trance, oblivious to her surroundings. For about 15 minutes we crowded around looking at eggs dropping into the nest, touching her leathery "shell", feeling the skin on her legs and head and taking photos. When she was almost finished the guides told us the two rules must now be obeyed and we watched the rest of the process in the eerie red darkness. Then our guide's radio squawked to tell him that another turtle had come ashore so we raced back over the uneven sand and saw the entire process once again. The turtles put so much effort into digging their nests, laying their eggs, covering them back up and then digging a decoy nest I started to feel sorry for them. Of course the nest is all she ever does for her offspring, she will never come back to check how they are doing, and she'll never have to cope with the "terrible twos".
1. Female leatherback turtles are huge and the males are even larger (but males never come ashore). The first turtle we saw was about 6 feet (1.8 meter) in length and weighed over 700 lbs. (317 kg.), the second one was a little shorter but she was wider.
2. Leatherback turtles do not have a hard shell, hence the name, and they cannot retract they head and flippers inside of their "shell". To escape predators they dive fast (5 feet/second or 1.5 meter/second) and deep. The deepest recorded turtle dive was 4000 feet (1219 meter) at which point the transmitter was crushed.
3. A female only deposits eggs every two or three years but in that year she will lay up to nine clutches with each clutch containing an average of 110 eggs. The nesting process happens once every 10 to 12 days. In between her shore excursions she goes back to the ocean to swim around and fertilize her next clutch.
4. The temperature of the sand determines the sex of the baby turtles. Cooler sand (closer to the ocean) produces males and warmer sand (closer to the vegetation) produces females. She may even lay a nest mid-way between that has a mixed gender.
5. She lays two types of eggs. Those that are 2 inches (5 cm) in circumference are the fertilized eggs and these will hatch into baby turtles. The smaller ones, some of these are more oval in shape, are unfertilized and these are used to create air pockets for the babies to breathe while buried in the sand before they dig their way up to the surface. The eggs hatch in about 60 to 70 days and the babies average 2.41 inches (61.3 mm) in length.
6. Only 1 in 1000 eggs make it to maturity.
7. The tears that continually flow from the turtles eyes are actually secretions of excess salt which they ingest when they eat jellyfish - their favourite food. These "tears" also keep the turtles eyes free of sand when the female digs her nest.