Magic's Adventure

21 April 2009 | Georgetown
17 April 2009 | Mayaguana
11 November 2008 | St Croix
07 November 2008 | St Croix
22 October 2008 | St Croix
21 September 2008 | St Croix
15 September 2008 | Chaguaramas Bay, Trinidad
15 September 2008 | Chaguaramas Bay, Trinidad
14 September 2008 | Chaguaramas Bay, Trinidad
07 September 2008 | Scotland Bay, Trinidad
21 August 2008 | Clarkes Court Bay, Grenada
09 August 2008 | Clarkes Court Bay, Grenada
06 August 2008 | Clarkes Court Bay, Grenada
06 June 2008 | Bequia
05 June 2008 | Bequia
02 June 2008 | Bequia
28 May 2008 | Bequia
27 May 2008 | Bequia
26 May 2008 | Bequia
25 May 2008 | Guadaloupe

Matura Beach & the Turtles

14 September 2008 | Chaguaramas Bay, Trinidad
Matura Beach lies on the north-eastern coast of Trinidad and is one of several beaches in this part of the Caribbean used by giant leatherback turtles to lay their eggs. These are the largest of all sea turtles and during the season, which runs from March to the beginning of September, these magnificent creatures haul themselves up onto the beaches during the cover of darkness to lay white, soft shelled eggs which they tenderly camouflage and then leave to their own devices.

The female leatherback turtle can weigh up to 1,400lbs (500kg) when fully grown, and their shell can be up to 5ft in length. They are seriously endangered. Their diet consists mainly of jellyfish and other soft bodied invertebrates and they feed both on the surface and at depth. Many leatherback turtles have been remotely monitored by scientists with tracking devices as part of the effort to further understand and therefore protect these wonderful creatures. One of these turtles was tracked during a journey of 6,835 miles (11,000 km) from Trinidad to north of the Canary Islands, to the Bay of Biscay then to Spain, Morocco and Mauritania before the track was lost back at the Canary Islands. Another turtle was tracked diving to a depth of 4,265ft (1.3km). They are truly amazing animals.

After dark a nesting female will drag herself onto the beach. It is here that she is at her most vulnerable. Unlike other turtles which have a hard shell, hers is soft and cartilaginous and leaves her exposed to attack. Apart from man and feral dogs which will harass her in this helpless state, she is also at risk from dehydration. She has to finish her egg-laying task before the sun comes up. She chooses her nest site with care and then starts to excavate the sand with her powerful front flippers. She digs a pit large enough for her body and then starts to dig the actual nest with her back flippers, clearing the sand first with one flipper and then the other. Once she has dug as far as her flippers can reach, she starts to lay her eggs. Her nest will be approximately 2ft (70cm) deep and once her eggs are laid she packs the sand back into the hole, again using her back flippers. She will then camouflage the nest by moving the sand around with her front flippers until she is happy with the condition of the nest. Only then will she haul herself back to the surf and head out for open water.

The female will lay between 80 - 100 eggs each time she nests, and she may nest between 5 and 7 times each season. She will only nest, however, every 2 to 5 years. She can 'choose' the sex of the hatchlings in each batch; for males she will lay her eggs close to the waters edge where the temperature is cooler, for females she will lay further away from the sea where the sand is warmer. After hatching, the youngsters as a group will climb out of the nest by collapsing the sand above and around them. They time their exit to coincide with darkness (some miss their timing) and then scurry to the sea. It is believed that only 1 in 1,000 will survive. Apart from man, the youngsters are preyed upon by sharks and other large fish, crabs and, whilst they are still on the beach, feral dogs and birds of prey.

Our trip started at 4.30pm with our departure in Jesse James' tour bus heading for Matura. The time of our return was not known; that would depend on the turtles. The drive to Matura would take about 2 hours, not including the stop for dinner on the way. We were also unexpectedly delayed by a flat tyre, and finally reached Matura around 9pm. We were OK, the action hadn't started yet. The turtle watching at Matura is run by a volunteer group called 'Nature Seekers'. The group was formed by local residents in 1990 to try to stop the slaughter of leatherback turtles on their beach. At that time more than 30% of all turtles coming to shore were being killed. Today that number is 0%. For their work Nature Seekers have won a number of environmental awards and have turned their community into a destination for tourists in Trinidad.

On arrival we were given a talk on the turtles, and told what we could expect to see. We then went to a holding area to await a call from our guide if and when a female was seen emerging from the surf. Every night volunteers patrol the beach watching for the females coming ashore. They are in radio contact and when a female is spotted they will notify the guide and the group of observers will be taken to the turtle. Otherwise no non-volunteers are allowed on the beach. We could be in for a long wait.

Fortunately we weren't. Within about 30 minutes our guide's radio crackled into life and we were on our way down the beach. Luckily the moon had been full a day or so before our trip, so we had some light with which to see our way. No torches (flashlights) are allowed. A few hundred yards down the beach we found our female. Her shell was approximately 4ft in length and our guide estimated that she probably weighed in at about 900lbs. She had already started digging her pit, and we watched her put the finishing touches to it and then change to her back flippers to excavate her nest. This whole process probably took well over an hour, but it seemed like minutes so enthralled were we observing this incredible creature.

And then she started laying her eggs. At this stage we were allowed to approach the turtle, touch her and take photos, but no flash. Apparently once the female starts to lay she enters into what is described as a trancelike state and becomes unaware of anything going on around her. I've read several descriptions of the process on various turtle websites (see link below) but somehow cannot reconcile myself to the fact that she is not at all disturbed by a group of people surrounding her, touching her and taking her photograph while she is laying. It just doesn't seem possible. Having said that, I'm sorry to admit that we were juts as eager to get close to her as everyone else and it was a memorable experience to enjoy just a few moments with this wonderful creature. As soon as she had stopped laying we retreated back into the tree-line, and seemingly without undue haste she went on to cover and camouflage her nest before heading slowly back to the ocean.

On our way back down the beach we were delighted to find some newly hatched turtles emerging from the sand and scurrying down the beach towards the sea. While we watched a few, with obviously a similar sense of direction to my own, headed off towards the trees and we gently turned them around and assisted them to the waters edge. The chances of survival for these delightful mini-turtles are small, but the gusto with which they rush towards the open water suggests that each one will put up a fight all the way.

We walked back to the bus with a sense of awe and had a very quiet journey back to Chaguaramas not, as I originally thought, because everyone had fallen asleep, but because we all seemed to be deep in thought and contemplation about the incredible experience we had enjoyed for the last 3 hours. One day we hope to see these turtles again, but it is more of a hope that they will soon be removed from the endangered list and that their numbers will be allowed to grow without risk from man. Fingers crossed.
Link to Leatherback Turtle website
Vessel Name: Magic
Vessel Make/Model: Baba 40
Hailing Port: Ipswich
Crew: David & Donna Glessing