May 1, 2010
There’s much more to the Caribbean than white sand beaches and turquoise seas. David Whitley discovers a different kind of beach break at the northern tip of Grenada, birthing place of the leatherback turtle.
“The light of the full moon offers just enough illumination to show the trail in the sand, which could be mistaken for tyre tracks were it not coming straight out of the sea. It’s just after midnight on Levera Beach, and a leatherback turtle has come back to her birthplace to lay her eggs.
The leatherback turtle is a truly remarkable creature. For a start, it’s absolutely huge, looking like a crocodile which has been stretched to the width of a dining table. Apparently the average female that comes ashore at Levera is five feet long, while the feckless male that swanned off after getting her pregnant is twice the size.
Their sense of direction is even more incredible. Tagged leatherbacks have been tracked thousands of miles away, near African beaches or off the coast of Canada. Yet when it’s time to give birth, they’ll come back to where they first broke through their egg. That’s some GPS.”
“One of those prodigal daughters awaits us when our small group from the Paradise Bay Resort arrives in the dark. The official tour went home an hour ago, with visitors left unaware that most of the turtles come after 11.30pm. The only people there to greet her are volunteers from Ocean Spirits, a Grenada-based organisation that aims to protect the turtle population. They will monitor the births, protect the newly-laid eggs and tag the turtles for future research.
The leatherback is on the critically endangered list, largely due to poaching. In many places – Grenada included – the turtle is considered something of a delicacy. Punishments for stealing eggs have recently been ramped up to two years’ imprisonment and a large fine, but that doesn’t stop turtle cropping up on restaurant menus or being sold surreptitiously on market stalls.”
“The mum-to-be has quite a bit of work ahead of her. She has already swum all the way in from the deeper ocean, and now she has to crawl up the beach. This is an incredible sight, as mother uses her powerful front flippers to slowly breaststroke through the sand.
Flicking sand everywhere, she eventually picks her spot and prepares for the birth. She has to dig a hole and starts by wriggling around in the sand, propelling it backwards at a rate of knots. In order to hide the location of the hole from predators, she keeps altering position to create a wide circle.
Once this initial circle has been made she calls her smaller back flippers into action, using them as scooped blades to create a smaller, deeper hole. The process seems to last for hours, and you can feel the exhaustion in each methodical swipe. Eventually she stops and pauses in position.”
“This is when the Ocean Spirits crew spring into action. The two volunteers switch on their headlights and take out their click-counters. One is lying down, with a gloved hand plunged into the hole. She asks me to hold the back flipper to the side so that she can get a better view. Apparently the mother doesn’t feel a thing, but it’s tough, muscular and seems to be putting up something of a fight.
And then come the eggs, dropping out in twos and threes. They’re remarkably small and soft coming from something so big and bulky. She deposits around 120, all logged dutifully by the volunteers.
Once this task is over, the turtle covers the eggs up. This seems to take even longer than digging the hole in the first place. The turtle is clearly exhausted as she laboriously flicks the sand back over, then gyrates on the spot to smooth it out.
As soon as she’s satisfied – and the volunteers will help disguise the spot even better once she’s gone – she uses her last remnants of energy to trudge back down the beach into the welcoming waters. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and we’re cheering her on all the way. It feels as though she gives a little look back as she’s about to disappear, her massive journey complete. And hopefully, in a couple of years’ time, her children will do exactly the same thing.”
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