That is me looking exactly as exhilarated as I felt that first time I touched a leatherback. Their skin is smooth and comforting and they carry it beautifully. I noted the bottles on the beach and I blame the tourists.
On an enchanted full moon night, we witnessed one of nature’s celebratory wonders and the inherent imperfection that leaves room to ‘grow’ and meet the high expectations of natural selection. This is a story from my first official birding trip, after continued, trans-continental traditions of not owning binoculars, starting at birth, I had got a cheap one. The night was in Trinidad, and the sight was not of birds, but the giant leatherbacks. Since I relied on someone with over a decade of experience in Trinidad to plan the trip, we had this on our schedule but didn’t even realize its tenor until having driven 2 hrs from our ecolodge, and meeting Francis, our turtle guide. We had 30 min more to reach the beach and I don’t believe he took a single breath during that time, giving us a detailed brief of what was to come.
Francis is a volunteer with Nature seekers, who receive a small pay to patrol the windblown Matura beach and protect nesting leatherbacks from poachers. The beach is about 7 miles long, shoring the Atlantic ocean, made of coarse sand. Leatherbacks nest here starting from March through July.
Francis on the prowl: Francis and other volunteers like him patrol the beach, when asked what they did if they found poachers at work, he had said 'we beat the crap out of them!'. He was very passionate about saving and looking after the welfare of the turtles.
It was still light when we reached, close to 7 pm. Francis, who had disappeared as soon as we reached, after getting a buzz call on what looked like a walkie talkie, came back oozing even more enthusiasm. He told us that the chance of a lifetime awaited us as a female had been seen swimming towards the shore in daylight and unlike “most people”, we could see everything in natural light. Otherwise only low power, red flashlights are allowed on the beach, so as not to confuse the turtles.
We rushed behind him over a grey sanded narrow beach, lined with a thin row of palms, and some patches of sargassum seaweed, which looked like moss strewn around. This was back in 2012 when I believe the sargassum seaweed was not as much of a problem. However, it has been piling up year after year along the Atlantic shores since 2011, in unprecedented quantities. The pile-up creates barriers that often entangle turtles, making it hard for them to reach the nesting grounds. This increase is because the blooming of this algae, once restricted to the North Atlantic (accumulating in the Sargasso sea), has spread everywhere in the Atlantic, possibly due to a rise in ocean surface temperatures. None of the ways, like offshore nets to trap them, or organizing beach cleanups to remove the piles, have been successful in keeping the seaweed away.. but back in 2012, we didn’t know this, and ignorance is bliss, especially in presence of a leatherback turtle.
We saw a female turtle emerge from a frothy wavelet and get onto the beach, she was a beautiful blue indigo with white patches on her face and a back with rows of embossed lighter dots. Francis later told us that she was smallish, even if she had looked huge to us: leatherbacks are the fourth largest reptiles in adulthood.
In preparation for nesting: This was the adult who stayed onshore for about 10-15 minutes, moved sand around but decided not to build further and went back into the sea. In the background is the sargassum weed and remains of tourists.
Since the leatherbacks do not have a shell (carapace), being the only sea turtle without one, they are a little more exposed on land to human poachers looking for meat.
We saw our first female trying to nest, for which they move inwards and beyond the line of the tide. Their big floppy front flippers and shorter flippers in the back move the sand around in a manner that is hard to believe, as they actually cannot see anything that is going on in the back. I am not sure how they know they have reached the right depth, but it can take about half an hour for the nest building, it is maybe a foot across, and can be about 2 feet deep.
Our leatherback did not finish building, just moved some sand around and suddenly, turned around and made her way back into the ocean. Francis assured us, it was not because of us being present. I am not sure about that, guides have reassured clueless tourists of many subtle or blatant crimes. After all, we were ‘allowed’ to touch her as she stopped to take a breath every four steps, heaving herself in sand took a lot of her energy. While I generally listen to local naturalists, I believe this time we should have kept our distance. However, Francis and others have likely touched them in that manner over the years and still seen successful nesting, so he probably believed what he said too.
Still, enchantment awaited us as we were walked towards another nesting turtle Francis had been alerted about. We saw a couple of volunteers looking down at a depression in the sand, it had already turned a lot darker, but it was a full moon night. Francis had conned us, and as I said, I had been totally unprepared for this adventure, we had no idea that we might see hatchlings. July was late enough for a lot of the nests to start hatching. All that talking for half an hour, not one mention of hatchlings!
Some turtle tracks and hatchlings in the full moon light, laced with the red from some flashlights. Perhaps the only time in their lives turtles have to climb, these little hatchlings find their way out of the nest making a scramble for it. They see the moon and that's their cue to head straight towards the ocean. Which is why lights need to be off or red and dim around the beach so as not to confuse them.
The hatchlings struggled out of their deep nest, with their tiny flippers and heads pushing away sand, sometimes one coming out from right under its nestmate, toppling over a brother or half-brother, leatherbacks are polyandrous and might (not always) lay eggs fertilized by several males. According to scientific reports, it does not actually offer the hatchlings any advantage.
We moved on towards the known nesting turtle, reluctantly. She was already laying eggs and I squirmed my way in through a thinnish crowd, to peep through. What I saw jolted me back to nature’s reality. She was laying unformed eggs that hadn’t yet developed the soft spongy shells, that must survive the 2 ft drop. By the time they reached the bottom of the nest, the yolk came out and towards the end of the laying, it was mostly yolk being laid. I was disoriented with a sudden wave of debilitating sadness. Francis said to no one in particular, that since this female too appeared to be young, she may not have known how long to wait before laying the eggs.
She still covered them the usual way with great care, patted layers of sand down until there is a slight dome where the hole was. She continued that while being tagged and measured by conservationists and a few observers.
We found more hatchlings on our way back. They were heading straight to the ocean. The remnants of a yolk sac still in their bellies would serve them well in the ocean. Only a tiny fraction of them would survive predators of the ocean, in this size they are a delicious meal for everyone.
People go on about enriching experiences, but this one really was: it is not every night of full moon we see the divinity of marine life on land.
About the author: Ishita Das is a wandering alien, who belongs nowhere, is from everywhere and believes in The Doctor.