On Saturday 4/12, the telephone rings at 6 PM, just as we are settling into sunset relaxation mode in the cockpit of Cutter Loose. It is Cutty calling, our island tour guide from earlier in the week. He explains that there are two last-minute open seats in his van for tonight’s turtle watching expedition at Levera Beach. He will pick us up at the dinghy dock in 30 minutes. This sets into motion a frantic rush to stow jackets, red flashlights, food and water into the backpack.
Levera National Park is located at the northeastern tip of Grenada, a 1.5 hour drive from Prickly Bay on narrow, winding roads. Travelling by van under the cover of darkness provides an interesting glimpse into the lifestyles of Grenadians. It is Saturday night…time to be out on the street corners and in the small stores and rum shops, conversing and playing dominoes with neighbors and friends.
After an introduction to the lives of leatherback turtles by the volunteers at the Ocean Spirit, Inc. Sea Turtle Conservation Center, our group is escorted to the beach to await the arrival of female turtles. Three days shy of a full moon and under widely scattered clouds, the white sand beach is illuminated by a dim iridescent glow. Warm temperatures, light surf and a comfortable breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay combine to create a picture-perfect night to be on the beach. Volunteers from the Conservation Center are very strict on protocol. They pre-warn us to stand to the side and rear of the turtles, but never in front of them. No flash photography is permitted because turtles are sensitive to light. Therefore, some of the photos included in this post are borrowed.
Between March and July, Ocean Spirit researchers and volunteers stand watch on this beach every night between 6 PM and 6 AM. During this five month breeding season, some 1,000 female leatherback turtles arrive here at the place of their birth to bury eggs in the sand. Nocturnal arrivals and departures reduce the likelihood of predators unearthing the eggs. Since leatherback turtles are an endangered species, researchers measure and tag the turtles and record the location and number of eggs deposited in the nest. Many of the turtles returning here have already been tagged.
Around 9 PM, excitement builds as volunteers announce that the first female turtle of the evening has just landed on the beach about a half mile from our staging area. By the time we arrive on the scene, the female leatherback has already unloaded her cargo of eggs. Because the location she has chosen for her nest is dangerously close to the surf, Ocean Spirit researchers intervene to catch the eggs as they are being laid.
Using sterile gloves and carefully placing the eggs in a bucket, they are relocated to a human-dug nest about one hundred feet further inland. Meanwhile, mom is busy tidying up her original nest site, oblivious to the fact that her eggs have been relocated. Once satisfied that the nest site cannot be detected by predators, she crawls slowly back to the sea.
Leatherbacks are fascinating creatures. They are the world’s largest turtles, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. While their numbers are declining (especially in the Pacific), they can still be found in all oceans of the world. We are permitted to touch the turtles during their egg-bearing trance. Their skin is rubbery soft, not a hard shell as with other species of turtles. Leatherbacks are world travelers. They undertake the longest migration between breeding and feeding averaging 3,700 miles each way. Leatherbacks can dive up to 4,000 feet in depth and remain underwater for up to 85 minutes before returning to the surface for air. Their average lifespan in the wild is 45 years. Their favorite food is jellyfish. Males remain at sea for their entire lives while females return to the same nesting area about once every three years to bury their offspring.
A short distance away, a second female turtle has arrived on the beach. She is massive, measuring five feet in length and two feet in height. Unlike turtle #1 earlier this evening, turtle #2 selects a nesting spot further inland, thus eliminating the need to excavate an alternative nest and relocate the eggs. Turtle #2 swings her large front and rear flippers in a circular motion to sweep away the dry sand on the surface until underlying wet sand is discovered. Slowly and methodically, she rotates her back flippers to carve a perfectly symmetrical indentation in the sand, two feet deep and one foot in diameter.
Satisfied with the layout of her nest, she deposits 70 to 100 eggs. Some of the eggs have yolks (future turtles) while others have no yolks, the purpose of which is to provide moisture and buffer the nest. Approximately 70 days from today, the hatchlings will emerge from the nest and scramble straight to the sea. It is estimated that only one in a thousand leatherback hatchlings survive into adulthood.
The entire process from arrival to departure requires about two hours of strenuous work on the part of the female turtle. Shortly after 11 PM, turtle #2 and the crew of Cutter Loose return to their respective watery homes. Tonight’s moonlit spectacle of nature has been an incredible experience…one that will be remembered for a lifetime.