Sea turtles making tropical comeback Leatherbacks tourist draw in Trinidad

A leatherback turtle heads back into the ocean after burying eggs in the sand at daybreak on a narrow strip of beach in Grande Riviere, Trinidad.

Giant leatherback turtles, some weighing half as much as a small car, drag themselves out of the ocean and up the sloping shore on the northeastern coast of Trinidad while villagers await wearing dimmed head-lamps in the dark. Their black carapaces glistening, the turtles inch along the moonlit beach, using powerful front flippers to move their bulky frames onto sand.

In years past, poachers from Grande Riviere and other towns would ransack the turtles’ buried eggs and hack the critically threatened reptiles with machetes to sell the meat. Now, the turtles are a thriving tourist trade, with people so devoted that they shoo birds when the turtles start out as tiny hatchlings scurrying to sea.

The number of leatherbacks on this tropical beach has rebounded in spectacular fashion, with some 500 females nesting each night in the peak season in May and June, along the beach. Researchers now consider Grand Riviere, alongside a river that flows into the Atlantic, the world’s most densely nested site for leatherbacks. 

“It’s sometimes hard remembering that leatherbacks are actually endangered,” said tour guide Nicholas Alexander as he watched more emerge from the surf.

With instincts honed over 100 million years, these mighty leatherbacks have migrated from cold North Atlantic waters in Canada and Northern Europe to nest. The air-breathing reptiles can dive to ocean depths of more than 4,000 feet and remain underwater for an hour. They are bigger, stronger, and tolerate colder temperatures than any other marine turtle.

The protected beach was so busy one recent night that female leatherback turtles bumped into each other as they trudged up the sloping beach. The big reptiles swept away powdery sand with their front flippers and then painstakingly dug holes with their rear flippers, laying dozens of white eggs before heading back to the ocean. These same females will be back in about 10 days to deposit more eggs.

The resurgence of leatherbacks in Trinidad is touted as a major achievement, with more than half of all adult leatherbacks on the planet having been lost since 1980, mostly in the Eastern Pacific and Asia.

Flourishing turtle tourism is providing livelihoods for people in formerly dead-end farming towns, with the Trinidad-based group Turtle Village Trust saying it brings in some $8.2 million annually. The inflow of visitors, domestic and foreign, to Trinidad’s northeast coast jumped from 6,500 in 2000 to over 60,000 in 2012. Officials with the U.S.-based Sea Turtle Conservancy say Trinidad is now likely the world’s leading tourist destination for people to see leatherbacks.

Hopes are high that the tourism boom can help the creatures survive pressures.

Len Peters of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association said conservation hasn’t come easy. But “now, the villagers here feel proud knowing that people come from all over the world to see the turtles.”

A looming threat is climate change. One model says beach nesting sites for turtles in the Caribbean will come under significant danger due to beach erosion associated with sea-level rise. A warmer climate may also create too many females as turtle gender is determined by ambient temperatures in the sand where eggs are incubating. Cooler temperatures favor males.

“These leatherbacks are the world’s last living dinosaurs,” said Alexander. “We have to protect them for the next generation.”