Shortly after we arrived in Grenada some friends invited us to join their “turtle watch” tour, where you travel by bus to the far northeast corner of the island and with any luck see an endangered leatherback turtle nesting on the beach. We really wanted to go but the cost was a little steeper than we wanted to spend and we were planning to buy new chain. Turtles went on the back burner.
As the month wore on we decided we’d regret not taking the opportunity and besides, much of the tour fee goes to the conservation non-profit here in Grenada which we’re happy to support. We learned that the last tour of the season was coming up and we put our names on the list.
As it turned out, a lot of people waited till the last minute and we ended up with two van-loads of rowdy cruisers stoked for the two-hour evening drive to Levera Beach. Jack and I staked out the front seat next to Cutty, the driver and tour operator, for a better view of the island while we still had daylight. Cutty quietly pointed out places of interest as he drove and answered our many questions about Grenada while the mob in the back sang and joked. We were happy to finally get to the Ocean Spirits headquarters and get out of the van.
Ocean Spirits staffers gave us a briefing on what to expect and the ground rules for the watch, and warned us that it was the very tail end of the season and we may not see a nesting mother but that we may see hatchlings making their way to sea. Then we went into a very small exhibit with a few photos so we’d know what we’re looking for. There was also a huge model of a leatherback turtle and one of our group asked if that was a representative size. “Ha!” I’m thinking, “for demonstration purposes only.” But no, the guide assured us that was an average size of an adult. I was skeptical.
Once again we piled into the vans and drove a little further to the beach preserve area, lined up, fired up our red flashlights and followed the guides down the beach. It wasn’t too long before we met up with a researcher with a bucket containing 8 or 9 little hatchlings they had rescued during the day. They patrol the beach all day long, mostly to deter poachers but also to scoop up any turtles that hatch during daylight hours before they get eaten by frigate birds. The researchers then release them at night when they have a better chance of survival. We watched the little guys slowly make their way to the sea, sometimes turning the wrong way, sometimes falling into an impression in the sand. Each time the researcher gently got the little guys going again and we all cheered when they finally reached the water and disappeared into the waves.
Before all of the babies reached the sea one of the staffers lined us up again. “Mama on the beach!” she hissed, and we all followed excitedly. It was pitch black except for our weak red flashlights and as we walked along the dune above the beach my feet kept getting tangled in the beach grass and vines until I had to stop and put my flip flops back on. Eventually we could see the red lights swarming up ahead against the edge of the soft sand. When we reached the gathering we both gasped. Oh. My. God. We were totally unprepared for the size of her. She was well underway in the nesting process and only the top of her huge shell rose above the level of the sand.
[I apologize for having no photos of this incredible experience. What kind of people embark on a world tour with two iPhones and a mini point-and-shoot camera?? A better camera is on the list but something else always takes up any spare cash we have. You’ll just have to use your imagination.]
We sat in a semicircle around the turtle, keeping out of her line of sight, and watched as she used her massive back flippers like giant blades to dig down into the sand and then flip it back behind her. It all happened in very slow motion, and she rested after every flip. We could hear her great gasping breaths from the exertion.
When she was ready to start laying two researchers arrived. One held the back flipper aside while the other lay prone and reached deep into the nest, catching and counting each egg as it was laid. She laid 105 eggs with yolks — those will become turtles — and another 26 smaller ones with no yolks, to help cushion and protect the yolked eggs. As she was about to finish the staffers let us touch the turtle’s shell and front flipper. Then the researchers quickly measured and marked the nest, and measured the turtle and checked to see that it was tagged. The turtle started the long and painstaking process of filling in the nest, tamping down the sand, doing her best to hide the location.
Jack and I sat on the edge of the dune to watch these massive front flippers slam down onto the beach then flip the sand behind her, and we realized that she was very slowly turning to the right every few minutes, filling in the hole that she was actually in. You try it.
Before long, the turtle was actually facing us. We knew we weren’t supposed to be in her line of vision but she had turned so much since we sat down and the process was so slow and arduous that we hadn’t realized we were now face-to-face with this massive beast, within about six feet of her head. We sat perfectly still as she rested between efforts. She took a deep breath, lifted her head and looked straight at us, not moving for what seemed like a minute. “Wow,” Jack said, under his breath. I squeezed his hand. My heart was racing.
The turtle breathed in again, ducked her head down and resumed the sand flipping and turning, and the staffers motioned for us to move around behind her again. As she came up to the level of the beach I was struck again at how huge she was, much taller than she appeared when she was down in the hole. She was as long as Jack is tall, and probably a meter high. She heaved her bulk across the sand toward the water.
Just then we saw a number of our group gathered in a circle about 20 feet away. Someone noticed tiny tracks in the sand leading to the water, followed them up the beach and found a hatchling inching its way to the water’s edge. We were torn between watching the tiny hatchling and watching the mother, both heading to the sea. We stood silently in the middle wishing them a safe journey and a long life. I felt privileged to have witnessed them.
On our way back down the beach we encountered several more hatchlings on their erratic way across the sand. We didn’t need to be reminded to watch our step as we walked.
The drive back was much quieter than the trip there. It was about 1:30am when we got back to the boat. We were so glad we went, and especially glad we waited until the last minute. To be able to see both the nesting mother and the hatchlings was a beautiful experience.