Every now and then we are fortunate to witness something that touches a chord – a kind act, beautiful music or dance maybe, or nature at her very best.
I have never been a lolling-on-the-beach kind of person. I prefer being in the water, and if I’m very lucky, seeing a manta ray or a seahorse or one of my favourite sights, a cleaning station where larger finned fish have their dental and bodywork polished by smaller varieties.
So you will be surprised to know that last Wednesday, as the sun slipped below the western horizon in a surprisingly subdued display, I joined thirty or so others on a walk through the scrub and down to the water’s edge. Then I lolled, for three hours.
All for the leatherback sea turtle!
It is nesting season, and the beach at Sandy Point on St Croix is out of bounds to most humans from April 1st to September 1st, unless with an organised tour. Volunteers and researchers, passionate about conservation and in particular endangered turtles, spend the five months patrolling the area collecting data, monitoring and recording where these grand dames lay their eggs. They will also move a nest if the eggs, anything up to 80 fertilized and 30 unfertilized eggs, have been laid in an erosion area.
Given strict instructions, the group played follow my leader walking in single file along the crystalline waters kissing the shore. Overhead gulls, frigates and smaller seabirds circled, aware tasty morsels would soon be emerging from the depths of the sand. Wide circles drawn in the sand by volunteers’, like cosmic rings, marked nests showing signs of activity. Carefully walking between the rings we headed back up the beach and settled, rather like birds quieting their feathers, in the warmth of the sand.
Our guide, Ariana, a passionate young American raised in Costa Rica, adorned with a variety of talismans around her neck, told us the tale of the leatherback sea turtle. A quiet gasp swept the circle each time a small bluish black speck appeared, or a flipper flailed, having broken free of it’s shell with the help of the carbuncle, the egg tooth: then silence as we willed the tiny hatchlings to break free of the sand in which it had nestled for 65 days.
We learnt a leatherback could reach up two metres and weigh in at 900 kgs – incredible to believe as we watched their three-inch selves struggle to the surface. Clad in what looked like slightly mouldy inky-blue capes, rubbery to the touch, leatherbacks are unlike other sea turtles that have hard bony shells. Diving to, and staying at immense depths, sometimes nearly 1300 metres for up to 85 minutes, the leatherback need the ridges along the carapace for a more hydrodynamic flow.
The hatchlings continued to emerge, flippers swishing sand and turtles, each movement encouraging those still below to break free. Ariana would occasionally trickle sand over the weaving clutch to keep them moving. Only as one moved away from the crowd did she pick it up and put it in the soft insulated bag, counting them in out loud with the group.
Over the course of three hours, against a backdrop of the gloaming turning to night accompanied by the lullaby of lapping waves and cavorting dolphins just offshore, we learnt the adult females lay their billiard-ball size eggs every two to three years, each season nesting between four to seven times with about ten days break between each nesting. That could be over 500 eggs per turtle, which begs the question why such a prolific-laying creature could be endangered.
Despite nature’s cleverness at camouflage, an inky carapace from above and a pinkish-white belly, the plastron, which makes it harder for predators from beneath, many fail to make it to maturity – only about one in a thousand. But us humans are also to blame for their endangered status. Leatherback sea turtles travel up to 6000 kilometres between breeding and feeding, eating as much jellyfish as possible along the way – on a good day their body weight. Our propensity in using plastic bags, which we then toss away, is to blame for killing leatherbacks who mistake them for jellyfish. Our fishing practices and the erroneous belief that turtle eggs increase our libido doesn’t help either.
In the now glistening night we counted in 38 hatchlings, and as Ariana turned on a small red flashlight we moved to another part of the beach, away from the clarity of the night ocean to the murkier side, where reeds swayed and rocks gave protection from the patrols of hungry feeders from above and below. We released the tiny leatherback hatchlings into the sea foaming at our feet, and watched helpless as some were tossed back onto the sand before catching the next wave out towards the cooler northern waters where they could eat to their heart’s content.
Hopefully to survive, as long as they don’t encounter the callousness, or carelessness, of man or the hunger of predators from the air or sea.