Saturday, October 7, 2017

Turtles in Tobago

One of the things that has been very high on my list of things to do has been turtle watching. We almost took a tour in Grenada to watch the turtles laying eggs, but we backed out due to weather and health issues, so it remained on my list.
This is a nighttime story, so I was unable to get pictures. Therefore I have included a picture that I did instead.

We arrived in Tobago at the end of the egg laying season, and the middle of the hatching season. I was very excited that I would get another chance to observe the turtles. We arranged a tour with NEST, North East Sea Turtles, located in Charlotteville, Tobago. The name of the organization had me a little puzzled.

North East Sea Turtles.  North, because it is on the Northern part of Tobago (an island in the very south of the Caribbean ), East because Charlotteville is east of most of Tobago, but it is located on the western shore. I guess that direction, like many things in life, are relative to your viewpoint!

We met our guides at 8 PM, a time dangerously close to our normal bedtime. The turtles both lay their eggs and hatch out of them at night. My hope was to see the baby turtles hatch, figuring that it was too late in the season to see the egg laying.

We arrived at the secluded beach that NEST was monitoring and after lathering up with bug repellent, proceeded to walk the length of the beach, looking for any signs of hatchlings.  We saw evidence of nests that the turtles had emerged from and quite a few nests that had been raided by wild animals, probably dogs. The eggs were dug out of the hole, and you could see the remains of the shells scattered around.  Picking up the shells revealed that they were very flexible and rubbery.

The night was beautiful and calm. The moon was not out so the stars were, although our view was slightly abbreviated due to the surrounding trees. The waves lapped gently on the shore and the fireflies put on quite a show, lighting up the trees like Christmas lights. We sat quietly, admiring the beauty, occasionally taking a walk up and down the beach to look for turtles or hatchlings. A few hours into our watch a turtle appeared at the water's edge. We watched, and hoped, but she never came up the beach. Disappointedly we watched her slip back into the water.
Daytime view of the beach we were on.

Finally our guides stretched, stood up, and said "Time to go, sorry, no turtles tonight ". We got up, gathered our belongings,  turned to head to the car, looking back at the water one last time, and then she appeared.  A Hawksbill turtle, barely visible in the dark, silhouetted against the waves, directly in front of where we had been sitting, making her way up the beach to lay her eggs. 

We watched very quietly as she progressed up the beach. This was the critical time. We did not want to scare her off so we sat and waited. Soon she picked her spot and began to dig. Now we could approach her, but still carefully so as not to frighten her.

Once the turtles begin the process of digging and laying eggs they go into a trance - like state, oblivious to anything else surrounding them. We were able to lie down behind her and observe the entire process from about 6 inches away.

Our guides began measuring her (she was about 3 1/2 feet long) and tagging her. They used a type of hole punch to attach tags to both front flippers. She did not pause or flinch in any way during this process. According to them she was probably a first time mom since she was not tagged. She will probably return to the same beach 3 or 4 more times this year. Her shell had some barnacles on it and their location on her back was part of the information that our guides recorded. Her flippers were tough and leathery, strong and flexible. 

The hole that she was digging was a deep and narrow hole. She used her back flippers to dig, first one and then the other.  She would slowly insert her flipper down into the hole, pause, and then use the end of her flipper like a scoop and bring up a handful  (flipperful?) of sand and deposit it to the side of the hole. Then she would pause, shift over slightly and repeat with the other flipper. We were able to assist a little by pushing back the sand from the edge of the hole,  preventing it from falling back in.

When her flippers could not reach down any further she paused again, and then began laying eggs. They were the size and color of large slimy ping pong balls and were dropped in groups. One, one-two, one-two-three. We started counting them but stopped at about 50. Our guide estimated about 100 eggs were laid, saying that she will lay larger clutches as she gets older.

After about half an hour she was done and began filling the hole back in. This time she was using all 4 flippers, flicking the sand around, and on us, to cover up the evidence that there were eggs below. She used her flippers and then her entire body to erase all signs.

She turned toward the ocean and crawled her way back into the water, leaving very distinctive flipper tracks behind her.

It was almost 2 in the morning before we got back to Rhapsody. It was a wonderful experience, being that close to the process. No hatchlings, that will have to remain on my list, but I am certainly not complaining. I am very happy to have had the chance to have be there.

We love to hear your comments.

Tilla said...

Wow! How amazing. I would love to see that.

Sarah said...

It really was very special. I feel lucky to have been there.