Our first day was packed with lectures, hiking, swimming, and leatherback sea turtles!
We rose early to the sound of an inconsistent rooster and the smell of fresh baked bread. The hard-working cooks at Susan’s Guest House filled us up with warm rolls, scrambled eggs, and perfectly ripe papaya before the day’s activities began. We spent the morning learning about the turtle project on Matura Beach from our hosts, the Nature Seekers. A room painted bright green—with no air conditioning, but enough breeze—acts as their education center. We listened to a few introductory lectures before an almost-to-scale crafted leatherback took the spotlight. Scott and Dennis (Manager for Nature Seekers) used it to teach us the techniques for measuring and tagging turtles on the beach. Each sea turtle receives three tags—two external flipper tags and one internal PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag. These allow researchers all over the world to study the movement patterns and nesting behaviours of the leatherback. Our crash-course training session completed the morning’s agenda and made us even more anxious to see live turtles on the beach.
Since leatherbacks typically nest at night, we had the afternoon for non-turtle related activities. After lunch, we all hopped into the back of a truck and rode to Rio Seco with the wind in our hair. Another Nature Seeker employee led us on a hike through the forest with the promise of a waterfall. The vegetation here is thick and diverse and the sounds of many bird species call out from different directions. Our eyes didn’t seem large enough to take in all the sights, especially since the ground was unlevel and muddy, requiring constant attention. The heat and humidity quickly took its toll and we were reminded that Trinidad is a tropical island as sweat dripped from our foreheads. However, the thirty minute hike proved worthwhile. After a somewhat strenuous climb, we spotted a gorgeous waterfall in the distance. Our belongings were quickly deserted on the rocks and we submerged ourselves in the cool, refreshing water. After an hour or so in this oasis, we trekked back to the truck.
Once dinner was over and the stars were out, we left for Matura Beach. The air here is still warm and thick even after the sun goes down. Thankfully, there is a constant breeze coming off the ocean that keeps the beach cooler and the bugs at bay. Dressed in mostly black, we resembled ninjas as we walked along the shoreline in search of the largest sea turtle species. At first, they appear as massive, dark lumps in the distance. Their movement is slow and strenuous as they make their way out of the surf, onto the coarse sand beach. They are like no other animal—yes, they resemble the hard-shelled sea turtles in shape and structure, but their proportions and coloring and ridged back stand out as quite unique. Their front flippers seem more like wings, sprawling across the sand, moving as if to create a snow angel. Throughout the night—in between tagging and measuring—we were able to sit and watch these giants of the ocean as they dug perfectly formed nests and then proceeded to cover and camouflage them. Each movement is precise and their flippers are perfectly formed for this behaviour. During the two hour process, they deposit a clutch of slime-covered eggs that will incubate for seventy to eighty days before hatching. We monitored the beach long after midnight and saw dozens of leatherbacks. By the end, everyone had tagged and measured at least one turtle. We headed for home, sandy, sweaty, and exhausted, but having seen and touched the largest and oldest sea turtles in the world. Not bad for our first day in Trinidad!