Day 1: Arriving in Matura and The Beach at Night: See any Leatherbacks?

After a long day of traveling we finally arrived in Matura tired, hungry and minus one suitcase. The following day, we got our first real taste of Trinidad.

Stepping from the air-conditioned sanctuary of the airport was like walking into a brick wall of humidity. After the cooler, almost-spring weather in Beaufort the heat was a little shocking. We took a few minutes to acclimate, wait for the bus and chug bottles of water, then we were finally on our way to Suzan’s Guest House, our home for the week.

Bus ride to Matura

The class on our way to Matura! (Taken by Scott Eckert)

Since we rode in around 10:30 at night, and therefore didn’t get a good look at our surroundings, waking up in a jungle setting was a pleasant surprise. Eating breakfast out on the balcony with birds, butterflies, chickens and lizards speeding by is quickly becoming a favourite morning ritual before we start the day’s activities.

The first day was deemed an orientation day, and we spent our time listening to Nature Seekers founder Suzan Lahkan and manager Dennis Sammy tell us about how the organization was started and its role in the community. Suzan kept reinforcing that any community conservation organization like this requires love, passion and commitment to the cause, and the Nature Seekers have plenty to go around. Years ago, turtles in Trinidad were poached and hunted extensively on nesting beaches, and Suzan decided that as a community, they needed to make some changes. However, the rest of the community didn’t necessarily agree. For years, she would make the long hike from her house to the beach alone to monitor the nesting sites and hopefully deter some egg poaching, but it took many more years for her to gain the cooperation of the community and the government, as well as the funds to support the project. Now, Nature Seekers is a well-respected community-level conservation organization that welcomes local volunteers as well as volunteers from around the world to come out and help monitor beaches during the nesting season, and beach-goers require a special permit, which limits the amount of people walking through the nesting habitat.

Dennis Sammy's Lecture

Listening to a lecture about leatherback sea turtle conservation (Taken by Scott Eckert)

We got to see this first-hand our first night, when we headed down to the beach ourselves to take data for the Nature Seekers and start our own group projects. After a short drive in the bed of a white pick truck we arrived at Matura’s nesting beach. It was dark at first as we gathered under an open pavilion and sprayed each other down with bug spray. White lights are discouraged on the beach as they can startle the leatherbacks and prevent nesting, so we had to wait for our eyes to adjust. The black silhouette of two isolated palm trees framed the beach against the starlight sky as we emerged from the short trail. The waves stretched out towards the horizon with white crests crashing towards us above dark water. As our eyes adjusted we split into four groups, dividing the beach into sections which we would patrol for the rest of the night. As our group moved down the beach with the ocean on our right, our feet slid in the sand with each step. Our group progressed down the beach, using the corner of our eyes to scan the water line, watching logs and debris shift in and out of our sight as they crossed the center of our vision. We traveled up and down our section of the beach from eight o’clock until midnight, taking twenty minute breaks to rest, yet always retracing each step of the beach within an hour so as not to miss any nesting sea turtles. However, in the end our group saw not a single leatherback, a real oddity at this time of year. Two other turtles were seen by other groups, yet neither nested. One changed course three times and then returned to the water, the other started to dig a nest in the waterline, then left. We hope for a more successful night of turtle sightings tomorrow, and in the meantime we’re looking forward to hiking, swimming, and learning more about the leatherbacks!