Out of the Deep: Turtle Watching in the Caribbean

As the annual turtle nesting season begins, Merle Gunby watches one of nature's strangest rituals on a Caribbean beach

Photograph by Roger Neckles

Merle Gunby watches as one of the earth’s oldest and strangest creatures – the Leatherback turtle – carries out her nesting ritual on a Caribbean beach, watched over by both protectors and predators.

The beach arced away to the west, past a cluster of ragged palms to a purple-shadowed promontory of rough lava rocks.

Just short of this rocky barrier, several hours earlier, the great sea turtle had emerged from the surf. A huge dark body seemed to solidify out of the night shadows as the ocean surge rose and fell, and materialised on the sand. She hesitated, adjusting; her body, near weightless in her sea-haunts, would have tipped a scale at almost half a ton here on the beach. But some incomprehensible urge had driven her hundreds of miles to this very spot.

She was a Leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, the only surviving species of the family Dermochelyidea, which long ago swam with the dinosaurs and which knew the oceans 200 million years ago.

Today, Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in the world, often measuring more than six feet in length. They live in tropical seas all around the globe; but they have an accumulation of fat and a special circulation system that helps to preserve their body heat so they can pursue their prey – several species of jelly fish – into northern waters. They have been seen in the ocean off Canadian and British shores. Dermochelys does not have a shell like other turtles; seven bony ridges covered by a smooth skin form the carapace.

A few years ago, thousands of Leatherback turtles came to Caribbean beaches. A dozen or more could be found on a single beach at the height of the nesting season. Now they come less often, perhaps only one or two a night. The trend can be seen among Leatherbacks and other turtles in all their world-wide habitats. Turtle beaches are favoured sites for luxury hotels and condominiums; some local people regard turtle meat and turtle eggs as delicacies, or a source of much-needed cash. Some nations, particularly in the East, import turtle meat by the shipload.

Right here, long ago, after breaking free of their egg-wombs, this very turtle and a hundred of her siblings had scrabbled to the surface of the sand and scampered towards the water. Many of them never made it; sand crabs dragged the bodies into their burrows, fish and sharks fed on them. But this one had survived many perils, including the tangling strangling fishing nets of humans. Now she was the only one of her siblings left.

She hesitated, nervous and uncomfortable in this foreign element; she turned as if to head back out to sea, but something compelled her to crawl landward again. Just beyond the high water mark she rested a few moments on the dry sand. Then her big flippers began to cast sand in the air in a seemingly uncoordinated manner. She cleared away the beach debris and made herself a clean, shallow depression in the sand.

Soon her rear flippers began to excavate a neat hole; first one reached down and dragged out a scoop of sand, then the other sought the bottom of the excavation and lifted another load.

She no longer seemed nervous. Whatever inner compulsion had guided her to this particular beach required that all her effort be directed toward the egg-laying. She seemed oblivious now to any activity around her.

In about 20 minutes there was a hole in the sand over 30 inches deep and about a foot wide. She rested. Great tears from her lachrymal glands welled from her eyes, to prevent them being irritated in the dry air and to eject surplus salt from her body.

Soon she began to stir; a mild spasm possessed her, and round white eggs, like large ping-pong balls, began to spill from her body. Over the next quarter-hour she deposited 108 eggs in the sand. Then she rested for a few moments.

Again she stirred, almost imperceptibly at first, then more urgently. Her rear flippers began to scoop sand into the nest cavity to cover the eggs. There was a rhythm to it: first the right flipper, scoop, pack; then the left, scoop, pack; periodically both flippers at once were used to pack down the sand over the precious eggs. All the while the front flippers pushed a fresh supply of sand to the rear. When the hole was filled, she began turning around and around the site, further pressing the sand over the eggs and obscuring the exact location of the nest.

Soon the smooth beach was pitted and furrowed for 20 feet or more around the nest cavity. During one of her circuits she paused, as if awareness was just returning. She began with methodical strokes of her flippers to drag her ungainly body towards the water. Each successive wave that washed the dry sand off her carapace seemed to restore her energy. Suddenly she was afloat, no longer a helpless weight upon the sand. The starlight glinted once on her shiny carapace, then she was gone. And another generation of Dermochelys coriacea lay waiting in the sand.

Or did it?

Other creatures were on the beach that night. Not long after the red had been wiped from the western horizon, a vehicle quietly stopped beside a seagrape bush. Several people with shaded torches and quiet voices began to patrol the beach.

They were a mixed lot: a biologist, two park technicians, a writer from an American city, an amateur naturalist, a computer operator and a professional driver. There were many things they wanted to know: were there still turtles coming to this beach? If so, how many? Were poachers taking the eggs or butchering the turtles? Would they be able to do anything to help?

But most of all they wanted to be part of the natural world, to witness the nesting ritual of a unique and ancient species. It was they who had stood quietly at a distance as the giant turtle had emerged from the waves and crawled up on the beach; it was they who were aware that shortly other people would be on the beach, also interested in the turtle’s visit. It was they who unobtrusively removed the eggs as the turtle deposited them and carefully placed them in a replica of the nest, away from the telltale turtle disturbance. They were aware that, after a few hours in the warm incubating sand, the tiny embryos would already be growing, and any disturbance after that would be fatal to them.

Already there was a dim glow on the eastern horizon. Then, headlights slashed through the darkness at the end of the beach. The turtle-watchers glanced knowingly at each other, and withdrew.

Four men left the newly-arrived vehicle and walked in line across the width of the beach. One carried an empty feed sack, another a thin straight wand, not unlike a walking stick. They were dressed in work clothes. One was a local businessman, out for a bit of sport. Two were farmers, who found turtle eggs a welcome supplement to the family diet – and a night on the beach with congenial companions was a welcome change from the labour and hot sun of their precipitous dasheen and sweet potato plots.

The fourth man lived in a small board house that he had built on a piece of land that no one seemed to be using. Occasionally he got some road repair work, and people came to him for special things. His woman knew about herbs and potions. Even a few tourists, pale and overweight in their loud expensive clothes, would pay handsomely for a novel “cure”. And there was an old rumour that turtle eggs would increase sexual ability: “Dey mek it stand, man!” Turtle eggs, he could always sell.

Leatherback meat was not all that popular (other species, like Greens and Hawksbills, bore the brunt of the meat trade). But the oil was prized. Almost seven gallons of oil could be obtained from one turtle. Even the meat, preserved in seawater and spices, could fetch a good price. Turtle meat was hard to get these days. There just didn’t seem to be that many turtles any more, and the government with their closed season made it risky to have a fresh carcass around.

The four men could easily tell that there had been others on the beach before them, and they had a vague idea of what these strangers had been doing. They resented the fact that outsiders were interfering. They and their fathers before them had been collecting turtle eggs and butchering the ugly reptiles as long as anyone could recall.

When they came to the turtle marks in the sand, the men examined the area expertly. The one with the stick began to probe the beach where he judged the eggs should be. The stick came up each time frustratingly clean. There was no sign of the sticky fluid that would tell him where the nest cavity was. After a time they gave up. The fading stars showed that dawn was not far off, and there was another beach they wanted to check.

They left, this time with an empty sack.

The first group of watchers had returned to their vehicle. Field notes had to be recorded, equipment stowed, sand removed from shoes and shorts before the long ride home over mountainous roads. A spectacular daybreak was unfolding.

Just beyond the feet-scarred sand, the Caribbean, with a lazy rhythm, sloshed on the shore. The shadowed promontory at the western end of the beach was waiting for the sun. The newly risen moon hung in the dawn sky. The sun hid behind purple clouds, but slowly washed the sky in light. A flight of egrets crossed the shore on slow elegant wing beats. The tired watchers, driving home along the bumpy road, were feeling awe mixed with anger, frustration, sadness. Hidden in the sand, the eggs that the poachers couldn’t find were already incubating.

And somewhere out there, her ancient ritual once more fulfilled, the great sea turtle swam free.

The Leatherback is the largest of the five turtle species found in the Caribbean, which can be found in many islands. The nesting season lasts from about March to August, sometimes longer. Contact local environmental organisations or nature tour operators for advice.