The number of leatherbacks on this tropical beach in Trinidad has rebounded in spectacular fashion, with some 500 female turtles nesting each night during the peak season in May and June, the Associated Press reports.
Giant leatherback turtles, some weighing half as much as a small car, drag themselves out of the ocean and up the sloping shore on the northeastern coast of Trinidad while villagers await wearing dimmed headlamps in the dark. Their black carapaces glistening, the turtles inch along the moonlit beach, using their powerful front flippers to move their bulky frames onto the sand.
In years past, poachers from Grande Riviere and nearby towns would ransack the turtles’ buried eggs and hack the critically threatened reptiles to death with machetes to sell their meat in the market.
Now, the turtles are the focus of a thriving tourist trade, with people so devoted to them that they shoo birds away when the turtles first start out as tiny hatchlings scurrying to sea.
The number of leatherbacks on this tropical beach has rebounded in spectacular fashion, with some 500 females nesting each night during the peak season in May and June, along the 875-yard beach. Researchers now consider the beach at Grande Riviere, alongside a river that flows into the Atlantic, the most densely nested site for leatherbacks in the world.
“It’s sometimes hard remembering that leatherbacks are actually endangered,” said tour guide Nicholas Alexander as he watched more emerge from the surf.
With instincts honed over 100 million years, these mighty leatherbacks have migrated from cold North Atlantic waters in Canada and northern Europe to nest. The air-breathing reptiles can dive to ocean depths of more than 4,000 feet and remain underwater for an hour. They are bigger, stronger, and tolerate colder temperatures than any other marine turtle.
The resurgence of leatherbacks in Trinidad is touted by many as a major achievement, with more than half of all adult leatherbacks on the planet having been lost since 1980, mostly in the Eastern Pacific and Asia.
When local conservation efforts started here in the early 1990s, locals say a maximum of 30 turtles emerged from the surf overnight during the peak of the six-month nesting season.
Now, at Grande Riviere and in the eastern community of Matura, where another major leatherback colony has grown, locals say more than 700 of the turtles appear overnight at the very height of the season, in May and June.
Flourishing turtle tourism is providing good livelihoods for people in formerly dead-end farming towns, with the Trinidad-based group Turtle Village Trust saying it brings in some $8.2 million annually.
The inflow of visitors, both domestic and foreign, to Trinidad’s northeast coast jumped from 6,500 in 2000 to more than 60,000 in 2012. Officials with the U.S.-based Sea Turtle Conservancy say Trinidad is now likely the world’s leading tourist destination for people to see leatherbacks.
Hopes are high that a tourism boom can help the creatures survive a slew of pressures. In a 2009 global study on the economics of marine turtle tourism, researchers from the environmental group World Wildlife Fund found turtle tourism earned nearly three times as much money as the sale of turtle meat, leather and eggs.
While Trinidad supports some 80 percent of total leatherback nesting in the Caribbean, with a population of some 15,000 females laying eggs every two years, the turtles are also flourishing in other spots around the region.
For the original report go to http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2021013796_seaturtlecomebackxml.html