Thursday, August 4, 2016

Turtle Watching with Anna

Anna is still in hospital, recovering. He was on oxygen for 5 days and on IV fluids for 12 days. If he eats enough to give him adequate calories and nutrition, we should be able to take him home in a few days.

Over these 15 days, there have been ups and downs. Downs were I thought he would not survive, and ups when he grunted responses or slurped liquefied food hungrily. And thru' it all, the thing I remember the most is turtle watching. Turtle watching! I don't know why. When I tell Anna I have been thinking of Turtle Watching, he smiles remembering a fond family outing, but says nothing.

Trinidad and Tobago hosts the 2nd largest population of leatherback turtles, supporting over 80% of sea turtle nesting in the Caribbean region. Grande Riviere Beach is one of the world’s most renowned and intensive nesting sites.

The largest of all living turtles, these ancient marine creatures have been swimming our oceans for over 100 million years. They visit Trinidad and Tobago’s shores from March to August every year to lay their eggs.

I don't remember how old the four-of-us-siblings were when Anna first took us Turtle Watching. I remember that we were told that we needed to stay up late into the night - on a full moon night - to go to the beach! Two beautiful exciting things happening at the same time had us all excited - going to the beach, and being allowed to stay up late. There was nary a protest when we were sent upstairs to have a long nap after lunch. Any hardship was worth a late night beach trip.

After dinner, we dressed in long pants and long-sleeve shirts. To go to the beach nonetheless! We didn't protest - the outing was too precious to be lost by bickering over what clothes we wanted to wear.

Anna drove us in our sky blue Volkswagen Beatle to a beach, somewhere on the east coast of Trinidad. Anna does not remember the name of the beach (and neither do I!) We parked the car far away from the sand and followed the guide in single file. After what seemed to be a long walk, he stopped and asked us to hide behind a long sand dune that ran parallel to the waves. We lay in makarasana, peering over the sand, watching the moonstone sparkling waves, waiting for something exciting to happen.
Photo: Steve Garvie
At first it looked like large dark boulders waddling up the sand. As they came closer we saw small necks, topped by a head, sticking out in front of gigantic shells. When they reached the bottom of the dune, they slowly turned to face the waves.  Little fountain spurts of sand told us that the turtles were using their rear flippers to dig a nest-hole. It was only after the digging stopped that we were allowed to move stealthily  towards them to watch as they laid their eggs in the nest-hole. 

Turtle Nest
As these huge mama turtles laid their wet eggs, they cried. Tears that cleared their eyes and cheeks of sand. Watching them cry made me sad. Being allowed to lightly stroke their backs and pat them seemed to comfort me and I imagined that it comforted them too. And though we were safe, we are asked not to make any loud noises or sudden movements out of respect for these ancient creatures and their nesting ritual.  

When they are done, they shovel sand over their egg-loaded nests, and pat the sand so that an untrained eye can not make out that there is a nest, safely tucked underneath. They then slowly walk back into the sea, without a backward glance at their future babies, who will hatch far away from their mothers' eyes.

Leatherback Turtle Hatchlings make their way to sea
Two to three months later, on another full moon night, Anna takes us back to the beach.  We again hide in makarasana behind the dunes and watch the sand with peeled eyes. At first the sand seems to give a twitch here and there. The twitch changes to a shiver. And from little fault lines in the sand a few tiny heads and flippers appear. Then the sand over the nest looks like its boiling, and lots of little baby turtles come tumbling forward. Unerringly, they turn to face the sea and crawl their way towards the waves.

Leatherback turtles are classified as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Trinidad and Tobago’s shores support a large accessible nesting population of these turtles in various locations.

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