FOR anyone fortunate enough to be on the beach at night as the leatherback turtles emerge from the surf and heave themselves past the high-tide mark to dig and lay, consider the timelessness of what you are a witness to.
Long before its European rediscovery 500 years back and the arrival of the first people on a land bridge thousands of years before, long before even the dawn of humans, the coastlines of what is now Trinidad and Tobago were being visited by these ancient navigators.
But it was only in the 1960s that researchers in Canada made the connection that the leatherbacks being entangled in the nets of Nova Scotia fishermen working in the frigid Atlantic were the same ones swimming thousands of kilometres to feed on jellyfish, after hatching or nesting on the tropical coastlines of the Caribbean and South and Central America.
More recently, there was a timely intervention by locals (Nature Seekers, formed in the 1990s) and foreign conservationists to preserve the nesting areas of the critically-endangered leatherback along Trinidad’s north and east coasts, a rescue effort well documented and internationally celebrated (there are few places like that half-kilometre stretch of beach in Grand Riviere, where turtles crowd in such number that they dig up each other’s eggs).
But there is a lesser known but equally important organisation which, for the past 14 years, has been a friend and protector of the sea turtle.
Save Our Sea Turtles (SOS) Tobago has since 2000 been involved in community conservation efforts, encouraging turtle-friendly practices, providing information on sea turtles, training and monitoring sea turtle activity and best practices for turtle watching to communities and tourism stakeholders.
And while conservation efforts in Trinidad have been mostly focused on the leatherback turtle (900 pounds, flippers like wings, head like a torpedo), it is only recently that greater attention has been given to the loggerheads, green, hawksbill, and olive ridley turtles in Tobago.
As a result, says the organisation (headed by president Tanya Clovis), it is difficult to say how its efforts have impacted on poaching and the eating of these species (the meat is considered a secret delicacy in some parts of the island).
But there has been progress. According to SOS Tobago: “While we have seen an overall increase in public awareness, with the numbers of people turtle watching increasing each year, and a strengthening of Government’s legislation, including the amending of the Fisheries Act and the designation of the five species of sea turtles found in Trinidad and Tobago waters as environmentally-sensitive species by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), old threats such as poaching, habitat loss, and pollution, along with emerging threats such as coastal development, poor beach management, light pollution and lack of enforcement of existing laws, still present a challenge and threaten to erode the gains that sea turtle conservation organisations have made over the last few decades.”
The hawksbill nests around the island of Tobago, according to SOS Tobago, and prefers rocky isolated beaches associated with offshore reef or sea grass beds, with nesting concentrated on beaches in the north-east (such as Cambleton Bay, Celery Bay, Dead Bay, and L’Anse Fourmi) and in the southwest (Lambeau, Buccoo, Pigeon Point and Sandy Point).
Which is why that strip of eroding beachfront at Magdalena Grand Beach and Golf Resort would be considered an unlikely location for the turtles to come ashore to lay, mere metres from hotel rooms, swimming pools and beach chairs. But come they have.
Last week, resort guests got an unforgettable vacation experience. SOS Tobago’s Giancarlo Lalsingh came to the beach before dusk. Warning markers had been placed along the beachfront where the hawksbill females laid months before. A crowd gathered as he unearthed the eggs and popped each open to reveal the “plum sugar” hatchlings. They were placed in buckets, 137 in all.
Had they crawled out their nest that night, the hatchlings would have headed inland, fatally following the artificial light of the resort buildings. Instead, urged on by the people, they were released by Lalsingh at nightfall, scurrying across the sand towards the lowering tide, to be struck by the waves and sucked out to sea. The hawksbill can live for as many as 50 years. Only one in a thousand hatchlings will survive to maturity.
FACT: Tortoise shell comes from the beautiful brown and amber scutes on the shell of the hawksbill turtle. Its use can be traced as far back to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and in Asia. The material was widely used to make combs, trinkets, jewellery boxes, and inlays in furniture, and is one of the reasons why this species is now designated as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The international trade in tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), of which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory.
ACCORIDNG to Gian Lalsingh, at Turtle Beach, Tobago, there is a herd of four of five cows that stand watch over nesting turtles, preventing people from getting close. “We’re not sure if this is protective behaviour, or just inter-species curiosity, but we are glad for the help of the beach cows in protecting sea turtles” said Lalsingh.
IF you want to help SOS Tobago, this is what it requires.
A pirogue / zodiac / other small boat for access to remote beaches and offshore monitoring, and a twin cab pick-up truck with 4 wheel drive.
Patrol Gear: Raincoats, Waterproof Bags, 2-person Tents – lightweight, suitable for wet, tropical conditions. Sleeping bags, Snorkel gear and fins for offshore monitoring, Red L.E.D. head torches, ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ batteries, Nitrile or latex gloves, GPS navigation devices.
Printed Materials / Merchandise: T-shirts, Business cards, Stickers, Bookmarks, Posters and brochures.
Administrative Equipment: Photocopy paper (Legal and Letter size), Printer cartridges, Pens. SOS Tobago can be found on Facebook and at www.sos-tobago.org/.