I found myself stumbling down a dark beach in Sri Lanka by full moon light. A local boy was just ahead of me, leading two of us to observe a giant Leatherback Sea Turtle laying her eggs. We heard her shadowy grunts first as she pushed the eggs out of her body and into the shallow nest she had swept out of the sand. She was massive and it was stunning to realize the amount of effort it took for her to heave her body up from the water and crawl above the high tide line. This was long before volunteerism even existed but I knew we were part of a primal experience in the life of the Leatherback Sea Turtle.
Quietly we dropped to our knees in the cool sand and watched mesmerized until the boy crawled behind the mother turtle and began sweeping the eggs out of their nest. He was harvesting them in front of us! Even those few decades ago, I knew it was illegal and tried to stop him without startling the mama turtle. It didn’t work and I bolted back to my guest house. The next morning I demanded to be seen at the local constable’s office to report the atrocity. They knew the boy and with a defeated shrug the official refused to do anything. “He’ll be back at it the next time.”
Times have changed, at least for the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where volunteerism is helping to fund preservation efforts being spearheaded by local hotels and supported by the The Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Housing and The Environment.
At some of the most important nesting beaches for Leatherback Sea Turtles in the Caribbean, visitors have the opportunity to take part in the miraculous life-cycle of the endangered species.
According to the Hon. Stephen Cadiz, Minister of Tourism. “Each year, Trinidad and Tobago welcomes visitors from all over the world who are interested in seeing the turtles in their natural habitat as well as the opportunity to aid researchers who are tirelessly working to record data about the turtle population.”
From March to September, as many as 12,000 nesting turtles come to the beaches of Trinidad, after traveling thousands of miles, to lay eggs on the beaches where they were born. Several hotels and local organizations are ensuring that important nesting sites are not harmed while encouraging residents and visitors to participate by aiding researchers working to stem the diminishing numbers of Leatherback turtles worldwide.
At Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel in Trinidad, guests are offered complimentary, guided volunteerism experiences to watch, and possibly assist, the life cycle of these massive, prehistoric creatures. The hotel has taken precautions to ensure that the renovations will not affect the beach or the nesting areas.
An intimate, eleven room resort, the Anise Resort and Spa, offers guests complimentary transportation to Grand Riviere Beach to watch the nightly nesting with a knowledgeable guide. The hotel offers guests bed and breakfast packages during the nesting season and also caters to group travelers.
Visitors to the sister island of Tobago, who are staying at the Turtle Beach Hotel can add their names to the “turtle watch list” and be alerted by staff when turtles can be seen on the resort’s beach.
Meanwhile, several local and international organizations, such as Turtle Village Trust, See Turtles and Save Our Sea Turtles, are working within the community and with visitors to ensure that that the turtles and their environment are protected while educating those who wish to help the endangered turtles.
The nightly volunteer work involves taking part in beach patrols, looking for nesting adult female turtles and helping researchers collect data while protecting nests. Depending on the timing of the visit, volunteers may also help hatchlings make the journey from nest to sea.
Just as my experience on a Sri Lankan beach decades ago is still vivid today, to participate in the life cycle of the Leatherback turtles while visiting Trinidad and Tobago is an experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression. Volunteers have the opportunity to become a part of nature, while helping the species to survive for generations to come.