GRANDE RIVIERE, Trinidad – 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 Grand Riviere, alongside a river that flows into the Atlantic, the most densely nested site for leatherbacks in the world.
Its sometimes hard remembering that leatherbacks are actually endangered, said tour guide Nicholas Alexander as he watched more emerge from the surf.
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.
On a recent night, the protected beach was so busy that female leatherback turtles bumped into each other as they trudged up the sloping beach. Occasionally grunting from the effort, the big reptiles swept away powdery sand with their front flippers and then painstakingly dug holes with their rear flippers, laying dozens of white eggs before heading back to the ocean.
These same females will be back in about 10 days to deposit more eggs.
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.
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 Trinidads northeast coast jumped from 6,500 in 2000 to over 60,000 in 2012.
Len Peters, a founding member of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, which patrols and manages the Trinidadian villages nesting beach, said local conservation hasnt come easy. When he started out as a 23-year-old volunteer in the early 1990s, protecting turtles was rough, sometimes intimidating work.
His group would physically drag people off the beach if they were bothering the giant leatherbacks.
People were becoming very aggressive toward us, called us the turtle police, Peters said. Now, the villagers here feel proud knowing that people come from all over the world to see the turtles. On a whole, the community has really embraced the opportunities these turtles have brought to them.
But for local fishermen, the six-month turtle nesting season from March through August is a hardship to endure.
Ervan James, a veteran fishermen from Grande Riviere, recognizes turtle tourism has been a boon for his village, but he and other fishermen are calling for the government to compensate them for not casting wide gill nets during the turtles nesting season. Perhaps anticipating being paid not to fish, the number of fishing boats at Grande Riviere has expanded from three a few years ago to about 20 now.