Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Leatherback Turtle Watching

June 12, 2014
Example of size - don't worry, it's fake like a stuff animal toy

We did a turtle watching tour last night and it was nothing short of spectacular.  Probably one of the most memorable experiences.  There were two mini-vans full of cruisers that went.  It took about 1 1/2 hours to drive up to the very north tip of Grenada.  We arrived at 7:30pm and it was dark with a hazy, nearly full moon.  There is an isolated strip of beach there and the leatherback turtles use this as their nesting grounds.  Leatherback are the largest of the sea turtles.  The males can get to 9 ft in diameter and weigh up to 2000 lbs.  They can dive down to 3900 feet.  The females we saw were as big a dining room table without the leaves in.  

When we got there we had a quick briefing and then broke into 4 groups.  Two went through the bush lining the beach to get to the far side of the beach.  Our group had only 8 people in it with the head guide - which was nice.  When we got to our section of the beach, there were 3 turtles already on the beach.  We stopped at the second turtle and watched as she was digging her hole (nest) to lay the eggs.  She was using her back flippers.  They are very big and powerful.  The hole was almost 2 feet deep.  We stood quietly in a semi-circle behind her, no more than 4 ft from her.  It was amazing to watch. The guide said this female was somewhat young, approx 5 ft in diameter, maybe 350-400 lbs.  They start mating and laying eggs at 15 years of age so she was at least 15.  There were two researchers there observing and and assisting the turtle as needed.  They tag any new turtles that are not yet tagged and record all sorts of info.  
Turtle digging her nest

Then we moved down the beach to another turtle who was actually laying the eggs.  Lindsey (sailor in our group) got to help hold one of the turtle's back flippers up while she (the turtle) laid the eggs.  The turtle goes into sort of a trance while laying her eggs. During this time, the guide let us touch the turtle's front flippers and shell.  Leatherbacks don't actually have a shell like other turtles.  It's more....leather vs shell and thus the name.  It felt like smooth, hard leather.  We could hear her heavy breathing.  Her head was big.  She laid 95 eggs total.  85 yoke eggs and 10 yokeless.  The yokeless are there for spacing in the nest.  While we were watching this turtle, two more came out of the sea and started the slow process of lumbering up the beach. 
Big eggs are yoke eggs (turtles), little ones are yokeless (no turtle)
Laying her eggs - 95 in total

Breathing heavy - same as human birth I guess

One of the volunteers found a nest just down the beach where the eggs were hatching.  Three tiny turtles no bigger than the palm of my hand were struggling to get turns right side up and head towards the ocean.  I thought Lindsey was going to have a cow worrying about the little on wiggling on his back.  Finally he got turned right side up and headed for the ocean.  Two other turtle heads, the size of my thumb were popping out of the sand.  There were also tracks indicating  that other eggs had already hatched out of this nest and the turtles had made their way to the sea.  While we watched the baby turtles, yet another turtle emerged from the sea near by.  She was huge!  Even the guide said she was one of the biggest she had ever seen, approximately 6+ in diameter and who knows how much in weight....maybe 750 - 1000 lbs.  The guide said this turtle was probably a "grandmama" meaning pretty old in turtles years.  They can live to 80+.
Two little head peeking out on the left, three hatchlings on the right

Three hatchlings

Little one headed for sea - good luck

Then we went back to the turtle that we watched laying the eggs.  She has covered back up the hole with sand using her flippers and was now 10 ft away digging a mock nest to fool predators.  We watched this as yet another turtle came ashore.  We could see the HUGE turtle just down the beach flinging sand like crazy as she started digging her nesting hole, powerful flippers scooping massive amounts of sand.  Finally the turtle making the mock nest covered it back up with sand and slowly turned and headed for sea.  We followed along as she made her way back down the beach, resting every 10 ft of so.  She entered the surf and slowly swam away on top the water.  
Covering her nest back up and disguising it

We carefully retraced our steps back down the beach in a single line towards the car park.  Along the way we past the HUGE turtle and another one that seems to be digging holes back to back.  All in all we got to see 7 turtles.  3 were on the beach when we got there and 4 more arrived while we were there.  We got to see the process from start to finish.  Seeing the hatchling turtles was a huge bonus. 
Work complete - heading back to sea

Almost there

We were not allowed to have any flash pictures or flashlights.  It disturbs and confuses the turtles.  The guide and a few others had red lights like those we use for night sailing.  They don't confuse the turtles as much.  I took some pics but mine didn't really turn out well.  Thank you to Diane off s/v Endofin II. These are her pictures are hers. 
FYI - Leatherback turtles are endangered.  The survival rate for the babies is very, very, very low.  Efforts like those going on in Grenada are slowly helping the population of these amazing creatures but there is still much to do.  For more info overall on Leatherback turtles and the effort please see Ocean Spirit Inc.  By the way.....Leatherback turtles have been on the planet since the days of the dinosaurs.  I guess you could say they are the last surviving dinosaurs.  Pretty amazing.    


  1. Thank you for posting this. Such a great opportunity for you guys and I'm glad you were able to use Diane's photos. Very very cool!

  2. Better than PBS! But I'm pretty sure the last surviving dinosaurs are among our elected officials.

  3. It's so wonderful that you got to experience this. I am so envious! Thank you for all the wonderful explanations...I loved this blog post, even though I am late getting to read it.