The Opportunity of a Lifetime

A strong, warm breeze blows in from the Sea as sizable waves crash on the surf. Plopping down onto a blanket covering the soft sand, I leaned back on an elbow and cast an eye to the nighttime sky. Gray clouds stifled the stars in the heavens, leaving me dissatisfied as I wondered what awe-striking beauty lay behind those clouds. I had finally made it to Levera Beach, my favorite spot on Grenada, at night. It was May, which meant it was the time of year in which the leatherback sea turtles, native to Grenada’s waters, come ashore to nest. Through some fortunate circumstances, I was able to join fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Sarah Bowman, Riley Doerrler, and their visiting friend Lexi Pretter to try and witness the nesting of the leatherback sea turtles.

So here we were, laying out on Levera Beach and passing time until our tour guide, Harviel, would hopefully return with the good news that a sea turtle was nesting on the beach. We were told the waiting process could take anywhere from two to five hours. Harviel, our knowledgeable, articulate, and soft-spoken guide, was to walk the length of the beach at half-hour intervals in search of a nesting sea turtle and retrieve us when he found one. Although May is peak season for sea turtle nesting, it doesn’t necessarily mean one will nest tonight.

But I was really hoping one would. From the time I arrived to Grenada, I heard about the sea turtles nesting at Levera Beach. Upon learning about it, witnessing the sea turtle nesting immediately became Grenada Bucket List Item #1. There were a lot of factors in the way, however, that would make witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon difficult. The first being that Levera Beach, one of the top five leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in the region, was also one of the most isolated and remote beaches on the island. The closest town to the beach is Sauters, but the buses coming out of there don’t run a route near Levera. This essentially forces you to hike roughly over an hour just to get there from Sauters. This goes without mentioning that the sea turtles come in to nest at night, when buses aren’t running anyway.

Given those circumstances, the only way one could see the sea turtles nesting was if a private vehicle was involved. Then considering that it is against Peace Corps policy to drive a vehicle in your host country and violation of this policy would lead to immediate termination of service, the realistic possibility for me to see the nesting was slim to none.

Then came some unexpected good fortune. Lexi, a sailing instructor who has lived on various islands throughout the Caribbean, returned to Grenada to visit PCVs Sarah and Riley, whom she met and befriended in Bequia last year. Since she wasn’t Peace Corps, she could rent a vehicle; all of a sudden, we had a car.

Let that sink in: we had a CAR.

That may not seem like too big of a deal to you at home, but at this point in my Grenadian life, riding in an actual car is a luxurious experience. Having become accustomed to relying on the over-packed, restrictive-timed buses of the island, I almost forgot what the term “leg-room” even means. This goes without mentioning the complete and total freedom that comes with having a vehicle at your disposal that you can take wherever you wish, whenever you wish. Suddenly, the doors of possibility opened as we could literally “drive around” all the obstacles that previously stood in the way of us and the nesting sea turtles.

But I digress. So let’s go back to waiting for Harviel while laying out on blankets in the soft sand, the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the shore while the warm Sea breeze blows in under a cloudy, night sky.

“All right, time to go! There’s one out there now,” Harviel calls out, his silhouette becoming visible in the darkness as he approaches.

I hopped to my feet instantly, hardly believing that the moment was finally here. Honestly, it came sooner than I thought. I was finally going to see a leatherback sea turtle.

We were on the eastern end of the beachhead and as Harviel explained, the sea turtle was on the western end around the bend of the coastline. So following the red light shining from Harviel’s headlamp, we began trekking toward the water (red lights were used so as not to disturb the sea turtles while they were nesting). My toes dug into the sand with each step as we made our way from the back of the beach toward the shoreline. The closer I came to the water, the more the damp, tangled mess of seaweed that washed ashore seemed to try and hold me back from reaching the ocean. Broken, saturated driftwood jabbed at my ankles in the dark, as if they too, were trying to prevent me from reaching the water. But finally reaching the drop-off of sand to the ocean water, I let the sand cave beneath my feet and slid down to the firm, hard-soaked sand of the shore. Turning left and walking along the water, the incoming tide slapped playfully at my ankles before receding back to the ocean, only to return again a moment later.

Off to the right, Sugar Loaf Island’s hump-backed silhouette loomed peacefully just off-shore. A single light shone from the home at the base of the island, carrying a mysterious aura with it like that of the green light resonating from Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby. Looking up, the clouds were shifting with the sea breeze, finally beginning to unveil the glimmering array of stars they had been hiding. We rounded the bend that marks the northern turning point of the island, where the churning waters of the Atlantic meets the calming waters of the Caribbean Sea. Then without warning, a rogue wave crashes into our knees, as we all make a break for higher ground. But the rogue wave had done its deed and my shorts were now soaked just above the knees. I didn’t mind, however, as up ahead three figures could be seen huddled around a sole red light in the distance. We were almost there.

A fallen hush came over the tour group the moment that lone red light came into view. The previously bubbly atmosphere had become tense with anticipation. We weren’t to speak above a whisper, Harviel told us, so as not to disturb the sea turtle. Climbing up into the higher ground of the beachhead, we prepared to approach the sea turtle discreetly from behind, another precautionary measure we were to take so as not to disturb her. As we walked upon the huddled figures, two of them were crouched under red headlamps, scribbling away at chart paper on clipboards. A third figure, bigger than the other two, was laying down on his stomach and digging deep into the sand. We stepped up just behind him and following his hands, I then realized it wasn’t the sand he was digging into. He was reaching into the nest made by a large leatherback sea turtle!

Just above his hands, what at first appeared like a smooth, sandy surface was really the sea turtle’s shell. Beginning from her tail, a simple ridge ran along the center of her back to her neck. The breadth of her teardrop-shaped shell was masked in a thin coat of sand, essentially disguising the sea turtle from view. Her large rear flippers, in an alternating fashion, were pushing more and more sand out from the nest so she could make it as deep as possible. Underneath her shell next to her right, rear flipper, a metal tag glinted in the light, signifying she had been marked for research. This sea turtle was by no means small, either. Envisioning myself laying down next to it, the sea turtle would likely stretch from my feet to my shoulders, well over five feet long. Evidently, they can grow as long as seven feet and weigh upwards of two thousand pounds!

Forming a semi-circle around the back of the sea turtle, we watched intently as the conservationists went to work. The man lying on his stomach reached deep into the bowels of the nest, underneath the sea turtle. Then, a handful at a time, he began pulling out slimy, tennis-ball-sized eggs and placed them in a black, plastic bucket. As he did this, the other two conservationists kept scribbling away at their clipboards, marking down whatever information deemed relevant to their research.

“These people are from Ocean Spirits, a research-based organization evaluating the current status of leatherback sea turtles in the region,” Harviel, now standing next to the sea turtle, whispered softly to the group.

“They are gathering these eggs to move them to a more secure part of the beach, as this sea turtle has made her nest too close to the water,”  Harviel’s whisper was surprisingly audible in the strong, relentless breeze from the Sea.

Harviel, before the tour, had previously explained to us the mating and nesting process for the sea turtles. Every two to three years, the female sea turtle will mate with multiple males during the mating season. Now, the mating season for sea turtles is entirely separate from nesting season. The female sea turtle during the mating season stores all the sperm from her partners before internally fertilizing anywhere from 100-150 eggs. She then returns to land in order to nest at the very same beach that she, herself, had hatched. After digging her nest and laying her eggs, she will then cover up the nest and scatter the sand around it to mask the nest’s true location from potential predators. Returning back to sea, she will then internally fertilize another 100-150 more eggs with the stored sperm before coming back to nest again within the next nine days. This process will continue until the female sea turtle has laid up to seven to nine nests during the nesting season.

Within the nests, small, golf-ball sized eggs are laid with the larger, tennis-ball-sized ones. These golf-ball-sized eggs are non-viable. They will not produce any baby sea turtles, but rather serve the purpose to humidify the nest in order for the viable eggs to develop. Warm temperature nests tend to produce females, while cooler ones tend to produce more males. Therefore, as Harviel smiled slyly, “We like to say that sea turtles produce cool dudes and hot chicks.”

Despite the high-production rates of each nest, realistically, one out of every one thousand sea turtles will live to reach adulthood. Before hatching, a nest can be destroyed by another nesting sea turtle that may be unaware that she is building her nest on top of pre-existing one, incidentally destroying it and the eggs already laid inside. After hatching, young sea turtles face a list of predators that include birds, lizards, and mongooses, most of whom take advantage of the opportunity to prey on them as they crawl from their nest toward the ocean. Once in the ocean, however, the sea turtles are still threatened by sharks and other large fish. Sadly, leatherback sea turtles may also fall victim by human means, ranging from boats, fishing nets, plastic, and poaching.

Consequently, organizations like Ocean Spirits conduct their research and work in the best interest of the leatherback sea turtle population. Through the work of these organizations, the population status of leatherback sea turtles has been upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable, according to the World Wildlife Organization (https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/leatherback-turtle).

“If you guys would like, one at a time, you may come and take a photo with her,” Harviel whispers. “But remember, move slowly, quietly, and absolutely NO flash photography.”

My eyes lit up with excitement. Not only was I witnessing the leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs, I was going to be able to take a photo with her as well. Cautiously, I followed the others around the back and when my turn arrived, crouched beside the sea turtle. Placing a hand on her smooth, leathery shell (thus, the namesake), I was enthralled. She was absolutely majestic; she was focused, breathing, and birthing, all with me right beside her, yet somehow unbothered.

When she lays her eggs, the female sea turtle falls under a trance to ease the birthing process. Consequently, we were able to approach her from the side and touch her shell in a manner that was safe for the sea turtle. However, that’s not to stress enough the importance that we followed the rules set before us by Harviel. For, if we were to disturb her from the trance, we not only would harm her, but disrupt the whole nesting process altogether.

Having taken my turn, I climbed back up and around the back of the semi-circle and made my way to the far end on the left side. I looked on attentively as she lay there, the man on his stomach filling the black bucket with more and more eggs each time he reached down. Looking off to my right, the silhouettes of palm trees extended out in the dark night sky over the foliage of the shoreline behind us. The gray clouds were all but gone now, the sky now filled with a sparkling display of stars. I watched intently, scanning the heavens and almost willing a star to shoot across the sky. As much as I wanted one to, none ever did. So turning my attention up ahead, the hump-back silhouette of Sugar Loaf Island now seemed to look the other way, disinterested in what was happening on this side of the beach. To the left, the white water of the breakers washed onto shore in a soothing, rhythmic pattern. Beyond the breaking waters was a steep darkness, conveying the true immensity of the ocean. In the far distance, however, a faint, light haze hovered on the horizon. It was light pollution coming from the small island of Carriacou, just off-shore from the northern coast of Grenada. We couldn’t see Carriacou itself, but evidently there was enough light coming from its town to be seen from here. Looking back in front of me, the female sea turtle still lay there, basking under the surgical glow of red lights.

“Okay, she’s finished,” Harviel says, as the man collecting the eggs abruptly got up and gathered his materials from the sand. “Everyone, let’s step back now. Remember, it’s important that we stay remain behind her and not be seen.”

We all take a step back onto higher ground, a little over ten feet away from the sea turtle. She begins shifting back and forth, forcing sand back into her unknowingly empty nest. Once filled, she crawled slowly back and forth to mash up the sand all around the nest to mask its location. While she did this, the two researchers from Ocean Spirits quickly sprang to action, expertly and tactfully taking measurements of the sea turtle. She measured 149″ in length, 107″ in width. After scribbling the measurements onto their clipboards. The three conservationists gathered the rest of their materials, the bucket of eggs, and disappeared into the darkness behind us. Their job wasn’t over, as they still had work to do: the bucket of freshly-laid eggs was to be moved to a new nest they created in a safer location farther from the water.

A suction-cup sound suddenly drew my attention, as the sea turtle’s flippers slapped against the wet sand. She was getting frustrated, Harviel explained, as the wet sand was making it difficult for her to move and cover her nest. Despite her struggles, she eventually managed to mask her nest after a short while by turning in slow, 180-degree angles. Consequently, as we tried to maintain a safe distance behind her and remain out of sight, we often found ourselves shuffling as a group from left to right to left again. Taken out of context, it must have been quite comical to see us rotating angles as we shuffled back and forth behind the sea turtle for such a length of time.

The red lights were turned off and her figure momentarily vanished in the surrounding darkness, but she was still there. As my eyes began adjusting to the full darkness of the night, a faint silhouette could be seen slowly crawling toward the incoming tide. She would linger, Harviel said, until she feels that the nest is safe and confident that the nesting process had gone unnoticed. Hypnotized by her presence, we began walking out to the sea, quietly following her into the waters. The whites of the crashing waves wrapped around her darkened silhouette as they washed ashore. With each incoming wave, it was becoming even harder and harder to see her. Then a wave suddenly wiped over the top of her shell and she disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen by us again.

We stood there, watching, waiting, wondering. Wondering where she was headed next and wondering when she might return.

Looking back, the beach seemed as surreal and untouched as ever in the peaceful, Caribbean night. The waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore. The silhouettes of palm trees stretched into a sparkling, starry sky. Sugar Loaf Island loomed peacefully offshore. A strong, warm breeze was still blowing in hard from the Sea. But in the sand, not a trace of the leatherback sea turtle could be found.

It was as if she was never there, as if what I just witnessed didn’t happen.

But it did.

Witnessing the nesting of a leatherback sea turtle was not only the coolest night of my life…

It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

And I loved every minute of it.

Cheers!

 

Note: If you would like to learn more about Ocean Spirits or S.P.E.C.T.O. (the tour group we went out with), you can find their websites listed below.

http://www.oceanspirits.org/

http://spectogrenada.com/

 

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4 thoughts on “The Opportunity of a Lifetime

  1. Wow! Scott–I was mesmerized by the beautiful detailing in this piece about the leatherback sea turtles! You slowed down the scene so well that I could easily envision this fantastic encounter! How lucky for you to have had this chance not open to many! Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. Scott this was an amazing experience! I agree with you that would have been top on my list! The way you write about it had me on the beach with you..!! I wish!😁 Love to hear about your adventures!❤️

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