Turtle Team adventures so far
Tom and Roisin have been exploring Fishing Pond beach on the Atlantic coast of the island, East of the town Sangre Grande. Tonight will be the seventh night for the team on the beach. Along with two other team members, we scoff our dinner and jump in the car for the 2 hour drive to the village. It always makes for an interesting roadtrip – mango trees lining the way, graffiti galore, ferral dogs trying to leap in through the car windows, pot hole craters, looney drivers and colourful corrugated iron roofed houses.
We’ve managed to get a little lost on route to this village more than a few times now, but it’s not a loss, as we get to see more of the island this way!
The first evening we met at the local school where we were welcomed by Sookraj Persad, Co-ordinator of The Turtle Village Trust in Fishing Pond. We introduced ourselves and the project to him and his crew.
Tom aims to quantitatively analyse the whole nesting process of the Leatherback Sea Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea. By setting up two cameras, one to record the movements of the hind flippers and one to record the breathing and sounds from the head. It is intriguing to watch the movements of their hind flippers during the different phases of the nesting. We try to film one adult per night – it takes over an hour to film the whole process. Measurements are also taken – distance from the sea, length and width of carapace and hind flippers. Photographs of the face will also be taken as each pink marking on the nose is individual to each turtle, like finger prints for us! This may be useful for future research…
We will also be supporting the community of Fishing Pond by cleaning the debris from the beach, in particular the long hollow bamboo which the hatchlings can become trapped in and the plastic and glass bottles. We haven’t found any messages in bottles yet! We are also trying to arrange visits to schools in the area, to talk about our Turtle work, Scottish culture and wildlife, Trinidad biodiversity and perform our Manno Stream Frog Play.
We are thrilled to be working on one of the largest leatherback turtle rookeries in the world – Sookraj reminds us of this often and kindly shares his knowledge of these miraculous prehistoric creatures with us! He informs us that the local name for leatherbacks is Kalong or Coffin back. Despite all the work the team do, only 25% of the eggs laid reach the sea, never mind come back in 30-40 years time! The Turtle population here is threaten by chemical and waste pollution, global warming, debris, habitat modification and on the rare occasion poaching. The adult leatherbacks live on a diet of jellyfish but can’t differentiate between our plastic bags and their main food source…
The Turtle Village Trust, who focus on tagging and The Wildlife Division, who focus on law enforcement, work in association with The Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network to monitor numbers of nesting females, how often they return, tagging them and cleaning up the beaches. Since late 2011, it is now illegal to hunt turtles in Trinidad and Tobago. The penalty for hunting protected animals without a licence is 1000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (TTD 1000) or imprisonment for three months. For the three main turtle rookeries on Trinidad it is now required that you need a permit to be on the beach early evening through to sunrise during the nesting season. The patrols by TVT and Wildlife division also check for trespassers.
Briefed on the background of Fishing Pond Turtle Conservation Programmed, we made our way in the dark to the edge of the windbelt forest, bats swooped overhead, glow flies lit the way and the frogs sang around us. The bugs and beasties have been having a feast, no matter how much DEET or Citronella we use, the sandflies especially have been eating our feet! The locals lead the way through the marsh and over the hills, as we scrambled behind them, thankful for the tree roots to secure our feet on the muddy slopes. Occasionally one of the locals would dart into the forest, flashing his head torch up trees and brandishing his machete – Possum (aka manicou) hunting, apparently they make a goooood curry!
The Fishing pond region is renowned for its incredible fauna including Red Howler Monkeys and West Indian Manatee. Boa Constrictors and Anaconda’s have been seen in the area too!
Planks of wood float over the marsh, Sookraj’s agile team land the other side in time to watch our feeble attempts at balancing along to keep our toes dry. Time to invest in wellies! The roar of the waves greets us each night and the narrow white sand stretches for 10 km, though we patrol 2km. There is very little light pollution, one oil rig far out at sea and a few villages to the north in The St David region, giving us clear skys for star gazing and avoiding confusion for the baby turtles – once hatched they move towards the lightest part of the horizon, which tends to be the sea. In many cases they are attracted to tourist developments, though new businesses are encouraged to use low level, turtle friendly lighting.
It is important that we only use red light when near the turtles, our headlights all have red film over them – this protects the turtles eyes as it can be disorientating and causes them to change direction or interrupts their nesting process. You will also see that the photographs we take are of the turtles carapace from behind or with no flash so as to cause no harm.
Once on the beach the patrol team go ahead further along leaving us with the taggers. Over 50 gargantuan turtles churning up the sand, clambering over each other, digging up already laid nests to find a free site. We couldn’t believe our eyes! Here’s Samwise with one of the many beautiful leatherbacks we have seen so far:
And here’s one of The turtle monitoring team tagging a nesting female – the metal tags can only be clipped to her hind flippers when she is in her egg laying trance. A passive-integrated transponder aka PIT tag is also injected into her front flipper – this is more expensive (6 US Dollar per tag and 500 US Dollar for scanner) but is very useful if the hind tags (35 cents) come off.
Though we have seen hundreds of adult leatherbacks and a few hatchlings, we have only seen one Hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricata, but many of their tracks! The Hawksbill is much smaller and moves quickly across the sand compared to the enormous leatherbacks. Unique to them, is a sharp beak – they spend much of their life in lagoons and coral reefs consuming shells and the beak helps to open these.
Half way through the night we stop to refuel with coconuts fresh from the tree! Then it’s back along the beach, through the forest and homeward bound.
The first night on the way home not only did we get a flat tyre but the police stopped us to search us and the car for drugs and fire arms with sniffer dogs. Since then we have had no problems!
Turtling is always a late yin, setting off at 5pm and back home for 3, worth it though! We tend to be left with the thoughts… “Did that just happen?”
More Photos coming soon!
Any questions? Feel free to leave us a Comment!