North and East Coast beaches of Trinidad are known for marine leatherback turtle activity and receive thousands of these creatures during the nesting season. The South Coast of the country hosts a far fewer number per annum.
Communities along the South Coast are not as eco-oriented towards leatherback nesting as their northern counterparts because of the lack of such accommodating terrain and the inaccessibility to foot travel.
Often, fisherfolk are the only people to report sightings of leatherbacks here because they are privy to this large species swimming around in the Orinoco channel (Columbus Channel) and witness their beachings on sands set between the rocky headlands.
These nesting sites are few and far between because heavy marine erosion has factored into many beaches becoming unapproachable, with rock slides covering what was once open sands.
Marac, Moruga, has suffered severe loss of much of its terrestrial space. It is a marine erosion hot spot area that continues to lose its headlands and beach areas. Residents of Marac, like Leon Bethel, tell of a reduction in visits by large marine turtles because of the loss of habitat.
“There are few areas in Marac and west of Marac where these large sea turtles can be found. Areas near to the mouth of rivers are mostly favoured.”
Frankie Williams, also called “Ninja”, is one of the few remaining members of the community who tells of sightings along this part of the coast.
“Those big turtles have been coming up on our beaches for years. There are times when the beaches are rocky and there are times when the sea brings sand to cover the rocks. This is why the turtles come ashore near to the river mouths where they find only nice sand when they are ready to nest.”
Charles Allong spoke of walking west along Marac where the cliffs are crumbling onto the beach and finding the unmistakably wide leatherback tracks on the sand. Eric, Menon and I also found rocks that were shaped like turtles, too, much to our amusement. We called them rockbacks.
Notable rivers emptying their waters along the Marac coastal area have always been sites of much leatherback nesting activity. Vincent Graham pinpointed key areas such as Marachite, Grande Riviere and Black River, named after the rivers that come out on the beach.
“We know these large turtles as ‘caldong’. In days gone by when villagers met them on the beach, they would kill them for food. When these large turtles got entangled in the net, there was nothing else to do but use them for food.
“There was a time when we had 25 pounds of net and we would hope that they would not become entangled in the net because all that net would have been destroyed. People still eat the leatherback as they have no choice when it becomes entangled in the nets. They may hide and share it up.
“We do have our fair share of leatherbacks coming onto the beach and it is people who frequent the beach, for example, those who harvest coconuts, those who collect driftwood and those in search of pieces of board and rope who encounter them. You do find good pieces of rope on the beach to plait and use for your cows.”
‘Turtles always know the
best sandy areas’
Elders of Marac village, like 85-year-old Sydney Emmanuel, born and bred in Moruga, remember going fishing from the age of nine and meeting these huge turtles swimming out at sea.
“When we used to be out banking with our lines for red fish, we used to see plenty caldong passing up and down. I owned three boats, one of which was a ‘couliquan’. It was smaller than most boats and you used long oars. We capsized with that boat many times and had to swim next to it and try to turn it back up, then bail it out.
“I am the last person who had a boat in Marac. There may be now one other person here, but the fishing industry is more or less dead. It is people who walk the beach who still tell of caldong coming up on the beach and seeing little ones hatching. They help in carrying the babies to the water sometimes.
“Black River is the place where you meet them most because it has plenty sand around the river mouth. You meet Grande Riviere before that and there too is where you could find them. These turtles always know where to find the best sandy areas.”
The Marac community says that tourists don’t come to their area to see the leatherbacks because they are deterred by the rocky areas they encounter on arrival. It is the residents who know where these turtles can be seen because they encounter them while on their own expeditions.