Weighing up to 700kg and measuring up to a metre across, leatherback turtles have undergone few evolutionary alterations in their 150-million-year history. Named for the soft, leathery texture of their ridged, blue-grey carapace (more like a skin than a shell, which bleeds if cut), leatherbacks spend most of the year in cool temperate waters gorging on jellyfish. During the egg-laying season (March–Aug), females swim thousands of miles, returning to the beach of their birth to lay their own eggs in the sand, a fascinating and moving process that usually takes place under the cover of night.
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Leatherbacks can return to the same beach up to ten times per season – a necessary repetition, as only sixty percent of all eggs laid will mature into hatchlings. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers, and only one or two eggs from each clutch will become fully-grown turtles. Hatchlings emerge from the sand about sixty days later and make a moon-guided dash for the sea; if they’re lucky, they’ll escape being eaten by predators.
The best spots for turtle-watching are Grande Riviere and Matura in Trinidad, and Stonehaven and Turtle beaches in Tobago. Turtles also nest on many other beaches in both islands, from Las Cuevas and Paria to Pirate’s Bay, but only the places listed above offer organized trips with trained guides. If you do want to go turtle-watching (or if you happen upon a laying turtle by chance), it’s important to ensure that your presence doesn’t disturb the laying process. Guides use infra-red lights when close to turtles, and it’s best to avoid using torches anywhere on laying beaches; flash photography is a no-no, though bear in mind that in places such as Grande Riviere, many turtles lay in the early morning or even in full sunshine, allowing to photograph the event non-invasively. On laying beaches it’s best to walk close to the shoreline so as to avoid compacting the sand and damaging nests, and of course never discard plastic bags on the beach, as many turtles die after eating them, mistaking them for jellyfish. Though they’re rarely seen these days, souvenirs made from turtle-shells are illegal and are obviously not something you should consider buying.