Leatherback Turtles Greet Trinidad Visitors

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Reed Travel Features

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- The diversity of flora and fauna found on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago have earned the dual destination a reputation as a naturalist's paradise.

Clients traveling to Trinidad and Tobago between March and September will have the opportunity to view one of the destination's most interesting spectacles -- the nesting of the endangered leatherback turtle. Although there are nesting sites in Tobago, including Stone Haven Bay, Englishman's Bay and Castara Bay, Trinidad is regarded as the best island for leatherback turtle-viewing, according to Courtenay Rooks, a naturalist who heads Rooks Tours of Trinidad.

He arranges turtle excursions for individuals and groups as well as a number of other nature tours in the destination, all of which are commissionable to travel agents at 10%. "Trinidad is the best place in the world to see the leatherback turtles because we are reasonably close to the beaches where they nest," Rooks said.

The leatherback turtles can be found nesting on beaches in other countries such as Guyana, Venezuela and Mexico, but accessibility for tourists is often a problem, he said. For example, in Guyana, Rooks said, nature enthusiasts must take a plane, then hike for two hours to the beach where the turtles nest.

From Port of Spain in Trinidad, clients can be on the beach viewing the turtles after driving one hour and walking 100 yards from the parking lot. Beyond easy accessibility, Rooks said, Matura Beach, situated on the eastern coast, and Grand Riviere Beach, located on the north coast, have the world's highest density of laying female leatherbacks.

Rooks arranges programs at both beaches, although the favored site for viewing the turtles is Matura Beach, he said. At Matura Beach, Rooks works with Nature Seekers, a community conservation group that conducts turtle-viewing tours. "Nature Seekers' program is being used as a model internationally for beach conservation of turtle nesting sites," Rooks said.

Because the turtles come onto the beach to lay their eggs at night, a basic turtle-watching tour runs from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Rooks picks clients up at their hotels. Once at Matura Beach, a one-hour drive from Port of Spain, Rooks' groups are met by a Nature Seekers' guide and given a briefing about the leatherbacks before joining one of the turtle-watching groups.

Only 100 people, divided into groups of 25, are allowed on Matura Beach per night. The size of Rooks' groups averages from three to six people, he said, and the tours are limited to 16 participants. "With small groups, I can give more personal attention," he said.

The best months for turtle-watching are May and June, when there is a 90% chance of seeing at least one turtle, according to Rooks. He said 25 to 30 turtles may come onto the beach, but the average is five to 15 per night during the two peak months.

A female leatherback turtle, which ranges in length from four-and-a-half feet to seven feet, lays hundreds of eggs in one nesting season. The eggs take approximately 90 days to hatch, and the best months to see the baby turtles emerge from the sand are August and September.

The cost of a basic excursion with Rooks Tours is $35 per person, including transportation, the guided tour at Matura Beach, drinks and snacks. For an extra $10, clients also will receive dinner. Rooks can arrange customized excursions that incorporate hiking and evening bird-watching before viewing the turtles.

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