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Ocean Health

Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles

Help save the world's largest turtle from extinction.

Previously Funded Expedition

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Each year, more than 10,000 leatherback sea turtles travel from across the Atlantic Ocean to nest on Trinidad’s eastern beaches. Join us at the end of their epic journey.

On this Earthwatch Expedition, you’ll help protect some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches and the fascinating reptiles that depend on them.

Once female leatherbacks climb up these beaches, they dig holes with their rear flippers and lay about 80 eggs, a process they’ll repeat up to 12 times during breeding season. In about two months, tiny, striped babies will emerge.

They’re lucky to be born on Matura, which is Trinidad’s safest nesting beach in part thanks to Earthwatchers. Poaching, once rampant, is now rare. But plenty of threats still lurk—and climate change may be the biggest. The temperature of the sand in which embryos gestate determines their gender. Warmer temperatures will mean more female turtles, creating a population imbalance that could threaten species survival. Also, ocean currents that help leatherbacks swim and hunt are expected to change with the climate, which could hurt populations in ways we can’t predict.

To collect data, you’ll walk the beach at night when turtles are active, and get up close to these massive animals to weigh and measure them, look for signs of disease and injury, and count eggs. This work is critical: with leatherbacks declining faster than any other large animal in modern history, each turtle is precious.


The facts

Why the research is important

Why the research is important

The Pacific leatherback population - once the species stronghold - has declined by over 90% since 1980. This project has helped make the Atlantic population more stable.

Armed with good data, we can help fragile leatherback populations. So we need your help to patrol every night during their six-month nesting season.

This expedition truly needs volunteers like you. About 20 staff members from Nature Seekers - the local nonprofit Earthwatch partners with on this expedition - walk the beaches nightly during nesting season, but when up to 150 turtles at a time are digging nests and laying eggs, we need more hands to collect lots of accurate data.

You’ll help Earthwatch scientists record information on hatchling survival and adult turtle health, and to tag adult turtles to keep an accurate population count. This data has two critical purposes - it reveals long-term population trends and it supports quality public outreach. Nature Seekers hosts more than 15,000 turtle-watchers annually at Matura Beach, and educating these visitors, who come from the local community as well as abroad, has nearly stopped the killing of turtles at Matura.

You’ll also help scientists understand climate change impacts by tracking the slope and width of the beaches, the moisture in the sand, and the nests washed out to sea—all information that can give insight into how rising temperatures and rising seas could affect turtles and their habitats.

Nesting leatherback turtle. Trinidad

To collect data, you’ll walk the beach at night when turtles are active.

Of course, conservationists can’t do much about some threats to leatherbacks, such as the vultures and sharks that prey on eggs and hatchlings. The world is dangerous enough for these animals even without the risk of getting tangled in fishing nets or other side-effects of human activity. That’s why, with your help, we work to understand these threats and educate people about them.


About the research area

Trinidad, about eight miles off the coast of Venezuela, is southernmost in the chain of islands that encloses the Caribbean Sea. The rural village of Matura, your home on this expedition, is surrounded by thick mora-tree forest. This forest draws many visitors with its beautiful Rio Seco Waterfall and diverse tropical wildlife, but leatherbacks at nesting season are by far the area’s most popular attraction.

Nature Seekers has strong roots in Matura. You’ll meet local community members and perhaps visit a primary-school classroom to talk about the research. Project staff members also know Trinidad’s natural world well, so you’ll have an unparalleled chance to learn about the flora and fauna. You’ll also glimpse some of Trinidad’s rich cultural history. Many musical traditions, notably steel drumming, began in Trinidad and form a very important part of the nation’s identity. Every town has its own steel drum band, and competition between villages is fierce.

Daily life in the field

Itinerary

This is a summary:

  • DAY 1: Meet your team and settle in.
  • DAY 2: Explore with knowledgeable staff members in the morning; begin beach patrols at night.
  • DAYS 3-11: Immerse yourself in monitoring nesting beaches and other data collection. You’ll also have one full day off to hike through the forest to Rio Seco Waterfall and enjoy a cool swim in the Matura River, or to do other activities as the team chooses
  • DAY 12: Depart for the airport in the morning

Expect to experience a true field-scientist’s life on this expedition. The team must work when the turtles are active, so you’ll have time to sleep and relax during the day, then eat dinner and spend most of the night - sometimes until 2:30 in the morning - on the beach. You’ll get to take it slow early in the expedition as you adjust to the busy nighttime schedule.

During beach patrols, you’ll work in small groups to visit to each nesting leatherback in your assigned survey area. You’ll measure the distance across the turtle’s shell at its widest point and record any unusual markings or injuries. If the turtle has not already been tagged, you’ll help an experienced field staffer tag one of its flippers. You’ll also note nest positions and environmental conditions, such as weather, tide, and the number of people watching the turtles. You’ll excavate any old nests to estimate how many hatchlings they held.

Depending on when you join us in the field, your team will work more on some activities than others. Earlier teams do more beach patrols, and later in the season, as more hatchlings emerge, they do more nest excavating. All teams will likely try their hand at all activities, depending on research needs.

Note: Field conditions and research needs can lead to changes in the itinerary and activities. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Turtle conservation project

Weigh and measure turtles, look for signs of disease and injury, and count eggs.

The Scientists

MEET THE LEAD SCIENTIST

Scott
Eckert
Director of Science at Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network

ABOUT Scott Eckert

Dr. Scott Eckert has spent almost three decades as a researcher and conservationist, focusing largely on the health, wellness and conservation of sea turtles.

READ MORE +

MEET THE OTHER SCIENTISTS

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

  • Guesthouse in tropical forest
  • Internet
  • Laundry
  • Home-cooked Trinidadian food

You’ll stay in one of the 11 rooms at Susan’s Guesthouse in Matura, nestled in the tropical forest. Bedrooms have air conditioning or fans, and the guesthouse offers Wi-Fi, laundry, and a veranda where you can rest and look for howler monkeys and native birds. The two nesting beaches we patrol - Matura Beach and Fishing Pond Beach - are both about a 20-minute drive away. Teams often stop at Gail’s Ice cream for a treat on the way back from daytime outings..

Guesthouse staff will prepare all meals. You’ll patrol beaches through most nights, so you’ll wake up late for brunch: traditional Trinidadian dishes like fried bread, salt fish, and plantains, as well as coffee, tea, cereal, pancakes, or eggs. Dinners may feature spicy Creole stews, rice, and root vegetables. Most meals also include fresh local fruit.

Susan's Guesthouse, Matura, Trinidad, Caribbean

Susan’s Guesthouse, Matura

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