By Kejan Haynes
In mid-May of this year, I ventured to Grande Riviere in a rare, local tourist experience to see the nesting rituals of the leatherback turtles.
Turtle watching isn’t something that you can do on the fly.
You need to acquire a permit (TT$10 or 60 US cents) for adults from the Forestry Division) to enter a protected beach overnight between the hours of 6pm and 6am.
You also need to make an appointment with the tour guide association, since you must go with a guide.
On that full moonlit night, our tour guide mentioned that we were lucky, because it had rained all day and the river was swollen, but had gone down.
He then mentioned something about the river causing erosion and going off course.
Had I known what would have happened only two months later, I would have paid more attention.
On 8 July, the front page of the Sunday Express shocked the country, using words such as “tragedy”, “crushed to death” and the magic number, “thousands”, to describe what happened when government workers tried to redirect that very river which had now charted its own course and was directly threatening the neighbouring Mount Plaisir Estate Hotel.
Naturally, the article invoked strong emotions from a public highly sensitised to the importance of preserving the leatherback turtle species.
Within hours, it was world news, with the dead hatchlings and eggs estimated to be as high as 20,000.
Sworn to protect
The next day, the chief executive of the Environmental Management Authority, Dr Joth Singh, visited the area.
His first reaction was that the numbers were greatly exaggerated and that maybe hundreds of turtles had died, but certainly not thousands.
Though his assessment was accurate, it was not helping the government’s public image.
That Tuesday, the media made the three-hour trek from Port of Spain to Grande Riviere with the newly installed Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, Ganga Singh, and the Minister of Tourism, Stephen Cadiz.
At an impromptu press conference, Mr Singh defended the work as being necessary to save the business.
Then in a surprise twist, the Grande Riviere conservationists, sworn to protect the area, sided with the government.
The President of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association, Len Peters, said that because the river had eroded that area of the beach, turtles laid fewer nests here than they traditionally did.
He said that 80% of the nests in this zone would not have survived anyway because the sand was too saturated from the river water .
“This is an activity that could have been handled differently," he said.
"We learned a lot of lessons from this, because we didn’t even anticipate that type of response. We felt that it was an intervention that would be done and it would blow over quickly.
"But obviously people are very sensitive about anything that happens on a nesting site.”
Large nesting colony
Trinidad is one of the three largest leatherback nesting colonies in the world and is vital for the Atlantic leatherback population.
Grande Riviere Beach receives about 3,500 females a year, which deposit more than 200,000 eggs in a stretch of beach only 1km long, making it the highest density leatherback nesting beach in the world.
Dr Diego F Amorocho, the species programme co-ordinator for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Latin America & Caribbean, told Trinidad's TV6 that the incident did no permanent damage to the preservation of the species.
“Even if 2,000 eggs were lost, it would represent only about 1% of the total production for this beach,” he said.
“Therefore, even though this is a terrible situation, fortunately it does not represent a significant threat to the stability of the leatherback marine turtle colony in Trinidad.
"Nonetheless, local authorities in Trinidad should take the necessary measures to avoid such a tragedy from happening again.”
Back to Grande Riviere
One week after the incident, I paid a visit to Piero Guerrini, the proprietor of the Mount Plaisir Estate Hotel, Grande Riviere.
The slender, bearded Italian man sat me down on the veranda of his hotel.
A few metres away was a precipice, approximately two metres deep. From a tree, a tyre swing dangled metres above the ground.
Months before when I had visited, that swing was mere inches off the floor. That's how bad the damage had been from beach erosion.
Mr Guerrini moved to Trinidad in 1993 and quickly became known as the “crazy turtle guy”.
He would go to neighbouring Matelot and purchase live turtles, which the fishermen would accidentally catch and sell for meat and release them back into the ocean.
Contrary to many reports, he bought and did not build the hotel. And it was built long before Grande Riviere was deemed a protected beach by the government.
He had been a conservationist all his life. Now, he said, his reputation was destroyed.
His 15-room hotel, which was already facing hard times (the original erosion forced him to close three rooms) was now facing cancellations and bad reviews on the newspaper blogs.
He said that there were hate emails and phone calls from around the globe.
At the same time, the intense coverage attracted a new batch of curious tourists (much like me) who wanted to see the area for themselves.
“The big damage to turtles was not what happened with the excavation; the damage was done when the river eroded the beach, ” he told Caribbean Intelligence.
“My main concern was to ensure this doesn’t happen again. I gave suggestions on how to fix the problem and they didn’t listen.
"What they did there is not a permanent solution - it’s sand on top of sand. The water is still seeping through.
"If the river gains any momentum, it can happen again.”
The residents in the area stand behind Mr Guerrini.
Many of them were more upset at the speed in which the government reacted to something they deem trivial in comparison to their other problems.
“All that for some turtles?” asked one woman who identified herself only as Abigail.
"Look at how bad our roads are. We’re at risk of being cut off from the rest of the country, and they never come to see that.”
But the response from the general public is not surprising.
Every few months, the same pictures emerge on the internet of people standing on or riding on the backs of turtles that come on shore to nest.
Each time, though the pictures are often recycled, there is a renewed outcry, something of a social network lynch mob.
Carnival band Tribe also incurred the online wrath of conservationist group Trini Eco Warriors.
On 20 May, Tribe threw a party on a secluded beach and parked a large music truck along with several other SUVs on the sand.
The pictures ended up online
The beach, known as Damien’s Bay in Blanchiseusse, is a secluded one, frequented more by surfers than leatherback turtles, and it is not protected by the state.
Tribe took note of the negative feedback and issued an online statement the next day.
“Tribe and its committee will never intentionally do anything to endanger turtles.
"We admire and congratulate organisations like Trini Eco Warriors and The Papa Bois Conservation Group for the conservation work each is doing in this regard."
Tourists may wait hours on the beach just to see one at times.
Meanwhile, residents in the south east coast of Manzanilla and Mayaro are reporting more turtles showing up on those beaches, creating a new problem for conservationists, as those beaches are rarely patrolled or protected.
The conservation work in Grande Riviere continues unabated.
Junior White volunteers in Grande Riviere. For the past nine years, during turtle season, he has patrolled the beach looking for hatchlings.
“I only get paid when people leave donations with [Mr Guerrini],” he told Caribbean Intelligence.
“I essentially do this by myself. There are people who want to help, but they always want money. I’d rather they didn’t start and then stop because they’re not getting paid."
From 9am, he gathers the babies just emerging from the sand and carries them to his hatchery, an 8in by 10in ditch in the sand about a foot deep.
He keeps it covered with "galvanise" (corrugated iron) and surrounds it with fishing net to keep the mongeese out.
When he removes the galvanise, there are about 50 hatchlings scurrying about, tripping over each other with their pint-sized flippers.
“This is nothing,” he says. “On any given day, this is filled with up to 800 [hatchlings].”
Every evening, he takes them out to the sand and guides them to the water.
It’s better than releasing them during the day, where they can be eaten by birds or fish," he says.
Since he started controlling the release, he said that he had seen as many as 100 more turtles showing up on the beaches every night.
To him, this is proof that his work is making a difference.