Springtime on Matura Beach, six miles of palm-fringed, surf-washed sand on the east coast of Trinidad. By day the beach looks as if giant dune buggies have romped across it. Chevron-pattern tracks five feet wide twist over the sand, interrupted by shallow, car-size pits. By night the real earthmovers appear. They advance not with a roar of engines but with a whisper of sand, the thump of bodies heaving forward inch by inch, the sigh and grunt of heavy effort. The leatherbacks are nesting.
Black and gleaming in the moonlight, each female drags herself from the surf, front flippers scoring the sand as she pulls herself along, and settles in to dig. Scooping with her rear flippers, she excavates a shaft; when she can no longer reach the bottom, she begins to lay her eggs, a glistening cue ball every few seconds. Once she has a cache of 80 or so, she fills in the nest, sweeping her front flippers to smooth out the spot. Then she drags herself a few feet away and makes more giant sand angels—a decoy nest that may serve to confuse predators. After two or three hours on the beach, her throat rosy with exertion, she returns to the sea.
Leatherbacks have been nesting on Matura Beach for as long as anyone can remember, even during the bad years of the 1970s and '80s, when the beach reeked from butchered turtle carcasses rotting in the sun and the sand was pocked with holes dug by egg poachers. These days the turtles nest unmolested, their domain patrolled by Nature Seekers, a local conservation group. The number has shot up, from a few hundred nesting each year a decade ago to perhaps 3,000.
Turtles are practically storming the beaches of Trinidad. Last year at Grande Riviere, a beach just a half mile long, 500 leatherbacks a night vied for nesting space, a scrum so dense they dug up each other's nests, leaving a windfall for vultures and stray dogs. Elsewhere on the island, turtles have begun colonizing beaches that were empty just a few years ago. All told, Eckert estimates that 8,000 leatherbacks visited Trinidad to nest last year.
The numbers are all the more remarkable because of the gantlet the turtles run just offshore. Leatherback nesting season is also the time when the hundreds of fishermen in northeast Trinidad set curtains of net a few miles offshore, hoping for a load of mackerel or kingfish. Increasingly, they catch half-ton turtles instead.