ST. GEORGE’S, Grenada -- Descendants of ancient seafarers, they travel thousands of miles to reach their destination — an isolated beach where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic at the northern tip of Grenada, the tiny West Indies island nation just north of Venezuela.
The females paddle ashore under cover of darkness, leaving the males behind.
These intrepid travelers, with origins as old as the dinosaurs, are the leatherback turtles, the world’s largest sea turtles. Named for their relatively soft shells, the giant turtles swim from cooler waters back to their tropical birth beaches, where the females lay eggs in the sun-warmed sand.
Better known as the Spice Island for its nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, Grenada is far enough off major tourist paths and heavy-duty development for sea turtles to nest as they’ve done since before humans inhabited the earth.
Fortunately for the turtles, they haven’t gotten a lot of publicity. Grenada is better known for uncrowded beaches, yachting regattas and one of the region’s primo diving sites — the Bianca C, the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean.
But for me, the turtles were the unexpected highlight.
Weighing 1,000 pounds and more, with shells often greater than five feet in length, the females lay their eggs from April through July. During the nesting season, local guides lead would-be turtle watchers along the night beach single file, with the only illumination the leader’s infrared light.
We were lucky. Our turtle showed up almost immediately. As she used her giant rear flippers to dig a nest, most of our group of a dozen held their cellphones aloft, encircling the turtle like some strange fertility rite, snapping pictures revealing nothing more than an infrared blob.
The experts from the nonprofit Ocean Spirits checked her tag. She’d already been here this year, not surprising since leatherbacks return several times during the nesting season to lay eggs. Each time they dig a pit more than two feet deep for their eggs. Pit completed, for the next hour, with occasional soft, horse-like whinnies and thrashing of rear flippers, our turtle pushed out 70 soft, round fertilized eggs the size of billiard balls, then another 33 unfertilized, ping-pong-ball sized eggs as insulation.
Midway through the egg laying our guide told us, “You can touch her. She’s in a trance.” No need for encouragement or congratulations, the leatherback was carrying out her ancient programming before heading out to sea. Any fledglings to emerge would be on their own.
After the egg laying, seemingly exhausted, our turtle spent a long time roughing up a large swath of sand, camouflaging her nest. She had no idea that the Ocean Spirits team had caught her eggs as she laid them, transporting them to higher ground where the tide would be less likely to wash them away. At best, only one in a thousand fledglings survives to adulthood.
The most southerly of the Windward Islands, Grenada remains relatively untouched. With a population around 108,000, the nation includes the main island of Grenada (21 by 12 miles) plus Carriacou and Petite Martinique, small islands to the north.
While turtles head for the isolated northern beach of Levera, in the south, Grand Anse Beach, the two-mile sweep of sand on the Caribbean side of the island, is the major destination for the more sybaritic human. No mega hotels mar the view; no factories foul the air. Buildings can be no taller than a palm tree.