>There was no time to waste. This precious opportunity could end at any second, so I went to work, slowly approaching the turtle from the side, careful not to chase or alarm it. When the water got too shallow, I kicked off my fins, tossed my mask aside and walked next to the turtle, shooting from the hip. I was grateful to have a fisheye lens, a huge glass dome and fresh batteries that kept my temperamental strobes happy and firing. Luckily, a rocky bottom — similar to a trout stream's — kept the water mostly free of debris. My two friends and I took turns, synchronizing our efforts and miraculously staying out of each other's way.
>Compare the size between an adult nesting leatherback and a hatchling. At this stage, the babies are incredibly vulnerable and have to grow up in a hurry — and be very lucky — to survive.
>The current washed the sand and salt mucus from the turtle's eyes and revealed an animal of extraordinary beauty. Not your typical black leatherback, this turtle was a very pale, bluish gray with a constellation of little white stars covering her body. Every 30 feet or so, the turtle lifted her massive head out of the water to breathe the warm humid air and kept going, soaking in her new surroundings. Roughly a half mile from the sea, this living dinosaur finally realized she was in a very strange neighborhood and turned around, eventually making it back to the mouth of the river and swimming into the murky and angry Caribbean.
>For the next week we settled into a demanding routine: After dinner we and our guides would head out in pairs to local beaches to work. The red glow of our headlamps revealed clusters of leatherbacks — completely oblivious to our presence — entering and leaving the pounding surf and sometimes even crawling over each other and accidentally destroying nests. These excursions were arduous. The uneven terrain, heat, sand, darkness, smell (from broken eggs and dead embryos), rain and biting insects made it extremely tough to remain focused.
>We would return to our simple accommodations in the morning for breakfast, showers and sleep. Random turtles nesting under the blazing tropical sun or unlucky hatchlings being devoured by vultures and frigatebirds broke the midday quiet and made us scramble for our cameras. In the late afternoons we explored the coastline by boat with fishermen, who took us to a staging area offshore where leatherbacks gathered by the dozen prior to storming the beach at nightfall.
>A black vulture eats a hatchling at sunrise. To compensate for losses due to predation, female leatherbacks produce an enormous number of hatchlings to ensure the species continues into the future.
>During our long boat rides the fishermen described the challenges of making a living during nesting season, unfortunately one of the best times to fish. Almost every time we went out on the water someone at the fishing station was repairing nets that had been ripped apart by 800-pound turtles. Scott Eckert, leatherback expert and director of science at Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, reports that each year about 3,000 leatherbacks get entangled in gillnets in Trinidad's waters, with a mortality rate of 33 percent, or 1,000 turtles. Local conservation organizations are working with fishermen to develop fishing techniques that minimize bycatch, but it's a long and difficult process.
>It would be hard to convince the average tourist visiting Trinidad during nesting season that leatherbacks are endangered. Entanglement in fishing gear, coastal development, poaching, boat collisions and the ingestion of plastic bags (mistaken for jellyfish) all take a huge toll. But there is some good news: While the Pacific population is in extreme distress, the Atlantic and Caribbean population appears to be on the rebound. In 2013 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the status of these giants from "Critically Endangered" to "Vulnerable," because of the recovery in the Western Hemisphere population. Let's hope conservation and educational programs continue to bear fruit and that leatherback numbers recover throughout their entire range.
>Tourists flock to beaches during nesting season to observe the massive and endangered leatherbacks, bringing revenue to the local economy.
>Note: All flash and underwater photography of leatherbacks in Trinidad were conducted with permits and with guides from local authorities and sea turtle conservation organizations.
>Learn more about what is being done to protect leatherback turtles by watching the United Nations video Trinidad: Saving the Turtles.
>© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2016