Like clockwork, spring signals the arrival of an aquatic dinosaur to Trinidad and Tobago. From March to August, the shifting sands of Trinidad’s Grande Riviere Beach become the world’s highest-density nesting site for the leatherback sea turtle. As many as 150 of these reptiles, which evolved more than 100 million years ago, can be found on the beach at night, and today I’m traveling from the capital, Port of Spain, to see them—along with a few of the island’s other natural wonders.
My first stop is the Caroni Swamp, a wetland 20 minutes south of Port of Spain. I’m up early—like, before 5 a.m.—so that I can hop in a pirogue with Nanan’s Eco Tours in search of Trinidad’s national bird, the scarlet ibis. I’m grateful for the traditional breakfast of sada roti, fried aloo, and okra that comes with my sunrise tour, but the meal has nothing on the feast for my eyes: Thousands of scarlet ibises on a forested island who take flight all at once at dawn, coloring the water bright red with their reflections.
It’s a two-hour drive to the island’s east coast and my next destination, the trailhead for the Rio Seco waterfall. A 40-minute hike through Matura National Park reveals a shimmering (and swimmable) emerald pool surrounded by lush vegetation. By the time I’m done with the walk and a 45-minute drive to the north coast, I’m ready for a lunch of grilled snapper and plantain at Ah Taste of Toco.
The light is beginning to fade when I reach my accommodations, a wooden cottage at Acajou Hotel that’s just a stone’s throw from Grande Riviere Beach, but I’ll have to wait a while for the clock to turn to turtle time.
In fact, it’s not until midnight that we’re allowed onto the beach to meet the leatherbacks, led by members of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association. The moon casts a soft glow on several large rocks that, upon closer inspection, prove to be leather-backs. We spot eight turtles within an hour. The first mama’s head is as big as a bowling ball, her nearly 1,000-pound body the size of a claw-foot tub. She’ll lay some 100 eggs tonight alone, and my guide tells me she can produce 600 or more over the course of the season. The hatchlings have many predators, and few of them will survive to adulthood, but that doesn’t detract from the wonder we feel watching the turtle lay its eggs, cover the nest, and, finally, slip back beneath the waves.