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Surinam: Leatherback turtles

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Leatherback turtles | Surinam | Americas

[Visited: July 2007]

When the alarm clock went off at 2am in a quiet night on the shore of the Marowijne River, it seemed strange to actually wake up and go out. But as soon as I remembered that we were supposed to see leatherback turtles lay eggs, I got an energy boost that was better than the cup of tea that was being served. We cautiously walked to the beach where our boat was ready to leave. Fortunately, a full moon was visible through some scattered clouds, where just a few hours before rain had been pouring down. We could see the contours of the coast while going up north, towards to ocean. The egg-laying season was nearing its end, so we were a little worried about not seeing any turtles that night.

Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback laying eggs in a hole in the beach near Galibi

But much sooner than we expected, our guide pointed to the beach with his torch, and we saw a black shadow moving on the beach. When we came ashore and able to appreciate the size of the reptile, we were awestruck. This is the largest living turtle on earth, and the largest reptile after crocodiles; the largest leatherbacks can reach a length of more than 2.5 metres and weigh up to 900kgs. The giant animal had already deposited her eggs, and was covering a quite large area of beach so predators would not easily find her nest and the precious eggs. One of the striking things was that the turtle was moaning and making a lot of noise, for the sheer effort it took her to do this hard work on the sand, with only her fins to move around on and move the sand, and a heavy body to drag along. We were very happy to have seen this turtle, but to our amazement, a large, dark shadow emerged from the sea: another leatherback to lay her eggs.

Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle on the beach, about to lay eggs

Now, we could see the process from the beginning: moving around sand, and finally deciding to make a hole, and doing a big effort with her hind fins to dig a hole deep enough to hide her around 100 eggs. Digging took around half an hour, the hole being pretty deep (basically as deep as her fins were long). She did not wait to start getting rid of her eggs, and a few minutes later the hols was almost filled up by larger than ping-pong balls sized eggs - some dented, some perfectly round. The leatherback covered the eggs with sand, and since we were being bitten severely by clouds of mosquitoes, we left. But the impression lasted: statistically, only one out of 1000 eggs actually grows to be an adult leatherback - all that work for a 10% chance that there would be one survivor, which the mother anyway would never know. On our way back to Galibi, we were still in awe at what we had seen - such a pure, ingenious and instinctive ritual.

Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle on the way back to the sea after laying eggs on the beach
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle camouflaging her nest of eggs on the beach
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback covering up her nest with sand, using her fins
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle near Galibi beach
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Head of leatherback turtle as it moves back into the water
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle on the beach
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback turtle on the beach after laying eggs
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Head of leatherback turtle in close-up
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Leatherback covering up her nest on the beach near Galibi
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Detail of leatherback turtle near Galibi
Picture of Leatherback turtles (Surinam): Covering up her nest: leatherback turtle in action on the beach near Galibi

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