Islands – Monsters from the Abyss – Trinidad

I didn’t know much about leatherback turtles before I arrived in Trinidad. In fact our filming schedule was so crammed that I hadn’t given them much thought at all until I actually saw one. Our plan was to use infrared cameras and lights to film the turtles leaving the sea, climbing the beach and nesting, in a way that we would create as little disturbance as possible. The down side of course is that, on a dark moonless night without infrared goggles (we didn’t have them), you don’t really see a turtle until you trip over it. It’s only when you trip over your first turtle that you realize how absolutely massive and immovable these animals are.

Leatherback Turtle Trinidad
  Infrared Leatherback Turtle, Trinidad. © Richard Kirby
Some of the things I learned about leatherbacks: •    They can dive to more than 1000m in search of their jellyfish prey. •    They have flexible shells to cope with high pressure at extreme depths. •    They have collapsible lungs so they don’t get the bends •    A large capacity to store oxygen in muscle and lungs and a slow heart rate which are all adaptations for deep diving. •    They migrate the length of the Gulf stream even as far as Scotland in search of lion’s mane jellyfish, their favourite food. •    The span of their front flippers averages 3m •    Their average adult weight is 350kg •    They live for 35-40 years. •    They have a brain the size of a pea. •    The have one of the ugliest faces of any animal to have inhabited our planet (see photo). On one beach on one night, so many turtles were coming ashore they were digging up each others nests and scattering eggs all over the place which is sad and wasteful but with a pea-sized brain what can you expect? Us humans have a really massive brain and still we’re managing to destroy a whole planet! One other thing I learned about leatherbacks was not to lie next to one when it’s wielding it’s front flippers to shovel sand over the newly laid eggs. It’s like being slapped with giant rubber kosh! Seriously, this thing could easily knock you out! In the darkness I followed a turtle as it hauled itself back to the water. The first wave exploded over its massive bulk and a few seconds later this primeval  monster disappeared back into the inky vastness of the ocean. There, it would roam the depths and travel on ocean currents for another year before it returned to this same beach to nest again.  I was totally awed by the mysterious life this animal leads and the more I think about it, the more I realize how good it is that we humans don’t know everything about everything. I reckon mysteries are good for the human soul.

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