A 150 million year old phenomenon
Leatherback Beach, Papua, Indonesia. To sit on a sand hill under a starred canopy at the equator along a deserted beach is to hope for an experience that less than 300 have shared. Most who visit have travelled over 20,000 miles by air, land and boat to one of the most remote places on our planet where Aboriginal villagers scratch out a bare sustenance without external world motivations. These are the sacred lands of the Papuans and the largest leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting beach at about 18 kilometres long and up to 100 metres wide.
Should you go there to see a leatherback-nesting event, the wait on the beach can be one of patience in the dark of the night. The only illumination will be a reflection of the moonlight on the white foam of a breaking wave on the beach. All is quiet, except the gentle lapping of the surf while waiting for an appearance of a living dinosaur to exit the sea and labouriously climb the slope of the beach. It will locate where she was hatched 12 or more years ago. She is repeating the 150-million-year drive to reproduce so the species may survive. Left alone, this ancient hatching process would continue unimpeded, but we humans have introduced the specter of extinction of this most valuable creature of the seas.
Efforts by a few dedicated environmentalists to stop the senseless killings, egg poaching, trophy collecting and stripping of the skin for purse and leather fashion items while the turtle still lives, fight an uphill battle. The leatherback hatchling faces a host of threats at the nesting beaches, including jungle predators (such as wild pigs and dogs, salt water crocodiles, crabs and pythons.)
Another plateau of destruction that is destroying the nest and eggs is the ever-rising tides of global warming. At the equator, the high tides drown or cook the eggs in its shell, pre-hatched, deep in the nests as the seawater drains over them. The nesting female is in danger of having its throat slit by those who want her skin for handbags and fashion items as she is in her egg-laying trance.
The leatherback is the largest of the seven sea turtles. A male adult can measure over three metres long and up to five metres wide at its front flippers and can weigh up to about 1,360 kilogrammes. Females are a bit smaller at 908 kilogrammes and about two metres long. The most unique difference of this turtle from the other six species is its skin – NOT a hard shell. Evolution has equipped this turtle with a soft, mottled, black skin attached to an expanding rib cage as in humans, to allow it to dive to or below 914 metres in search of the giant jellyfish, its major food source. To survive, a leatherback must eat its weight every day in jellyfish. Here is the critical environmental issue. The leatherback controls the jellyfish population off the wild fish spawning rivers. The killings of the leatherbacks reduce their efficiency in controlling the jellyfish populations; therefore reducing the availability of wild caught fish to our tables. The balance of the seas is collapsing because of the greatly diminishing leatherback populations.
The males are not observed as they rarely exit the sea after hatching. The females at a nesting beach provide the data for research and survival efforts. Being able to examine only half of a population skews the results
To have an occasion to actually sit beside a nesting leatherback, watch her deposit a clutch of about 100 eggs and cover the nest using her large body and flippers is truly a “goose bump” creator. This creature will then struggle back to the sea to return six or seven times in the season. Another “goose bump” experience is observing a nest of about 100 hatchlings climb out of its four-foot-deep nest in the dark of night, especially in its native and remote environment. I admit to this, even though I have observed hundreds.
Once safely on the beach, all locate a sand spot and await the instructions of the trained Papuan and crew as they search for a leatherback turtle to emerge from the ocean. During that time, no lights, talking or smoking is permitted, as any unnatural actions can scare the leatherback from nesting or not emerging from the sea. Should that occur, 100 possible hatchlings will not be born. In the present conditions of the rampant at sea killings, to lose one nest becomes a critical loss.
When the leatherback selects her nesting spot and begins to dig a four-foot-deep nest, she goes into a trance and does not recognise any activity. It is then we can approach and marvel at the amazing beauty nature provides and touch her skin to feel the velvety texture. We can take all the photos and videos needed and more. One caution: Do not point a flash or a video light at her eyes closer than one metre. Use your camera zoom function. The leatherback’s eyes are perhaps the most light-sensitive of any creature in the oceans. Their ability to see at over 900 metres deep in search for jellyfish in an otherwise black ocean requires that. A close flash can injure her ability to see and to feed, resulting in another great loss, should that happen.
After your first encounter, it is quite normal to want to see more. A high excitement ripples through all on the beach, as sets of people roam up and down, looking for more photo opportunities. Our village boys are quite talented in locating them in the dark with no lights. It is normal to marvel at an equatorial sunrise over a placid sea and wonder where all the time went. All who stay that long have a decision to make: go back to the dive boat or stay on the beach and begin the search for hatchlings emerging from the eight-week-old nests. Many stay and are later happy they made that decision.
While the nests are supposed to hatch at night so the hatchlings can go to the sea unobserved by many daytime predators, some nests hatch and the hatchlings come from the sand at early morning. These “little guys” are about four inches long at hatching. They cannot crawl over a twig.