A phone call in the middle of the night rarely portends good news. Unless you’re expecting someone or, in this case, something, to give birth.
May is peak time for spotting leatherbacks, one of three endangered sea turtles — along with the green and hawksbill – that lays its eggs on the eco-resort’s black-sand beach in Roseau, the Caribbean island nation’s capital city.
I’m accustomed to reception asking me if I want an early wake-up call for breakfast or a shuttle to the airport. Here, I’m asked if I want to be woken for turtle sightings.
A wooden kiosk on the resort’s beachfront is decorated with pinned-up photos of guests interacting with turtles. In one, a woman is head to head with a leatherback. I can’t wait for my turn.
My first two nights, the call doesn’t come.
I satisfied my leatherback obsession by going on a nighttime turtle walk with Rosalie Bay’s “Nature Enhancement Team” leader, Simon George, who’s equally obsessed.
The beach was breathtaking. I’d heard that Dominica had been nicknamed “the Nature Isle of the Caribbean” because of its pristine natural beauty, and now I was experiencing it firsthand.
As we strolled on the sand, a small white light bobs at the beach terminus. “It’s one of the two patrols that spot turtles and make sure there’s no poaching,” he explained.
Poaching of turtles and their eggs had gone unchecked until 2003, when the community, the government, and the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) banded together to make protecting them a priority. (Beverly Deikel, a visionary local landowner and now-proprietor of Rosalie Bay, largely funded the initiative.)
Locals were invited on guided moon walks to see the turtles nesting. Once they saw the hatchlings, and began to understand the turtles’ life cycle, poaching fell off. Former poachers took up the mantel of beach patrol, turning the tide even further.
On my third night, the wait was finally over.
When I got the call, I raced outside and met Simon, who was wearing a headlamp equipped with white and red lights (turtles aren’t disturbed by the latter).
Simon pointed out the turtle’s tracks (“the crawl”) leading up to the hulking creature, and identified her as Sofia, a leatherback that was apparently getting ready to lay her third round of eggs this season (in one season, a female typically lays 4-5 “clutches”).
We stood to the side as she used her massive paddle-like rear flippers to excavate the nest, throwing scoops of sand to create a hole about 70 cm deep.
Simon logged data in his notebook with the intensity of an obstetrician in the birthing room and announced that the eggs needed to be relocated because of the nest’s proximity to a stream slicing through the sand. He felt the turtle’s birth canal to determine when the egg laying would begin. “It’ll be soon,” he declared as he prepared a large plastic bag to collect the eggs.
Suddenly, she stopped digging, and clumps of perfectly white globular eggs were expelled. “She’s in a trance now,” Simon said, referring to the turtle’s unresponsiveness while she’s laying eggs.
He told us that we could touch her cartilaginous shell and take pictures, but I was so awestruck that I hung back respectfully on the sidelines.
Simon carefully gathered up the eggs. Then, just as suddenly as it all began, Sofia came out of her trance, and started using both sets of flippers to camouflage the nest.
We’re all sprayed with flying sand.
“When she’s done, you’d never know she laid eggs here,” Simon said.
I followed Simon and his partner, Dexter, to the “nursery” beyond the stream — a sandy stretch marked by rows of string and carefully spaced sticks. After Dexter finished digging a hole with his hand, Simon smoothed the walls and carefully wedged the yolkless eggs between the large fertile eggs. He sprinkled sand on the nest, then packed it down, each step mirroring what the mother would have done herself.
By the time we returned to Sofia, she was already waddling back to sea.
I looked at my watch: two hours had elapsed.
Now the waiting would begin all over again.
In 60 days, the hatchlings would painstakingly break out of their shells and wriggle their way up through the sand.
In fact, they might be making their way to the Atlantic Ocean right now.