We were on one of the most beautiful beaches in Grenada, sitting on a wooden picnic bench table, listening to the rhythmic sound of waves splashing against the shore.   We were not concerned with the breathtaking view of islands in the water or the empty stretch of beautiful white sand or the turquoise clear water of the Caribbean.  Mostly because it was night, and we couldn’t see any of it.  There were plenty of bright stars in the sky to make up for the lack of view and I searched for familiar constellations as hour after hour went by.  We arrived here at Levera Beach at 7:30 pm and it was now almost 11 pm and I was starting to lose hope.

“It might not happen,” I told Victor, “But that’s ok.  I won’t be too upset.  At least we tried.”

I was lying.  I was certainly going to be devastated if we were unsuccessful, but I was trying to talk myself into a more reasonable reaction.  We only had thirty minutes left and then we would be sent home.

I stared intensely into the pitch black.  There was no visible moon in the sky and the beach around us was submerged into complete darkness, occasionally interrupted by a glare of a far-away red beam.  Regular flashlights and camera flash were forbidden, as was talking loudly, or walking on the beach.  There were just some of the rules, the breaking of which would result in your immediate removal from the beach.

Suddenly, I saw one of the red beams getting closer and closer.  Someone was running towards us.  I clenched my hands, hoping beyond hope that this was finally it.  One of the guides appeared out of the darkness, and softly called out, “We got one!  Everyone, follow me!”

I grabbed Victor’s hand, and we ran.  The sand was dry and loose, with unexpected crevasses and small dunes, and we were moving in almost complete darkness.  I kept my eye on the guide with his red flashlight ahead of us, as I tried to maintain my balance with each of my steps sinking into the sand.  If I wasn’t holding Victor’s hand, I would have faceplanted multiple times.  Several people, in far better shape than me, passed us and ran ahead.

“Section T!” the guide called out, “That’s almost at the end of the beach!”

I had no idea how long the beach was or where we were, but I was ready to run through the whole night if needed.  Fortunately, just ten minutes later, I could see multiple red lanterns gathered together in one place, and in their glow, two young female biologists crouching in the sand.  I stopped running and walked towards the light.  I could hear people gasping and whispering around me, but all I could do was hold my breath, while still clutching Victor’s hand.

There it was, in the center of the red spotlight, a giant leatherback turtle, bigger than any turtle I have ever seen.  She had already dug a deep hole with her back flippers and was laying large round eggs, as the biologists counted each one.   Her head with a distinctive, pointed beak was moving up and down, as she released heavy breaths and occasionally, deep guttural calls.  The eggs, each looking like large ping-pong balls, were steadily dropping into the depth of the sand burrow.  While it certainly looked like she had a shell, her powerful body was actually covered in dark, leathery skin, glistening in the red light.

She was magnificent.  Even with biologists unemotionally handling her long, graceful flippers and running a measuring tape across her rubbery back, even with a crowd of onlookers taking selfies and photographs and excitedly whispering, at this moment in time on this dark beach, it was just me and her.

I felt tears running down my face.  I have been waiting to see this since we started planning our trip to Grenada and now, at this moment, it was all too much.

“172 centimeters in length!” recorded one of the biologists.

“That’s my height!” whispered Victor.

“She is in a trance now,” the guide said, “we can touch her without disturbing her.”

I could not fathom putting my hands on her.  It seemed like a violation, a breach of the sacred trust.  I walked around, towards her head, so I wouldn’t see other tourists touching her back.  I knelt in the sand and stared into her small, slanted eye, watching the movement of her neck and her beak opening and closing.

We have taken no pictures so far and I decided to take a short video clip to remember the moment.

Soon, the laying of eggs was finished and the biologists counted up 99 eggs before the turtle started sliding her back flippers back and forth, covering up the hole with sand.  Ten minutes later, the hole was completely covered up, and she began to throw sand around with her powerful back flippers.  The first jet of sand hit me straight in the stomach and legs, as the guide motioned for all of us to back up.    The guide had warned us ahead of time that leatherback turtles spend anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours hiding their tracks in the sand, thus protecting their newly laid eggs from being dug up and devoured by predators.  Had I not known that I probably would have thought the turtle had no idea which way the ocean was and was lost and upset, sliding around the beach, throwing sand all about.  She was very diligent in covering up all of her tracks, skidding back and forth, and breathing heavily under the burden of being on land.  Multiple times she started heading towards the sea, only to turn back and throw more sand around, obviously anxious about the safety of her babies.

Finally, she crawled towards the water and disappeared under the waves.  We walked back down the dark beach, overwhelmed with emotions, still incredulous of the miracle of nature we witnessed.  I have always loved turtles and even have a custom “I Love Sea Turtles” license plate frame gifted by a friend who thought it was hysterical that I spend my free days watching turtles in a nearby nature center.   And here, finally, I was able to see for myself one of the largest turtle species in the wild, with the ability to cross oceans multiple times in their lifetimes, diving over 4,000 feet to forage for jellyfish, and staying underwater for 85 minutes.  Unfortunately, only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood.  With these statistics, every adult leatherback turtle is a miracle, and the species are currently listed as endangered.

In two months, these hatchlings will make their way out of the safety of their burrow and make the treacherous journey toward the ocean, despite all odds.   Those who survive will swim back thousands of miles to this exact beach to lay their own eggs.  It’s an incredible cycle of life that I was lucky enough to witness and hope to see again in the future.


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