Grande Riviere is a breathtaking destination nestled along Trinidad’s Northern Range. This remarkable bay, renowned for its pristine beaches and abundant wildlife, serves as a sanctuary for the endangered Leatherback turtles. Join HADCO Experiences as we delve into the conservation efforts of the local community, the nesting rituals of the turtles, and the symbiotic relationship between the river, the ocean, and the land.
Trinidad’s Northern Range, an extension of the longest continental mountain range in the world, the Andean Mountain Range, boasts unrivalled biodiversity and stunning landscapes. With majestic peaks like El Cerro del Aripo, this region captivates visitors with its natural beauty and a diversity that surpasses any other Caribbean Island. From the vibrant poui and immortelle blooms during the dry season to the life-giving mountain streams and waterfalls in the rainy season, the Northern Range is a haven for nature enthusiasts.
The main feature of Grande Riviere is the river itself. A grand river, Grande Riviere, flowing from the heart of the Northern Range Forest between the villages of Toco and Matelot, spilling its contents into the bay. The river is fed by the Shark River watershed, the Grande Riviere watershed and the Zagaya watershed, making it the primary drainage system for over 3,000 hectares of forest reserve. Grande Riviere Bay is one of the most well-known beaches in the world, thanks in no small part to some very special friends.
Every year, between the months of March and August, as dusk descends, the villagers of Grande Riviere gather along the beach, beginning their annual watch to witness the remarkable nesting phenomenon of the Leatherback turtles. The relationship between these villagers and the largest turtles in the world has deepened with the passage of time.
They were once hunted for their meat but now upwards of 40,000 turtles nest here annually. Even as the overall Leatherback turtle population continues to decrease, the number of turtles seeking sanctuary on these shores has increased.
Len Peters, Chairman of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, has been a driving force behind the community’s efforts to protect the Leatherback turtles. With genuine concern for these magnificent creatures, he spearheads the movement to ensure humane treatment and preservation of the nesting site. ‘I felt that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I felt these large reptiles should not be treated in any inhumane way. I felt like that was something that should be championed by somebody. So, it was part of a movement. We felt the turtles needed some level of human care.”
The spirit of community runs deep in Grande Riviere, with villagers coming together to solve problems and create opportunities. Rooted in traditions like “gayap” (lending labour to neighbors) and “susu” (a form of rotational community saving) that are still practised, the community’s unity is integral to the success of conservation efforts.
The Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, comprised of 40 dedicated members, invites everyone to play a part in preserving this delicate ecosystem. Their vigilance extends beyond the nesting season. Until late October, they patrol the beach during the day, safeguarding the hatchlings who breach their shells and tunnel to the surface, before heaving their tiny bodies along the shoreline with their flippers as they make their way to the ocean. There are many opportunistic seabirds waiting for a feast and sometimes the exhausted baby turtles struggle in the tropical heat.
“It’s a small beach. One kilometre long. Accessible at any point along that kilometre because the beach is in our backyard. Grande Riviere isn’t just our home, it is their home too,” said Peters. “We as a community need to create that perfect nesting space for them because they have done so much for us in terms of the economy of the community.”
Four monitoring stations were established on the beach in 2000 by the Institute of Marine Affairs, to investigate the beach dynamics and the risks posed to the leatherback turtles during the nesting season. They found the turtles to be very organised and efficient in their nesting patterns, utilising the eastern end of the beach early in the nesting season and slowly moving westward toward the river mouth, in Zone 4, where late nesting turtles take their chances against the river, which looks lazy during the dry season but turns into a churning beast during torrential rains.
These discerning turtles also make the best of the high energy beach; a shoreline which shelves steeply and is best tackled by strong swimmers and the bay’s circulating current.
Peters has witnessed this remarkable rhythm between the turtles’ birthing cycle, the river, and the ocean for years. “During the rainy season, when the river washes out to sea, it creates a sand barrier offshore,’ he explained. “Then, that circulating current will move the sand along the beach. The river removes the sand, and the sea returns it. Nature creates an environment where it washes off the sand. Fresh sand comes back in to prepare the beach for next season.”
The dynamic beach and river contribute to the thriving ecosystem, while discarded shells and unhatched eggs are washed out to sea or become a feast for stray dogs. This time-honoured tradition of the Leatherback repeats itself year after year, bringing renewed awe and reverence to the villagers and a sense of wonder to those who fortunate enough to experience it.