Culebra Turtle Watch Program
The Leatherback Turtle
The leatherback turtle is the largest living turtle in the world. The average adult weighs 500 to 1600 pounds. When nesting, leatherbacks will not enter an area where lights or noise of any kind exist. Therefore, nesting grounds are very rare. In the Caribbean, there are only three prime places where the endangered leatherback turtles nest, and Culebra Island is fortunate to be one of them. Culebra Island has three beaches that provide a dark, quiet, and safe place for leatherback turtles; Zoni, Resaca and Brava beaches. Two of the three beaches are within the wildlife refuge area.
The main turtle watch time is from April to early June. The Department of Natural Resources uses volunteers to assist in identifying and helping the turtles. Volunteers meet at happy landings at 5pm so they can be at the beach by sunset and spend the night on the beach taking turns watching for turtles.
Imagine helping an adult turtle lay her eggs! The fun begins when a turtle is spotted. Volunteers must stay at a distance until the turtle has prepared her nest. She puts on quite a show while she is digging. When the nest is complete and the turtle is ready to lay eggs, she goes into a hypnotic trance. At that time, the volunteers can gather around the turtle to observe her laying eggs. One lucky volunteer gets to hold the turtle's back flipper so the eggs can be clearly seen dropping into the nest. One volunteer counts the big fertile eggs, while another counts the small infertile eggs. The turtle is measured and the event is documented before the turtle returns to the ocean. The return is quite impressive. The adult throws sand into the air to cover up her tracks to the nest, as she returns to the sea.
Hatchlings emerge in 60-65 days, depending on sand temperature, which also determines the sex of the hatchling. They crack their shells open by using their "caruncle", a temporary, sharp egg tooth, which falls off after birth. Struggling up from the bottom of the nest to the sand's surface, emergence entails an ordeal that can last a few days. Because hatching takes place beneath the sand, emergence from the shell is never observed under natural conditions. Not all eggs hatch and not all hatchlings make it to the surface. Those that do emerge successfully may not survive the trek from nest to the ocean. Predators, scorching midday heat, obstacles, both natural and manmade will thwart their journey. In fact, only one in a thousand hatchlings will make it through the perilous journey to adulthood.
If you're fortunate enough to see hatchlings emerge from their nest, you'll surely be tempted to pick them up and carry them to the ocean. Stop yourself! It's vital that the hatchlings "imprint" on their natal beach. When the female hatchlings mature, they'll return to the same beach to nest. If you see hatchlings crawling off-course, simply guide them on a path to the ocean and cheer them on.