Dermochelys coriacea, or Leatherback

On May 26, 1978,
I drove from Kuala
Lumpur (above)
to Terangganu (right)
and stayed that night
in a guesthouse near
Rantau Abang
at Pantai Penyu, or
"Turtle Beach."

From Titik northward,
I had taken tar pollution
profiles as follows:
(units are gm-2
= grams/square meter)

Titik: 2.0, 0.8 - north of Kemamam: 0, 0 - Kijal: 1.3 - Paka: 0.1
Rantau Abang: 124 (sic!) - fresh spill, pieces upto 20 cm
About midnight, we - the dozen guests from Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium and the USA - took off for the beach, together with a turtle nursery technician/guide. It was a wide, sandy beach and the full moon sky was repeatedly lit up by flashes of lightning suggesting a quaint primeval scene.
I found a secluded spot near the dunes and started my solitary vigil. Soon I saw what looked like a Volkswagen crawling out of the sea and up the gentle slope. This female Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) was almost 7 foot long and did not pay any attention to me. She left a track almost like that of a car with special tires.
I remained with her and saw her initially smoothing out the sand surface, then using her hind flippers to scoop out a perpendicular cylindrical hole some 60 cm (2 foot) deep. She then quietly dropped 56 eggs the size of a pingpong ball each, which took a few minutes, after which she filled up the hole and gyrated above and around it to hide any evidence. All the time, she remained completely indifferent to my presence and appeared to be crying large tears, which is in fact a mechanism to secrete the excess salt from around her eye balls. Next, she took off back to sea, and I tried to help and push her in the right direction.
Somehow, I felt a strange empathy with her, going as far as to accompanying her through the slight surf and holding on to her bulk until she dove into deep water. I kept on wondering not only about her fate and that of her offspring, but about the prospects of this this (era-period-) epoch-(age-)old species in our modern technological and mainly hostile world.
The next day, I had another strange experience with creatures trying to get out of the sea and onto the land, which I will treat in a separate story.

Only several years later did I find two answers to my questions.
Let me start with the first answer, in the "small picture", my own pleasant and complementary surprise in 1981: Again, a moonlight night and perfect solitude , but this time on Courtland Bay beach on the Caribbean island of Tobago. I strolled along the beach around midnight and suddenly noted several miniature car tracks chopped short right at the shoreline.
Instantly, I was reminded of Gulliver's travels, my adventure in Malaysia, and Sherlock Holmes.
By induction, I decided to follow the tracks in the opposite direction which should lead me to their source, a sea turtle's nest, I presumed.
There was, indeed a spot where several of the tiny tracks merged and it was here that I inserted my hand into the sand .... scarily, I felt some movement about a foot below the surface (brrrr) - then triumphantly dragged out a tiny wiggling turtle merely two inches in size. I felt like having achieved some "closure" and collected a few more stragglers to carry them to the sea. Surprise: when I released them into the swash, their first impulse was to turn around and make a bee-line for the dry land ... it was the backwash that swept them out into the sea where of a sudden they appeared to be in their element (compound?) and rapidly disappeared making me wonder once more what was to happen to them and when and if they would ever return to land?
Now then, the second answer and "big picture", the sad one, illustrated by the adjacent graph, the related quote below and ample substantiating evidence from others:
QUOTE: The situation brought back painful memories to Dr. Chan and Mr. Liew. In the 1980s, they had researched ways to save the giant leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). However, their work came too late. Decades of inaction, lack of nesting beach protection, and consumption of the eggs diminished that turtle population from a few thousand to just a handful. The leatherback turtle is now considered extinct in Malaysia.UNQUOTE [in SEATRU]

But it is not only Malaysia that experienced the drastic decline of Leatherback nesting. Worldwide, the Leatherbacks and other sea-turtles are exposed to and suffer from nesting habitat destruction (including vehicle traffic and beach mining), for example, on "my" Courland Beach and Turtle Beach, Tobago. Other hazards include disorienting lights, getting trapped in driftnets (controlled as well as "broken loose"), and marine pollution, specifically by plastic which the turtles mistake for their main food-source: jellyfish.

In summary, notwithstanding regulations and conservation measures, adopting nests, stopping poaching of eggs and butchering of sea turtles, and public education - including such cute but controversial ads as the one nextdoor - the number of leatherbacks has decreased drastically from estimates near a hundred thousand some decades ago to as few as 3,000 after the year 2,000. The time frame of these events is agonizingly short, as pointed out by my friends Jack and Anne Rudloe from Panacea, Florida.

please click to enlarge

Acajou, Grande Riviere N.Trinidad - Links to Sea turtles
Leatherback fact sheet by World Turtle Trust
The Secret to Saving Sea Turtles

BLO fecit 20060513 - stories