It’s late in the evening – an end to another stiflingly hot July day in San Fernando, Trinidad. I arrived on the island a few days earlier to attend the wedding of good friends, John and Jenelle. Up until now, the week’s events have consisted helping John tackle the seemingly endless barrage ‘hurry-up-and-wait’, pre-wedding tasks and loose ends. While I enjoy helping a buddy as much as the next guy, jaunting around town in the heat and humidity was beginning impose the idea that Trinidad was more about sweat stains, car exhaust and molasses-slow civil servants, rather than the sun-beamed joys of a cocktail-fueled Caribbean holiday. But as I mentioned, the wedding had already come-and-gone and it’s now nighttime, a few days later and things are about to start looking up. 

Sitting in the Indian infused living room of his parent’s home, I notice that John has disappeared. Working on a cold beer, I think no more of it until he suddenly pops his head from around the corner and announces, “Hey, I think I managed to snag us a spot to see the Leatherbacks laying their eggs – wanna check it out, like right now?” By ‘Leatherbacks’, he means the critically endangered sea turtles that once a year, in only a few select spots around the world, come ashore to lay and bury their catch of eggs.

As it turns out, Trinidad happens to be one of the major nesting grounds for the beasts and normally, one would have to book well in advance to be taken on a guided tour to view the egg-laying ritual, but somehow, unbeknownst to me, John has managed to secure access at the very last minute. 

So in response, I reply “Of course!”, to which he follows with, “Well we better go now, as they’re already ashore and laying their eggs.” With that, we jump into the car and into the darkness of the Trini countryside, speeding headlong across the width of the island, from San Fernando to Matura Bay on the northeast coast. 

After what seems like an eternity on the highway and even longer on pitch black, cricket filled and elephant grass-overgrown back roads, we arrive – sort of. As the car’s headlights are killed, the realization occurs that we must stumble through the darkness, making our way from the parking area, down the forest paths in an effort to find the beach. In our haste to see the turtles, we didn’t even remotely consider bringing flashlights. And for just a single moment I hesitated, paralyzed by the fear of what menacing creatures I might encounter during a sightless, free-wheeled sprint through the inky jungle. Deadly snakes? Poisonous spiders? My excitement turned to dread but only just briefly as childhood images from television documentaries flooded my mind, reminding me of the glory of nature. The mighty leatherback! As big as a car! Laying ping-pong ball sized eggs! I thought to myself, “I’m here, now, in Trinidad. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss it.” I pressed on, clambering and scampering as fast as I could through the darkness, hoping for a chance to see nature at its most amazing. 

In a matter of minutes, John and I came lurching out of the foliage and onto the warm sands of Matura Beach. Immediately in the distance, we spot the green back-and-forth of a conservationist’s special flashlight. Later, I am told that green light is used for observing the turtles as it’s a hue that prevents the turtles from light-related distress (read: egg-laying performance anxiety). 

Arriving at the light, I immediately know that the mad scramble has been worth it. Before myself and the small group of spectators, a massive Leatherback lay planted, laboring away in an attempt to dig a nest deep enough to protect and nurture its eggs. To say that I was awestruck would be an understatement – mesmerized would be more fitting. Watching the near thousand pound beast struggle with its flippers, hearing the resonance of its deep, rhythmic breaths and seeing the oily tears of effort run from its eyes, I realized that I was having one of those moments. Yes, one of those moments. The ones that adventure travelers yearn for – being there to witness one of the great dramas of the natural world. 

The egg laying began. Dozens of slippery ping-pong sized eggs, building into a small pile, down within the hole. Watching this unfold felt like time had come to a standstill, stuck on an audible loop of crashing waves and turtle breath, with each egg silently touching down amidst the others. 

And then it was over. 

The mother Leatherback fanned her flippers in a few motivated swoops, burying the eggs under a collapse of the freshly dug sand. Pausing for a moment to gather her strength, the giant turtle then slowly made its way back to the sea, with myself and the group of spectators standing witness. 

In what felt like a fleeting instant but perhaps took an hour to unfold, I had a once in a lifetime experience. Except that statement is not quite true, as over the course of the rest of the night, I had the experience again and again, having the extraordinary opportunity to view another two or three Leatherbacks enact the circle of life. All this while standing on a tropical beach, under a starlit sky, surrounded by a symphony of the exotic scents that always seem to fill a Caribbean night. 

It was one of those real moments – truly priceless. And I have Trinidad to thank for it.