December 20, 2014

Trinidad Abroad Introduces Students to Sea Turtles and Caribbean Culture

Trinidad Abroad Introduces Students to Sea Turtles and Caribbean Culture
Photo by Heather Barron
May 7, 2014

During March, seventeen students travelled with biology professor Dr. Scott Eckert to the Caribbean island of Trinidad to study the world’s second largest nesting colony of leatherback sea turtles. This largest living reptile can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and be seven feet long. The students’ research focused primarily on Matura Beach, where Nature Seekers, one of the world’s leading community conservation organizations, cares for the turtles.

Students worked closely with local conservationists, resource managers, and fishers who provided “real world” context for the marine conservation curriculum studied this term. As the turtles came ashore to lay their eggs, students evaluated their behavior and choice of nesting locations, while collecting and interpreting data.

“I’ve wanted to work with sea turtles all my life,” says junior McKinzie Wilgus. “I finally had the opportunity to work with leatherbacks! To see a leatherback emerge from the water has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

While sophomore Adam Eckert has been travelling with his dad to Trinidad since he was two years old, this particular trip was very special. “I’ve always had fun and loved going to what has become my second home,” he says. “[But] seeing the incredibleness that is Trinidad unfold before the eyes of my friends was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.”

The group kayaked on the Rio Seco, hiked through the dense jungle terrain to tropical waterfalls, took a boat tour through the renowned Caroni Swamp, and admired Trinidad’s extraordinary bird life. They also visited the workshop of a steelpan maker and listened to him play this extraordinary instrument. Steelpans were invented in Trinidad and are the foundation of much of the music of the Caribbean. Children in Trinidad play in steelpan orchestras much as American children play in school bands.

“Getting to know locals was actually my favorite part of the Trinidad trip,” sophomore Beth Ann White says. “I absolutely love talking with people from a different culture and discovering what we have in common.”

Dr. Eckert, who also serves as director of Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), helped found the Nature Seekers organization more than 25 years ago and serves as its scientific advisor. He has been taking college students to Trinidad for nearly a decade. “Observing and participating in conservation in a place like Trinidad inspires our students to move beyond the theory of the classroom,” he explains. “They return home wiser and with a depth of understanding that cannot be equaled in any other way.”